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Yasuní -Western Amazon - Publications
"Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park"

January 19, 2010
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Abstract - Information

"Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park"

Authors: Margot S. Bass-1, Matt Finer-2*, Clinton N. Jenkins-3,4, Holger Kreft-5, Diego F. Cisneros-Heredia-6,7, Shawn F. McCracken-8,9, Nigel C. A. Pitman-3, Peter H. English-10, Kelly Swing-7, Gorky Villa-1, Anthony Di Fiore-11, Christian C. Voigt-12, Thomas H. Kunz13

1 Finding Species, Takoma Park, MD, United States of America,
2 Save America's Forests, Washington DC, United States of America,
3 Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, NC, United States of America,
4 Department of Biology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, United States of America,
5 Division of Biological Sciences, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA, United States of America,
6 Department of Geography, King’s College London, Strand, London, UK,
7 College of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Universidad San Francisco de
Quito, Quito, Ecuador,
8 Department of Biology, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, United States of America,
9 TADPOLE Organization, San Marcos, TX, United States of America,
10 School of Biological Sciences, University of
Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, United States of America,
11 Department of Anthropology, New York University, New York,
NY, United States of America,
12 Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin, Germany,
13 Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, Department of Biology, Boston University, Boston, MA, United States of AmericaA.

2*Corresponding author; e-mail: matt@saveamericasforests.org


The threats facing Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park are emblematic of those confronting the greater western Amazon, one of the world’s last high-biodiversity wilderness areas. Notably, the country’s second largest untapped oil reserves—called “ITT”—lie beneath an intact, remote section of the park. The conservation significance of Yasuní may weigh heavily in upcoming state-level and international decisions, including whether to develop the oil or invest in alternatives.

Methodology/Principal Findings
We conducted the first comprehensive synthesis of biodiversity data for Yasuní. Mapping amphibian, bird, mammal, and plant distributions, we found eastern Ecuador and northern Peru to be the only regions in South America where species richness centers for all four taxonomic groups overlap. This quadruple richness center has only one viable strict protected area (IUCN levels I–IV): Yasuní. The park covers just 14% of the quadruple richness center’s area, whereas active or proposed oil concessions cover 79%. Using field inventory data, we compared Yasuní’s local (alpha) and landscape (gamma) diversity to other sites, in the western Amazon and globally. These analyses further suggest that Yasuní is among the most biodiverse places on Earth, with apparent world richness records for amphibians, reptiles, bats, and trees. Yasuní also protects a considerable number of threatened species and regional endemics.

Yasuní has outstanding global conservation significance due to its extraordinary biodiversity and potential to sustain this biodiversity in the long term because of its 1) large size and wilderness character, 2) intact large-vertebrate assemblage, 3) IUCN level-II protection status in a region lacking other strict protected areas, and 4) likelihood of maintaining wet, rainforest conditions while anticipated climate change-induced drought intensifies in the eastern Amazon. However, further oil development in Yasuní jeopardizes its conservation values. These findings form the scientific basis for
policy recommendations, including stopping any new oil activities and road construction in Yasuní and creating areas off-limits to large-scale development in adjacent northern Peru.


The western Amazon is one of the world’s last high-biodiversity wilderness areas [1,2], a region of extraordinary species richness across taxa [3–9] where large tracts of intact forests remain [10,11]. Indeed, it is still possible to walk continuously through mega-diverse forest from southern Peru to southern Venezuela—a distance of ~2,000 kilometers—without crossing a single road. However, numerous major threats confront the ecosystems of this region—including hydrocarbon and mining projects, illegal logging, oil palm plantations, and large-scale transportation projects under the umbrella of IIRSA (Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America) [12]. For example, oil and gas concessions now cover vast areas, even overlapping protected areas and titled indigenous lands [13]. Yasuní National Park (Yasuní) in Ecuador is a major protected area within the western Amazon, yet it faces threats emblematic of those facing the entire region. The park occupies a unique location at the intersection of the Andes (< 100 km from the Andean foothills), the Amazon (near the western phytogeographic limit of the Amazon Basin) [14], and the Equator (~1º S) (Figure 1A). Created in 1979, Yasuní covers approximately 9,820 km2 [15,16], and is surrounded by a 10 kilometer buffer zone in all directions except to the east, where it meets the Ecuador-Peru border [17]. The park overlaps ancestral Waorani (or Huaorani) territory, and is inhabited by at least two clans living in voluntary isolation [16]. In 1989, Yasuní and much of the adjacent area that is now the Waorani Ethnic Reserve were designated a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve [18]. Yasuní’s climate is characterized by warm temperatures (averaging 24–27o C for all months), high rainfall (~3,200 mm annually), and high relative humidity (averaging 80–94% throughout the year) [19]. Yasuní is within the “Core Amazon,” a particularly wet region with high annual rainfall and no severe dry season [20]. The park’s elevational range is small (from ~190 to ~400 m above sea level), but it is crossed by frequent ridges of 25 to 70 meters [21,22]. Soils are mostly geologically young, fluvial sediments from erosion of the Andes [22,23]. Yasuní protects a large tract of the Napo Moist Forests terrestrial ecoregion [24] and the Upper Amazon Piedmont freshwater ecoregion, which contains numerous headwater rivers of the Amazon [25].

