Operation Wallacea (known as Opwall) is an organisation funded by tuition fees that runs a series of biological and conservation management research programmes operating in remote locations across the world. These expeditions are designed with specific wildlife conservation aims in mind - from identifying areas needing protection, through to implementing and assessing conservation management programmes. What is different about Operation Wallacea is that large teams of university academics, who are specialists in various aspects of biodiversity or social and economic studies, are concentrated at the target study sites giving volunteers the opportunity to work on a range of projects. The surveys result in a large number of publications in peer-reviewed journals each year, have resulted in 30 vertebrate species new to science being discovered, 4 'extinct' species being re-discovered and $2 million levered from funding agencies to set up best practice management examples at the study sites.
These large survey teams of academics and volunteers that are funded independently of normal academic sources have enabled large temporal and spatial biodiversity and socio-economic data sets to be produced and provide information to help with organising effective conservation management programmes. Depending on the country, Opwall normally operates both marine and terrestrially based research expeditions, with a variety of research themes, whether they be biological, geological, geographic or social science projects.
In 2012/13, the expeditions are operating in 11 countries: Indonesia, Honduras, Cuba, South Africa, Peru, Madagascar, Guyana, Mexico and Romania. In each country, a long-term agreement is signed with a partner organisation (e.g. ICF in Honduras, Fund Amazonia in Peru, Wildlife Ecological Investments in South Africa, Fundatia ADEPT in Romania) and, over the course of this agreement, it is hoped to achieve a survey and management development programme at each of the sites. Occasionally, a competent local partner organisation is not available. In these cases, Operation Wallacea mentors the formation of a new NGO comprising local staff who have provided successful input to the expedition surveys (e.g. Lawane Ecotone for the Indonesian forest, Lembaga Alam for the Indonesian marine sites and Expediciones y Servicios Ambientales de Cusuco for the Honduran cloud forests).
- 1 History
- 2 Global Research and Conservation Strategy
- 3 Example Projects
- 4 Research sites
- 4.1 Indonesia
- 4.2 Honduras
- 4.3 South Africa
- 4.4 Peru
- 4.5 Madagascar
- 4.6 Guyana
- 4.7 Cuba
- 4.8 Mexico
- 4.9 Transylvania
- 5 External links
Operation Wallacea first started operating expeditions to South East Sulawesi, Indonesia in 1995. This region is known as the Wallacea region, after the work of the famous 19th Century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and the creation of Wallace's line (the boundary separating the ecozones of Asia and Australia). It is from this scientifically important area that Operation Wallacea took its name.
This region was specifically chosen for three reasons:
b) Increasing pressure and anthropogenic impact on important habitats including primary forest and coral reefs. Deforestation, hunting and overfishing are important examples of these threats, and are specifically focused on by the work of Operation Wallacea.
Much of Opwall's early work was concentrated in the Tukangbesi archipelago, conducting volunteer-led rapid assessments of large areas. This baseline data allowed the identification of key areas in need of urgent protection, and resulted in the establishment of the Wakatobi Marine National Park in 1996, the second largest marine park in Indonesia, and protection of the Lambusango rainforests on the island of Buton.
Much of this early work concentrated on establishing research bases at both the rainforest and marine sites, and providing partner Indonesian NGO's with much needed data for the development of legislation and continued management of protected areas.
In 2003 Operation Wallacea's success in Indonesia attracted the attention of NGO's in Honduras. The result was the creation of new research sites in both the cloud forests of mainland Honduras and the coral reef clad islands of los Cayos Cochinos. Since then, expeditions have been set up in nine more countries, with the number of sites visited each year now totalling 25.
Global Research and Conservation Strategy
The vast majority of science programmes that deliver key research outcomes are characterised by short-term funding with restricted aims and bio-geographical ranges. Long term projects covering large bio-geographical scales and that incorporate more than one ecosystem are rare. The Operation Wallacea programme provides the opportunity to consider science and conservation of key ecosystems from a global perspective. Opwall is able to draw upon researchers from a wide range of different disciplines and academic institutions to address major issues related to the sustainable management and conservation of some of the world's most diverse but threatened environments.
