The first part of the expedition takes place in the Sani Reserve, a 40,000 ha indigenous reserve located deep within the Ecuadorian Amazon along the Napo River – the largest tributary to the Amazon River. Our site is located directly across from Yasuni National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve sometimes considered the most biodiverse place on Earth. The Sani Reserve, and all other protected areas in the Ecuadorian Amazon, are under continuous and imminent threat from oil development, which creeps downriver leading to significant deforestation and ecosystem degradation with little to no long-term benefits ending up in the hands of local indigenous communities who lease or sell their land for this extraction. The conservation of the rainforest in Ecuador therefore depends on communities being able to receive income that replaces potential oil revenue.
The Sani Isla Kichwa indigenous community has protected their forests for over 40 years by developing numerous ecotourism projects, including an ecolodge, research station, and private cabins, that are designed to substitute the income that could be gained from oil extraction and provide sustainable jobs in the community. The newly-inaugurated Sani Research Station, created as a base camp for biodiversity research in the Sani Reserve, will be used by Opwall survey teams through the field season, as well as university groups conducting Amazon research throughout the year. In previous seasons, teams of Opwall scientists completed a detailed habitat and vegetation communities map of the reserve, compiled a photographic guide to the fish, reptiles, and amphibians of the reserve and gained initial distributional data on the birds and large mammals. As our research continues further teams of specialists will be developing the information on the biodiversity of this site to improve tourist experiences with wildlife and help the Sani ecotourism projects recover from the pandemic. Students based at this site will help with surveys each day, spend a day visiting the local indigenous community center, and complete a Neotropical Ecology course through the week.
Herpetofauna: Standard searches along routes will be used morning and evening to allow data collection of both diurnal and nocturnal species. Data collected will include morphological measurements for all new species and photographs to be documented for the Sani Reserve field guide.
Birds: Bird point counts will be carried out to support population data collection for bird species that are easily spotted or heard, both along the river and in the forest canopy. Mist netting may also be used to capture individuals so that morphological measurements can be taken and individuals marked for population studies.
Habitat: Habitat surveys will be carried out on existing plots throughout the Reserve to calculate carbon storage within the forest and to complement the data collected for other taxonomic groups.
Entomology: Entomology surveys will focus on large and charismatic species such as butterflies and beetles. Techniques used will include malaise traps, butterfly traps, opportunistic net trapping, and other formats to record the biodiversity of arthropods for the field guide started in 2018.
Mammals: Distance sampling methods along the transect routes will be used to infer population densities and surveys will be carried out each morning for primates and other mammals. Patch occupancy analysis will also be used to allow study of more elusive species such as the jaguar and tapir. This will involve using tracks and faeces as signs of presence.
In the second part of the expedition, you will travel to San Cristobal island within the famous Galapagos archipelago to support a rewilding project in the highlands of the island. San Cristobal is one of the oldest and the easternmost island in the archipelago and is also the only island with a fresh water source, starting from a crater called El Junco. Our research site on San Cristobal, the Jocotoco Reserve, is a 120 ha private conservation area adjacent to El Junco that is owned and managed by Fundación Jocotoco, a German-Ecuadorian nonprofit focused on bird conservation and rewilding. We will spend the first three days in bunkhouses or tents in the Jocotoco Reserve before descending to the capital of the island, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, to survey the marine life on San Cristobal through a partnership with the Galapagos National Park.
The first half of the week will be focused on helping rehabilitate the Jocotoco Reserve, which is one of the only known breeding sites for the critically-endangered Galapagos petrel. Populations of this ground-nesting bird have been declining over recent years due to predation and disturbance by invasive species like cats, dogs, rats, and pigs. Fundación Jocotoco is proposing to fence the entire area to exclude these invasive species and allow the native vegetation and petrel numbers to recover. Students based at this site will help monitor petrel nests for activity, plant native Miconia species using techniques designed to improve germination success, care for Galapagos tortoises at a nearby research center, and monitor marine species such as sea lions, turtles, manta rays, and frigate birds. Students will also complete a Galapagos Island Ecology course, which will include opportunities to dive and snorkel, as well as visiting the different habitats of San Cristobal island to monitor and protect the species living there.
