About 20 years ago at the start of my career, I jumped on an opportunity to work with WWF in Peru, where I found myself traveling often to the far reaches of the Peruvian Amazon. I had my first camping experience ever in the extraordinarily gorgeous landscape of Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a massive protected area in the north of Peru consisting of millions of acres of flooded forests and home to river dolphins, macaws, monkeys and other iconic wildlife. I remember thinking that the landscape looked so perfect there that it almost looked fake. I was mesmerized by the sights, smells and sounds of the jungle, although I was moderately freaked out by the size of the insects.
I was on a trip with park rangers to visit some of the indigenous communities living in the reserve to explain the need for sustainable natural resource use and how it would benefit their communities. As we traveled down river, we came across disturbances in the forest cover in three different places. This was an indication to the park rangers of unauthorized activity happening, so we disembarked to investigate. We found in all three locations that illegal loggers had set up camps to extract massive Spanish cedar trees that have been so over-exploited, there are now international trade restrictions on them under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or CITES. The trees had been felled and were lying there on the river banks, waiting to be shipped to markets as far away as the United States to be turned into flooring and furniture.
I came to understand the immensely difficult job of the park rangers—they were operating with limited resources and traveling great distances to do their patrols. They were also unarmed and sometimes had to face dangerous criminals. I got a sense of how important it was to conserve this global treasure, and my work on forest conservation really took hold.
Fast forward nearly 20 years to 2018 when I had the opportunity to return to Pacaya Samiria on the Great Amazon River Cruise as part of the partnership between WWF and Natural Habitat Adventures – I was thrilled to return. The first evening of the trip was spectacular. The Nat Hab guides took us out in the skiffs to see some wildlife and the excursion didn’t disappoint. In one area, our skiffs were surrounded by about 15 pink and gray river dolphins putting on quite a show while hundreds of birds flew overhead in search of their bed for the night. None of us on the tour wanted it to end; it was spectacular.
A few days later, we had a presentation with Luis Felipe Vela Montalvan, who is currently executive director for conservation and biodiversity of the regional environmental authority. I learned that prior to his role with the regional government, Luis Felipe was a park ranger and then was the director of Pacaya Samiria National Reserve for 8 years. He told me of the management improvements that the park authority made over the last two decades. The local communities living within the reserve’s borders used to view park rangers as police that would prevent them from hunting and fishing as they pleased. But the park service changed tactics and started hiring local people from the communities as park rangers. Today, the park has 72 rangers plus another 500 volunteers that are compensated with a certain amount of fish, game and other natural resources like the aguaje palm in exchange for patrolling the reserve. Also, the regional government is funding programs to support the management of natural resources like the paiche fish, taricaya turtles and their eggs, and the superfood acai for commercial use and access to markets. I was impressed by the advances made in conservation and sustainable natural resource use over the last several years.
Returning home to Washington DC after my Nat Hab journey and feeling a bit nostalgic, I decided to look back at my photos from the first trip I took to Pacaya Samiria in 2000 (pre-digital cameras). Much to my surprise, in a photo of me sitting on the steps of a ranger station together with several park rangers, I saw the gaze of a familiar face – I realized that I had met Luis Felipe before! It was a delight to realize we shared a connection to this magical place that spans decades. And it was affirming to realize that even after all this time, for both of us, the conservation of Amazonian treasures like Pacaya Samiria remains a priority.
By Amy Smith, WWF