A global research and conservation strategy has been developed and is applied in 4 stages at each of the sites. After a site has been identified as a potential future research site, an initial assessment of the biological value of the site is carried out (stage 1). If this initial assessment highlights a need for more detailed work, the site is accepted into the Opwall programme and an ecosystem monitoring programme is established to determine the direction of change (stage 2). This involves the collection of temporal data on ecosystem health and function and, if it reveals a continuing decline, a programme for monitoring socio-economic change in adjacent communities is established to determine how these communities interact with the study site (stage 3). Once data from stage 2 and stage 3 are obtained, funding applications are submitted to establish a best practice example of conservation management and the success of these programmes are then monitored (stage 4).
There is obviously considerable overlap between these stages and stage 1 projects can be running at the same time as a stage 4 programme in order to add data to understanding the ecosystem requirements of target species or adding to the overall species lists for previously un-worked taxa.
The ultimate aim of Operation Wallacea is to secure funding and implement conservation programmes which are both successful and sustainable. This is a long and detailed progress, and relies heavily on the research and monitoring activities carried out at each site through the four stages of the Global Research and Conservation Strategy. A number of schemes have been implemented at several sites, and are at varying stages of completion. Some key examples of these are discussed below.
The REDD Scheme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries) is run by the United Nations in an effort to address both increasing carbon emissions and biodiversity loss through a single approach. The scheme involves payment to developing countries (with remaining intact forests) by developed countries (with high greenhouse gas emissions and high reduction targets) to reduce deforestation and degradation rates which contribute to around 15% of global annual GHG emissions. The scheme has now attracted over US$ 4.5 billion in pledged funds. If successful, the donor countries can count the carbon saved towards their carbon budgets.
Opwall scientists at a number of forest sites (Indonesia, Mexico, Honduras, Madagascar, Guyana) are currently collecting vital baseline data on carbon content so that REDD Scheme funding applications can be made. This will help bring much needed economic benefits to the local communities whilst also encouraging a reduction in deforestation and the associated biodiversity protection that comes with that.
Wildlife Conservation Products
A number of enhanced price schemes exist to boost the income for local farmers in developing countries, based on various certification methods to ensure factors such as worker exploitation are upheld. However, no products exist which are qualified for based on the conservation performance of the entire community. However, Operation Wallacea is supporting the Opwall Trust in developing trademarked products under a scheme called Wildlife Conservation Products (WCP).
Communities can receive Fair Trade equivalent prices for their commodities only if they have signed a conservation agreement. If there is evidence that village members are continuing to hunt or log the scheme is suspended until the community can exert the necessary pressure to prevent this activity. However, the payment of prices significantly above market rates in these communities provides a strong positive incentive for ensuring 'their' forest is protected.
The main benefit is that the enhanced price is paid not to a producers' co-operative, which normally comprises only a small percentage of the whole village, but to a village level co-operative that must have 90% membership. The products are bought by the village co-operatives from the local farmers at the normal market rates but are then sold onto the exporter at the enhanced WCP rates, which can produce a village level premium of up to 70% over the farm gate price. Coffee from the villages around the Lambusango and Cusuco sites run by Operation Wallacea were initially marketed under the Wicked Jungle Coffee brand. By cutting out middlemen and dealing directly with the farmer co-operatives, the prices paid for the products to the villages can be considerably higher than the Fair Trade rates but the final sale price in the western market can be comparable with Fair Trade. This scheme has great potential to substantially increase incomes in communities that are committed to protecting their adjacent forests and provides a market driven way of conserving forests.
