LOJA, Ecuador – Ecuador’s dry forests struggle with climate change and the threat of humans on the land, but biologists are trying to help preserve the unique and deceivingly diverse region.
The dry forests ecoregion in the southwest of the country was registered in 2014 as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
It comprises half a million hectares and is being monitored due to the strong impact of climate change, deforestation, urbanization and the expansion of agricultural and livestock areas.
Those dangers lead Carlos Espinosa, a biologist at the Technical Particular University of Loja (TPUL), to begin an investigation into the survival of the species in this environment, which for most of the year receives just 10 milliliters of rain a month.
In an interview with EFE, Espinosa stressed the “strong climatic seasonality” observed in the dry forests around Manabi province on the western coast, and in the southern provinces of Loja and El Oro, as well as the risks they face.
“When we talk about tropical forests, people think of a lush, evergreen forest,” he said, and not one that can look almost dead.
Because of the scarce rainfall, the trees lose most of their leaves and this gives it the predominant characteristic that the formation looks like a “dry forest,” the researcher said.
Espinosa has focused part of his work on the effects of human activity on the biodiversity of an ecosystem that may seem devoid of life and “without grace” from the outside, but that “inside has great diversity.”
In Ecuador, dry forests can be found in the areas of Zapotillo in Loja province and in the Arenillas Ecological Reserve in El Oro, both in the south, and in Machalilla National Park in Manabi in the West.
This ecosystem in which bats, birds, monkeys, squirrels and deer as well as small reptiles coexist is located generally in isolated areas, so only species of flora and fauna with great resistance to its arid climate inhabit the area.
“We have a research group working on several lines. On the one hand, we are trying to understand the effects on biodiversity issues, birds, bats and other groups. We are also seeing the effects that these impacts have on ecosystem services,” explained the biologist about the impact of human beings.
The large-scale deforestation of trees, both for timber trade and to urbanize areas, are among the activities that have the most serious impact on this fragile ecosystem.
“The loss of the forest’s conservation status can affect some groups that are important to humans, such as bees, which are pollinating insects with an extremely large impact on crop productivity,” he said.
A study conducted two years ago by Espinosa and other researchers from several countries indicated that one-sixth of Ecuador’s territory is made up of deciduous or semi-deciduous forests, and the rate of deforestation of these arid areas reached 57 square kilometers annually during the 1989-2007 period.
This was partly due to a land-use change that has caused environmental degradation that exacerbates the negative effects of climate change.
Human beings aren’t the only factors in this depletion.
Insufficient rainfall or delayed sea currents, which prevent the arrival of fish that feed the birds in reserves such as Arenillas, have an impact on the flora and fauna of these forests.
Juan Pablo Suarez, vice-chancellor of research at TPUL, stressed that projects like Espinosa’s seek to “contribute to the development of biodiversity” and “develop strategies to halt the effects of climate change on biodiversity” in these areas.
In Ecuador, 50 percent of these ecosystems are part of the Ministry of Environment’s Protected Areas System, which has launched projects such as the Management Plan for the Pacoche Marine Coastal Wildlife Refuge to conserve the dry forest inside Machalilla National Park, located in Manabi.
The dry forest is not only a place full of biodiversity that must be protected for environmental reasons, but also because its beauty attracts thousands of tourists between December and January when, for a few days, they can observe in all its splendor when it finally blooms.