Q: Growing up in Venezuela, what were your first experiences with wildlife that led you to devote your life to conservation biology?
A: My great grandfather, Adolfo Ernst, was a German naturalist who came to Venezuela to study the tropical environments and many of the animals and plants that live there. He wrote many research articles and created the national herbarium and biology department at the Central University of Venezuela. From the time I was very young, my family spoke about him, his expeditions to remote areas of the country, and the many studies he carried out. These stories interested me and I was always engaged in outdoor activities, boy scouts, and visits to the natural history museum. When I was 13 years old, after trying multiple times, I was accepted at the museum as an intern. Over the next ten years, I travelled in expeditions all over the country to all kind of environments and remote places collecting specimens of plants and animals and meeting the most incredible people. Nature and wildlife were always my great passion at the museum and later on, as a biology student at the Central University of Venezuela. Later, as a wildlife biology graduate student at Colorado State University, I deepened my knowledge and interest in biodiversity and conservation.
Q: You've been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 26 years and you've spent several years working on biodiversity programs in the Peruvian rain forest as well as the Andes. What are some of the projects that you've worked on in the region?
A: I had the opportunity to work and teach in most of the rain forests of the world. My work in Peru started in 1987, leading a Smithsonian expedition to study the biodiversity of the Manu National Park, one of the most remote and diverse places on earth at that time. It took us five days of travel from D.C. to reach our camp site in Pakitsa and five days back. We studied this magnificent area for over ten years and documented all aspects of biodiversity from large mammals to fishes, insects, and plants. Since that time, Peru has been developing its economy and natural resources in multiple ways, including exploration and development of new areas for oil and gas, mining, forestry, and others.
We have been working with energy development companies in Peru for nearly 20 years to integrate biodiversity conservation with sustainable development. We work together to identify areas of great value to biodiversity conservation that need to be avoided. Then, we identify the areas that will be impacted and work with the companies to design a process to minimize the impact of development on biodiversity. For areas where impact of development cannot be avoided, we provide science-based restoration programs to bring the areas back to their original or better condition. We also work with stakeholders to implement conservation programs to compensate for project impacts.
Several of the specific projects we are working on in the Amazon and Andes of Peru include understanding the impact of energy companies' seismic exploration on wildlife; designing and monitoring canopy bridges to maintain connectivity of the arboreal wildlife, including rare species of Amazon monkeys; working with communities to develop conservation programs; mapping and evaluating important conservation areas in the Amazon; studying Andean wetlands and the species they support; mapping the distribution of endangered species in some areas of the Andes; and implementing a marine monitoring program in the desert coastal area of Peru.
Q: You've had a lifelong interest in tropical birds and your Ph.D. research focused on the waterfowl of South America. What types of birds can Smithsonian travelers look forward to discovering on this program?
A : Peru is one of the most bird diverse countries in the world. The birds of the Amazon are quite spectacular and unique and adapted in multiple ways to the very diverse habitats of the region. There are many species that live closer to the rivers and wetlands that we will be visiting. Some of my favorites include over ten different species of flight catchers, the short-tailed swift, white-collared swallow and the brown-chested martin, the russet-backed oropendola, the yellow-rumped cacique and the orange-backed troupial, several species of colorful tanagers and manikins, ant birds, toucans and woodpeckers, the jacamars and motmots, trogons, the hoatzin, parrots, and some of the big hawks and kites.
Q: Can you please shed light on the natural history of the Amazon River Basin, which makes it the source of one-fifth of all free-flowing fresh water?
A: Between 5 and 23 million years ago, the early Andes began to emerge, reversing the water drainage of lowland central South America from the Guiana shield east to west to west to east in what is now the Amazon Basin (6,869,000 square km). Thirteen major watersheds collect water from nine countries and all of this water enters the Amazon. The Andes of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia capture the highest precipitation of the region and all this water drains into the Amazon. The Amazon is the largest river system in the world with 14,000 miles of waterways, including 1,100 tributaries of which 17 are over 1,000 miles long. From the Andes to the Atlantic, the Amazon River travels around 4,000 miles. The mouth of the Amazon is 300 miles wide and 500 billion cubic feet of water per day are discharged into the Atlantic. The silt deposited at the mouth of the Amazon River has created the largest river island in the world, Marajo Island.