Indonesia Forest Research
Indonesia was the first site established by Operation Wallacea and was selected for two main reasons. Firstly, the forests of the Wallacea region of Indonesia, comprising the islands of the central part of the archipelago and which are separated from the islands to the east and west by deep ocean channels, are the most endemic-rich forests in the world. The deep trenches prevented these islands from being joined to the main continental land masses during the lowered sea levels of the Ice ages. As a result of the long period of isolation, a large number of unique species have evolved. Moreover, the forests of central Indonesia are one of the least studied areas biologically and one of the most likely places to discover vertebrate species new to science. Secondly, there is a triangle of reefs in eastern Indonesia, part of which lies within the Wallacea region, that have the highest diversity of coral genera, the proxy commonly used to assess overall diversity of coral reefs.
The results of the Opwall forest surveys in central Buton Island, from where 21 vertebrate species new to science have been described, resulted in a $1 million World Bank/GEF grant being obtained to establish an example of best practice conservation management for a lowland forest. This project finished in 2008 and an assessment of the various quantifiable conservation targets showed that 90%+ of the targets had been achieved and in many cases significantly exceeded. Since the World Bank/GEF project was completed, Opwall has continued with monitoring the abundance and diversity of key taxa.
The Lambusango forests in the central part of Buton form the southern end of a continuous tract of forest that continues north through the remainder of the island and at the northern end is protected as the North Buton Nature Reserve. Despite this designation, virtually no data are available on the diversity of this Reserve and Opwall is establishing a field camp to start annual surveys from 2012 onwards in these northern forests. These data together with those from Lambusango can then be compiled into a Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance report that will make the Buton forests eligible for corporate sector funding under the REDD+ initiative. Corporate investors benefit by receiving Voluntary Carbon Scheme (VCS) credits and quantifiable benefits to biodiversity and poverty alleviation to surrounding communities from the annual REDD payments, which are based on performance in protecting the forests.
Indonesia Marine Research
Located in the heart of the Wakatobi Marine National Park is the Hoga Island Marine Research Centre, the most active research facility within this unique bioregion. The Coral Reef Research Unit (CRRU), based at Essex University (UK) and comprising marine biologists from universities around the world, is developing the Hoga Island Marine Research Centre as an internationally recognised centre for marine research. The CRRU has developed a thematic research programme with such research areas as coral reef dynamics, coral reef diversity, fisheries ecology and reef based economics, within which a series of research tasks are completed each year. To date, it has published nearly 50 scientific research papers within top-ranked, peer-reviewed journals and continues to attract international funding to support this research.
Recent success by Opwall in the Wakatobi has been achieved in the form of a sustainable fisheries programme (with funding from the Darwin Initiative). This took community based management and boat registration, combined with enhanced prices for existing products, to develop a method of best practice for the protection of important coral reef fisheries in Indonesia. The Wakatobi government has also recently invested £300,000 (US$ 460,000) to develop a marine research centre on Hoga to help improve the research activities further.
Honduras Forest Research
In Honduras, the terrestrial research programme is run in conjunction with a Honduran NGO called ESAC (Expediciones y Servicios Ambientales de Cusuco). The purpose of this science programme is to provide data on socio-economics, forest structure and biodiversity (using indicator groups and population levels of key or threatened species) to assess the performance of the protected-area management. With the advent of funding mechanisms such as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), these annual biodiversity surveys have taken on an even more important role. The purpose of the REDD+ funding is to provide a marginal cost advantage for governments and communities to protect their forests rather than allow deforestation, thereby protecting their carbon sequestration value. The REDD+ funding is intended not just to protect the carbon value of the forests but also to protect its biodiversity and provide funds for poverty alleviation for communities surrounding or within the funded forest areas.
In recent years, general surveys and student projects have been divided across several teams, namely for plants by 'Botany', and animal teams divided into 'Birds', 'Small Mammals', 'Large Mammals', 'Herps' (reptiles and amphibians), and 'Inverts' (only insects and arachnids). In some cases, teams can merge sampling strategies together for either ease of logistics, or more importantly for a more holistic understanding of ecology.
