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PLANETA FEATURE

Cerro Blanco Protected Forest
by Eric Von Horstman

PLANETA WIKI

ECUADO - As a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer assigned to work as a park planner in some of Ecuador's incomparable protected areas from 1990-93, I had visions of being sent to steaming Amazon Basin rainforests or steep, Andes mountains cloaked in cloud forest.

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Although I eventually did work in these ecosystems, my first assignment totally did away with all my pre-conceived notions. Instead of remote, untouched forests, I was sent to a small, remnant patch of dry tropical forest in coastal Ecuador. I refer to the Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco (Cerro Blanco Protected Forest), a 2000 hectare (at the time) government declared protected forest on the outskirts of the city Guayaquil.

After researching and writing an interim management plan for Cerro Blanco, I was given the opportunity to return in 1993 to work as the Director of the newly created "Fundacion Pro-Bosque" (Pro-Forest Foundation) which administers Cerro Blanco and given the task of implementing the recommendations I had made two years before.

ABOUT CERRO BLANCO

Cerro Blanco consists of a series of Ecuadorian Dry Forest cloaked hills between 50 and 500 meters above sea level, interspersed by a series of ravines with permanent springs of water that serve as a magnet for wildlife during the dry season from June-July to December - January. Cerro Blanco forms part of the Cordillera Chongon-Colonche, which extends from the protected forest on the outskirts of Guayaquil, to Machalilla National Park, to the north.

Although the Cordillera Chongon-Colonche was identified by Alan Putney an internationally known park planner in a 1976 report on creating a national protected area system (outside of Galapagos) as a potential National Ecological Reserve, no action was taken and today, the Cerro Blanco Protected Forest protects a small but important part the Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot, identified by Conservation International as the number one area on the planet in terms of overall number of plant and animal species.

The dry forests of Cerro Blanco are dominated by the ceibo and pigio trees, members of the bombacaceae family which when I first saw them, reminded me in form of the baobab trees of Africa, with the difference being that the ceibo or kapok trees have bright green, smooth trunks. This is in fact an adaptation to the dry conditions that prevail in the area. The trees drops leaves during the 5 to 6 months dry season, but continue to carry out photosynthesis through chlorophyll in the bark.

Besides the ceibo, Cerro Blanco supports more than 500 vascular plant species and according to a internationally known botanist Dr. David Neil is one of the last strongholds in Ecuador for close to 100 endemic plant species.

Incredibly, so close to Guayaquil Ecuador's largest city with close to 2 million inhabitants, Cerro Blanco, according to the Rapid Areas Assessment Program of Conservation International, supports healthy populations of jaguar, ocelot, mantled howler monkey, kinkajou, agouti, collared peccary and crab-eating raccoon, among other species.

Of its 211 registered bird species, Cerro Blanco protects nine globally threatened species, one of only four Ecuadorian protected areas with seven or more threatened bird species. A special focus has been placed on the unique guayaquilensis subspecies of the great green macaw known locally as the "Papagayo de Guayaquil" one of the largest and lesser known macaw species, listed as critically endangered in Ecuador. Cerro Blanco harbors a growing population of 12 birds and the macaw has been used very successfully by the Pro-Forest Foundation as a conservation symbol. Besides the great green macaw, Cerro Blanco protects 22 endemic bird species and 30 restricted range species and was declared Ecuador's second Important Bird Area in 1998 by Birdlife International (Mindo is the first).

PROGRAMS

To protect the rich biodiversity of a protected area which lies so close to a rapidly expanding city, Cerro Blanco's administration with the support of La Cemento Nacional, an Ecuadorian cement company which owns more than half the reserve (3.000 ha), has created an integrated park management program that includes close collaboration with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment's "guardia forestal", periodic patrols with national police and military to thwart would-be animal poachers. There exists a high demand for deer, peccary and agouti meat, sold in local markets as well as the capture of macaw and parrot chicks for the pet trade. Tree cutting (especially valuable hardwoods), forest fires and land invasions the later, a socio-political phenomena actively promoted by a mafia of land traffickers and politicians especially during elections, to win votes among poor people looking for cheap housing, also pose major threats. As the protected forest is a mosaic of vegetation from abandoned pastures to near-primary forest, The Pro-Forest Foundation has worked for close to ten years in an ambitious dry forest restoration project in Cerro Blanco, utilizing the resources of its native tree nursery to plant and maintain over 100.000 trees of close to 40 native species, with an overall 69% survival rate.

Other programs include investigations, with both Ecuadorian and international students carrying out valuable research on the great green macaws, bat species' inventories among others. The Foundation also works in community development, focusing on the nearby community of Puerto Hondo, where local youth with the guidance and training of Pro-Forest Foundation staff, lead tourists on guided canoe trips through a rich mangrove estuary.

Through these programs and the establishment of a community park warden program, the Pro-Forest Foundation staff is converting local people into allies after at times strained relations.

HOW TO VISIT, WHAT TO DO

Cerro Blanco-Puerto Hondo are probably the most accessible protected areas in Ecuador (the mangroves adjacent to Puerto Hondo have also been declared a Protected Forest) Both sites are located directly off the coastal highway from Guayaquil to Salinas, at kilometer 16 and 17 respectively. The entrance to Cerro Blanco is well signed and the access to the mangroves is via Puerto Hondo, a small community less than a kilometer further down the highway from Cerro Blanco (look for food kiosks in the entrance):

Cerro Blanco and Puerto Hondo offer guided tours with bi-lingual birding or general guides and visitors wishing to visit or use the guide service should contact us. Cerro Blanco has an extensive eco-tourist infraestructure which includes two self-guided nature trails, three guided trail walks, a camping and picnic area with running water, flush toilets, picnic table, tent pads and cooking grills, as well as wildlife rescue center and educational exhibit hall on the dry tropical forest ecosystem, the later located in our native tree nursery.

With the support of two Canadian universities and Rotary Clubs, we will be inaugurating and opening to the public the following new attractions in 2002 - 2003.

  • Hummingbird/butterfly garden
  • Tourist cabins
  • Great Green Macaw Aviary and Conservation Center

AUTHOR

Eric Horstman is a international park planner with more than 12 years experience working in Ecuadorian protected areas. You can contact him via email.


REFERENCE

b Fundacion Pro-Bosque



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