Several large-scale development projects exist or have been proposed within the park and its buffer zone. Leased or proposed oil concessions cover the northern half of Yasuní, and four oil access roads have already been built into the park or its buffer zone (Figure 1B). These roads have facilitated colonization, deforestation, fragmentation, and overhunting of large fauna in the northwestern section of the park [26–34] and illegal logging in the south and west [26,35]. Under IIRSA, the Napo River, which borders the northern side of the park, may be dredged in order to become part of a major transport route connecting Brazil’s port of Manaus with Ecuador’s Pacific coastal ports [36]. Moreover, large oil palm plantations have been established near the park, just north of the Napo River. Despite these incursions, intact forest still covers the vast majority of Yasuní [32,34]. One of the most serious issues confronting Yasuní is that Ecuador’s second largest untapped oil fields lie beneath the largely intact, northeastern section of the park (in the “ITT” Block, containing the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini oil fields; Figure 1B). The adjacent Block 31 contains additional untapped reserves underlying Yasuní. Efforts by scientists and conservationists stopped a new oil-access road into Block 31 planned by Brazil’s Petrobras, but Ecuador could re-auction this block at any time. In response to strong opposition to oil drilling in Yasuní, the Government of Ecuador launched the novel Yasuní-ITT Initiative in 2007. The Initiative offers to keep ITT oil permanently underground and unexploited in exchange for financial compensation from the international community or from carbon markets [37–38]. The Initiative’s primary goals are to respect the territory of indigenous
peoples, combat climate change by keeping ~410 M metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, and protect the park and its biodiversity.

The global conservation significance of Yasuní—a site often referred to anecdotally as one of the most biodiverse places on Earth [e.g., 39,40]—may thus weigh heavily in upcoming state-level and international decisions affecting the park. A preliminary assessment of Yasuní’s biodiversity was conducted in 2004 in response to Petrobras’ planned road [27]. We build upon that effort here and provide the first comprehensive synthesis of biodiversity data for Yasuní, assessing species richness, endemism, and threatened species across various taxonomic groups. We compare our findings to those from other regions, and discuss the global conservation significance of Yasuní by evaluating its potential to sustain a high percentage of Amazonian biodiversity in the long term. We then assess the threats to Yasuní’s conservation values from oil development. We close with policy recommendations drawing upon these findings.

Received April 1, 2009; Accepted November 17, 2009; Published January 19, 2010

Links to Articles about or citing this scientific paper

A Durable Yet Vulnerable Eden in Amazonia - January 20, 2010
New York Times - Andrew Revkin - Dot Earth

"Para los científicos, Yasuní es el Arca de Noé ' 1 de Februar, 2010
El Comercio - Entrevista con Matt Finer - HTML


'For scientists, Yasuni is the Noah's Ark' - translated into English
El Comercio - Interview with Matt Finer - February 1, 20100

Thirst for Oil Imperils South America's Most Biodiverse Wilderness
Environmental News Service - January 19, 2010

Yasuní, un sitio importante para la naturaleza - 21 Enero 2010
La Hora - Ecuador -

La actividad petrolera en el área del Yasuní lleva más de 20 años
Diario El Universo, jueves 21 de enero del 2010

Scientists Identify Ecuador's Yasuni National Park as One of Most Biodiverse Places on Earth
ScienceDaily (Jan. 19, 2010)

Click here for Complete scientific paper PDF

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