Data sets, such as those compiled by Opwall on the Cusuco National Park where changes in the diversity of key taxa or population levels of key species can be tracked, can be used to set additional biodiversity-related criteria for receiving REDD+ payments. There are few forests in Honduras that have the level of biodiversity data that has been collected on the Cusuco Park, which places the Park in prime position to receive such funding. The data collected to date on Cusuco have demonstrated that the Park contains 6 species of amphibian found only within the Park boundaries and a further 10 species of amphibian in the IUCN threatened category. In addition, a new genus of tree (Hondurodendron) has recently been described from the Park. In 2010, these data were compiled into a Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance report to make the Cusuco forests potentially eligible for REDD+ funding.
Honduras Marine Research
The marine research programme is run in conjunction with the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation (HCRF) for the Cayos Cochinos sites and the Coral View Research Centre and Bay Island Conservation Association (BICA) on Utila. Surveys are being completed on the reefs around the Cayos Cochinos Islands which are a Marine Protected Area (MPA) but where there are no mangroves to act as fish nurseries, and on the reefs and mangroves around Utila. The main research objective of this programme is to complete annual reef fish and coral community surveys using stereo video for the reef fish and video transects for the benthic communities. There are also unique reptile species found on Utila and the Cayos Cochinos Islands and long term ecological data sets are being gathered on these populations.
Operation Wallacea and their South African partners, Wildlife and Ecological Investments (WEI), are coordinating a large research programme on the impact of the expansion of elephant populations on the vegetation and associated diversity of key taxa. The South Africa research programme covers a series of reserves across the country, each using slightly different management strategies to tackle the problem of controlling their elephant populations. The majority of big game areas in South Africa are fenced in order to avoid conflicts between communities and dangerous animals. However, this restricts movement of species such as elephants, which can lead to excessive habitat damage within reserves where elephant feeding pressure is too high.
There are a number of different approaches being taken to the problem. The first question that needs addressing is how the carrying capacity of a reserve for elephants is calculated. This is not a question of how many elephants an area of land can hold before the populations starts to decline, because by the time this stage is reached, the habitat would have been almost completely destroyed by elephants. Rather, the term "carrying capacity" relates more to what the acceptable levels of damage are to a particular habitat type. In addition, it is important to consider the fact that elephants don't spread out evenly over the fenced areas but rather have preferred areas of feeding based on access to water or preferred trees, such as Marula. Thus the definition of acceptable levels of damage needs to be expressed in terms of percentage of total reserve area that has certain defined levels of serious damage. The Walker scale of elephant browsing pressure is being used by the Opwall teams to assess the levels of damage to trees and shrubs in different reserves at differing levels of elephant feeding pressure so that contours of similar levels of habitat damage can be defined for each of the reserves. Data are being gathered at a range of elephant grazing pressures so that estimates of levels of damage for a reserve with differing levels of elephant populations can be predicted.
Redefining what acceptable levels of elephant numbers are in a reserve is only one approach being used by managers of different reserves. Another approach is to expand the areas accessible to elephants. In KwaZulu Natal, a project called Space for Elephants is trying to persuade private game reserves to drop their fences to create contiguous areas. Private reserves constitute over 60% of the protected areas in South Africa, so projects such as this which encourage cooperation between the reserves through mutually beneficial practices can be hugely important for conservation management within southern Africa. In Pongola Reserve, where parts of the reserve are subjected to huge grazing pressure, there is a move to open up an adjacent area of 1500ha to relieve the pressure on the reserve. Similarly, in the nearby Thanda Reserve, there are parts where there have been elephants for a long period, parts where elephants gained access only in 2009 and a new area where small numbers of elephants were introduced in 2011. Dropping fences does not just allow elephants to expand their ranges, but also affects the distribution of other herbivores and predators. Long term data sets on the distribution of large mammal species in most of the study reserves are also being gathered and are revealing some interesting patterns.
Yet another approach to managing elephant populations is to control their increase in numbers by using contraception. In Pongola, the bulls have been vasectomised and there is a long term study looking at the impact this has on elephant social structure and behaviour. Other reserves are using injections of PZP, an immunosuppressant, to provide contraception.