Galapagos Island Ecology Course*
*Can be completed by snorkeling or as a fully qualified diver
This course includes:
Birds: Bird surveys will include weekly checks of the marked Galapagos petrel nests and camera traps to monitor for signs of disturbance, hatching chicks, or new nests. There may also be bird point count surveys of smaller species such as finches or of marine birds like frigate birds at breeding sites along the coastline.
Mammals: Camera traps and patch occupancy analysis using feces and tracks will be used to monitor the presence of invasive species that may be threatening petrels in the Reserve. Marine mammals such as sea lions may be surveyed on visits to the coast either from land, from a boat, or while snorkeling to monitor breeding.
Vegetation: The Jocotoco Reserve is one of the most important areas for the protection of Miconia, a vegetation species native to the Galapagos. Students will work to replant Miconia, learn about new techniques to ensure plant success, and study the diversity of species of this plant within the Reserve to create a field guide to Galapagos highland plants.
Much of the Amazonian forest in Ecuador is under threat from oil extraction. In the Amazon, oil extraction has traditionally been followed with deforestation of the areas of extraction and has often been of little benefit to the native people on whose land the oil extraction is occurring. The Kichwa Amerindians have managed to protect their forests against proposed oil extraction. In essence, the Kichwa Indians are foregoing income from the oil industry in order to protect the forest, and that income needs to be replaced by an income of the same level or greater in order to ensure the long-term protection of the forests. Sani Eco Lodge, an Ecuadorian ecotourism operator, has been working with the Kichwa community to develop ecotourism income that provide sustainable jobs and income from leaving their forests intact. They have constructed a high-end ecotourism lodge in the centre of the 40,000 hectares that encompass the Sani Reserve, and a separate field research camp that is being used by the Opwall survey teams, and as a camping experience for the high end ecotourist visitors. In 2017 the first teams of Opwall scientists completed a detailed habitat and vegetation communities map of the reserve, compiled a photographic guide to the fish and amphibians of the reserve and gained initial distributional data on the birds and large mammals. In 2018 further teams of specialists will be developing the information on the biodiversity of this site yet further during the Opwall season. and specifically:
The Galapagos portion of the expedition focuses on environmental education and training rather than research.
International flights: Return flights to Quito airport
Internal transfer: Travel costs from the start and finish points of the expeditions to the international airport, including return flights to the Baquerizo Moreno Airport in San Cristobal
Visa: Not required for most countries but please check: https://www.cancilleria.gob.ec/2019/08/12/ecuador-exige-visa-a-los-ciudadanos-de-11-paises/
Park Entrance Fees: $20 to exit Ecuador and $100 to enter the Galapagos National Park, paid in cash at the airport
Vaccinations: Please check with your healthcare provider
Covid-19 Testing: Antigen or PCR tests if required to return to your home country
Spending money (US Dollars) for snacks/drinks/souvenirs throughout the trip
In the Amazon Rainforest at Sani Research Station, the climate is hot and humid during the day (25-30 C) although it can feel much cooler in the shade. Heavy rainstorms can come up suddenly (that’s why they call it a rainforest!) and long sleeves are generally recommended to protect from insects. At night, the temperature drops to around 22 C and is rarely cold. The Jocotoco camp in San Cristobal can be misty and overcast due to the “garua” fogs in the Galapagos highlands from June-August each year. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and other marine areas are hot and dry.
Fitness level required
Medium – High in Sani. You will sometimes be walking 5-10k in muddy conditions or rowing canoes in and out of camp. At the marine sites, some fitness is required for in-water activities (diving, kayaking, etc) as well as some longer walks but conditions are relatively easy. You will be hiking up and down steep hills – although relatively short distances – to check petrel nests, so agility and balance are helpful as well as general fitness.
Facilities in Sani are comfortable but basic. You will stay in shared tents with access to flushing toilets and showers. There is no cell phone signal in the Sani Reserve and there is no internet available at camp. Facilities at the Jocotoco Reserve are also shared tents with flushing toilets/showers available. There is phone signal and potential for limited Wifi in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Conditions at the hotel in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno are comfortable shared hotel rooms.