Changes in elephant numbers do not just have an impact on the habitat but also, by changing the habitat, there is an impact on the diversity of other taxa. To examine this, studies on winter bird communities associated with differing levels of elephant habitat damage are being completed at 4 of the 5 reserves.
The Amazonian forests of Loreto, Peru are situated in the western Amazon basin and harbour some of the greatest mammalian, avian, floral and fish diversity on Earth. Operation Wallacea is joining a series of projects in this area that have been running since 1984 organised by Fund Amazonia and various conservation groups, universities and government agencies. The vision of these projects is to set up long-term biodiversity conservation using a combination of community-based and protected area strategies. The research and conservation activities use an interdisciplinary approach to find a balance between the needs of the indigenous people and the conservation of the animals and plants.
The objective for the 2012 season is to complete the annual high- and low-water season monitoring programmes for fish, caimans, turtles, macaws, exploited mammals and birds, dolphins, manatees and primates at the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. Expeditions 1 – 2 are in the high water season when the forests are flooded, whilst those expeditions from late June are in the middle of the low water season.
The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve is the largest protected area in Peru spanning over 20,000 km2 of tropical rainforest and is a truly exceptional wilderness area. Situated deep in the rainforests of the western Amazon basin, at the point where the Amazon River begins its long journey to the Atlantic Ocean, the reserve teems with aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. The two major rivers that bind the reserve are the Ucayali and Marañon and they join to form the Amazon proper right at the point where the reserve begins. The huge floodplains of these majestic rivers have produced the low-lying flooded forests (Varzea) of the reserve, much of which is accessible on foot during the dry season surveys. The core areas of the reserve with no exploitation permitted are at the most upstream end. At the downstream end, there are communities of Cocama Indians who are involved in reserve management and managing resources in non-core zone areas sustainably.
The Samiria River that runs through the heart of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve has a particularly large population of river dolphins and is the last remaining refuge for the Amazon manatee. Giant river otters are also returning and every year more are sighted in the rivers, lakes and channels. There are 12 species of primates in the Reserve, many of which are commonly sighted on the terrestrial and aquatic transects. Macaws and wading birds are very abundant, as are the game birds. Peccaries, deer, tapir and capybara are also on the increase and are often spotted during the terrestrial survey work, particularly when the water levels are high.
The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve is working with the local Cocama Indians to guarantee that both the natural and human worlds can co-exist in harmony. Whilst their dress has changed, the Cocama Indians still live as they did centuries ago. They fish and hunt for meat, collect forest fruits and have small slash and burn gardens. They travel in small dug out canoes and live in thatched-roof houses made from trees and palm fronds of the nearby forest. The work that the project is doing is helping to develop management plans that incorporate both the needs of the Cocama people and the conservation of wildlife in the Samiria river basin.
As well as boasting some of the most spectacular biodiversity in the world (lemurs, tenrecs, baobabs, and over half of all known chameleon species), much of which is endemic, Madagascar has 3 very different forest ecosystem types: dry forest in the north, humid rainforest in the east, and spiny forest in the south. The Operation Wallacea surveys are currently concentrating on dry forests and associated wetlands of Mahamavo in the North, the spiny forest surrounding Ifotaka in the Mandrare Valley in the South and the dry forests and reefs of the Lokobe Reserve on Nosy Be Island.
The Mahamavo dry forest ecosystem and adjacent wetlands have exceptional biodiversity, but much remains to be discovered. Diurnal lemurs include Coquerel's Sifaka, Propithecus coquereli and Common Brown Lemur, Eulemur fulvus with another 2 - 3 species of nocturnal lemurs. Madagascar is the global centre of diversity for chameleons. Several species can be found in Mahamavo including two spectacular large species, Furcifer oustaleti and Furcifer verrucosus. The wetlands support the critically endangered Madagascar Fish Eagle, Haliaeetus vociferoides, a flagship species for the area, and Humblot's Heron, Ardea humbloti, an endangered species.
The Mariarano forest provides livelihoods for several neighbouring communities in terms of agricultural land, fuel and construction wood as well as some wild food, hunting and medicinal plants. The wetlands in the coastal area support fisheries, which constitute the main resources for coastal communities. However, within this complex, areas of dry forest are managed for sustainable wood production in a way which is compatible with biodiversity conservation. In 2012, the Operation Wallacea teams will be completing a series of sample routes, covering the main protected forest areas and adjacent habitats. Data will be gathered on forest structure and communities of key taxonomic groups including birds, herpetofauna, small mammals such as tenrecs, rodents and bats, and lemurs. The output from this work will be used in a report submitted to the Madagascar government and will provide a baseline against which changes can be assessed in future years. The data will also be used to develop a Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance report that can then be used by the Madagascar government to support an application under the REDD scheme to provide long term funding for this area.
The Guiana Shield in South America is a massive granite dome that formed 2 billion years ago and forms what is now Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana and parts of Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. Throughout most of this area there is a low human population density and as a result 2.5 million km2 of tropical rainforests still remain largely untouched along with extensive savannas and wetlands. The Operation Wallacea expeditions are working in Guyana – an English speaking country with some of the most pristine remaining forests, savannas and wetlands and where sightings of jaguar, tapirs, giant otters, harpy eagles and many other charismatic South American species are common. The expeditions to the interior of Guyana which involve trekking through undisturbed forests and lengthy river travel in canoes with temporary field camps on the river banks, are not for the faint hearted – this is true South American forest and a real expedition experience.
Operation Wallacea has formed a partnership with the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development (IIC) that manages one million acres (371,000ha) of undisturbed forests in the centre of the country. The IIC represents an international partnership between Guyana and the Commonwealth to demonstrate how tropical forests can be sustainably used in the interest of global scale climate change, local communities and biodiversity conservation. The Iwokrama Forest is divided into roughly half Sustainable Utilization Area (SUA), where sustainable use of forest resources are permitted and tested, and half Wilderness Preserve (WP), where there is no commercial extraction of forest resources.
Opwall have also partnered with Surama Village in the North Rupununi, is a primarily Makushi Amerindian community. Surama's vision is to develop, own and manage a community-based eco-tourism business by constructively using the natural resources and their traditional culture in a socially appropriate manner.
A monitoring programme providing equal coverage of the SUA and WP parts of the Iwokrama Forest as well as the forests surrounding Surama Village has been initiated, and is being completed annually by the Opwall survey teams. The purpose of this monitoring is to provide long-term data sets on the abundance and diversity of key biodiversity taxa so that the impacts of sustainable use within Iwokrama and the forest surrounding Surama can be identified in comparison with the non-utilised wilderness areas. Over time, the effects of climate change and climate fluctuations (in particular El Niño Southern Oscillation patterns) should also be identifiable from these data sets. Additionally, these surveys provide survey coverage of parts of the Iwokrama Reserve and adjacent areas where there has been little previous survey work and may therefore provide additions to the species list for the area. There are now several derivatives of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) mechanism where biodiversity criteria are included in payments derived from REDD+ funding and these data may therefore be used for similar initiatives in Guyana
The southern part of the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud), the largest island off the coast of Cuba, is an area of significant biodiversity importance and is now being proposed as a Sustainable Use and Protected Area (APRM) whilst the western end has been designated as the Punta Frances National Park. The Punta Frances National Park contains mangroves, lagoons, semi-deciduous forests and coral reefs and forms an excellent example of relatively undisturbed and linked Caribbean habitats. Operation Wallacea, the Coral Reef Research Unit at Essex University and the Centre for Marine Research at the University of Havana (CIM-UH) have signed a long-term research collaboration agreement to develop and implement a biodiversity monitoring programme that will provide the data needed to inform conservation management practices across the whole of the southern island APRM.
In 2010, CIM-UH established a Research Centre in the Colony Marina that acts as the base for the surveys and also as a training centre for Cuban marine biology students. The survey work is based on research ships operating from the Research Centre. In 2012, the research objective is to complete fish and benthic surveys using video surveys of all the reefs of the southern Isla de la Juventud APRM and to assess the manatee populations by direct observation and side scan sonar in the mangrove channels.
Mexico Forest Research
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico is a huge expanse of tropical forest that is continuous with the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Peten Province of Northern Guatemala. Collectively, this forest spans over 7.5 million hectares and is the largest section of tropical forest north of the Amazon. This stretch of forest was also home to the two largest ancient Mayan cities of Tikal in Guatemala and Calakmul in Mexico during the classic period in ancient Mayan history (400AD-900AD), plus one of the oldest ancient Mayan cities El Mirador which dates back to the pre classic period (600BC-300BC). Today, the extensive pyramids and ruined cities lie sprawled through the dense jungle, with some of the taller pyramids towering above the canopy at 65m in height. It is these pyramids that gave Calakmul its name. Wildlife in Calakmul includes jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi, tapir, brocket deer, peccary, howler and spider monkeys in addition to over 50 species of reptile and amphibian and 350 species of resident and migratory birds, including abundant parrots, toucans and the endemic ocellated turkey.
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve covers an area of 723,000 hectares but is attached to two state reserves, Balam-kim and Balam-ku, which run the entire length of the western side of the biosphere. The total area covered by these connected reserves is 1.2 million hectares. Unlike the majority of forest in the Yucatán, the forest in Calakmul has not been used for timber production nor has it been burned for farming and ranching and, as such, it is one of the last remaining stands of virgin forest in Mexico. The northern parts of Calakmul contains tropical deciduous forest, where trees typically have a canopy 8-20m high and lose their leaves in the dry season (December to May), but the majority of the reserve contains tropical semi-deciduous trees. Tropical semi-deciduous forests have a canopy ranging between 15-40m in height although the majority of trees are from 20-30m. The canopy can be closed or partially open and in the dry season, 20% to 40% of the trees lose their leaves. Calakmul also contains numerous temporary lakes known as aguadas, which form during the rainy season and may last well into the dry season.
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve forms one part of the proposed Mesoamerican Biological Corridor spanning Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Creating such forest corridors are extremely important for ensuring gene flow between animal populations and for ensuring that populations can withstand natural disasters such as droughts, forest fires, hurricanes and floods. Seeing as Mexico and Central America experience all four of these extreme conditions, forest connectivity is extremely important. Forest connectivity is also crucial for animals with extensive ranging patterns such as jaguar.
The primary objective of the Operation Wallacea project is to quantify the carbon storage value of the forests and to produce annual data on the biodiversity of key taxa. These data are being used to draft a report using the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance standards so the forests can be submitted for funding under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation scheme (REDD+). Another focus of the project relates specifically to the large mammals. Calakmul and the connected Mayan Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala is the largest stronghold for jaguar and tapir. However, with rapidly growing buffer zone communities, hunting of forest mammals is a major concern for the reserve. Pro-Natura International have been working with local communities to educate them about sustainable hunting of fast producing mammals that live in relatively high densities such as peccary and deer rather than slow-reproducing mammals that live in low densities such as tapir. The Opwall surveys in Calakmul are also producing annual data on population density of the large mammal species in order to calculate sustainable hunting quotas for buffer zone communities.
Mexico Marine Research
Akumal is a small coastal town located approximately 1.5 hours drive south from the major tourist destination of Cancun. The name Akumal literally means "home of the turtles" in Maya. It earned this name due to the numerous turtle nesting sites along the bays located in the Akumal area and due to the permanent presence of juvenile turtles in the sea grasses just off shore. Three species can regularly be found around Akumal. Local beaches are nesting grounds for two of these species: the Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) and the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas). There are juvenile Green Turtles feeding in the bays year round and sometimes Hawksbill Turtles (Eretmochelys imbricate) around the reef.
Although Akumal itself is a very small town, there are a number of private residences in South Akumal and an enormous hotel that has over 2000 rooms. In addition, there are plans to build 25,000 new homes in the Akumal area but the plans do not include any provision for waste water treatment. The area has many underground rivers, due to the characteristic high permeability and porosity of the soil karst of the Yucatán Peninsula and without adequate waste water management, each of the 25,000 homes will empty their waste water directly into the underground river systems that flow into Yal Ku Lagoon and out to sea.
Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA) is a Mexican NGO that is responsible for managing 50 km of coastline that covers some of the most important turtle nesting sites in the Caribbean and providing advice to the state of Quintana Roo on ecologically sensitive town planning. In order to do this, CEA needs to provide baseline data relating to water quality in the cenotes, lagoons and reefs, biodiversity of the reefs, the turtle population and beach erosion. Variation in these environmental factors in relation to proximity to hotels and residences will provide evidence of the impact of improperly managed tourism and human developments on the coastal ecosystem. In addition, long-term monitoring protocols of these factors need to be put in place to ensure that any future developments do not worsen conditions. The main research objective for the Opwall teams at Akumal is to establish an annual monitoring programme for the coral and reef fish communities, including data on sedimentation levels. In addition, annual monitoring of the juvenile turtle population and availability of suitable nesting sites will be conducted.
The Saxon communities of the lowland Carpathian mountains have been managing the Transylvanian landscape in a traditional manner since the 12th Century. Each of the 200 Saxon villages in the foothills of the Carpathians had a distinctive fortified church where the villagers took refuge in times of threat. The layout of these villages has remained virtually unchanged since the 18th century with village houses on either side of the valley stream and each house having a strip of land at the rear. In addition, each household traditionally has strips of arable land and damp hay meadow in the valley bottom and larger parcels of hay meadow further up the valley. Taking a cross section through the valleys of this region, the villages and arable strips of land would be found in the valley bottom with hay meadows and pasture for cattle and sheep above. Forest still blankets the steeper slopes of the valley.
Cattle and sheep are owned by different households but grazed on the common unfenced pasture areas with a cowherd and shepherds accompanying them. The cows return each night to their owners in the village and are milked in the courtyards before being turned out the following morning and grazed under the supervision of an elected cowherd on the lower pastures. Sheep are turned out in May and graze the upper pastures in large flocks with shepherds and do not return to the valley bottom until the onset of winter in November. The sheep are milked by the shepherds high in the valleys and the milk used for cheese making. At night, the sheep are fenced in sheepfolds with the shepherds sleeping at spaces around them to prevent bear or wolf attacks.
This traditional form of farming has produced a High Nature Value landscape and in 2008 the European Union declared 250,000 ha of the Carpathian valleys as the Tarnava Mare Natura 2000 site with the whole area receiving protection as a Site of Community Importance (SCI) under the Birds Directive and 85,000 ha as a Special Conservation Area (SCA) under the Habitats Directive. The objective of these designations is to protect the traditional uses of the landscape that have produced this species-rich mosaic of habitats and species. The valleys contain the last lowland population of European Brown Bears (closely related to the American grizzly and more than 4000 animals remaining) as well as Wolves and threatened bird species, such as the Lesser Spotted Eagle, Corncrake and Woodlark, whilst the mainly oak and hornbeam forest areas contain 9 species of woodpecker as well as the spectacular Ural Owl. The upland hay meadows, which have not been fertilised for centuries, contain a very diverse grassland flora and associated butterfly species whilst the wet grass areas contain Great Burnet, the host plant for the Scarce Large Blue and Dusky Large Blue butterflies.
This Saxon landscape and its associated populations of European flora and fauna, once seen over much of lowland Europe, is under significant threat. In the 1990s, many of the Saxons returned to Germany and their houses and farmsteads were allocated to other ethnic groups (Roma, Hungarians and Romanians) who were not experienced in the traditional farming techniques that had been practiced by the Saxons for centuries. Opwall is partnered with a local NGO, Fundatia ADEPT, which initially helped make the case for the Natura 2000 designation and helped the design of EU farm payments to protect this area. ADEPT and Opwall are now establishing an annual monitoring programme to assess the effectiveness of the designation and farm payments in protecting the high conservation value of the landscape.