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Steffen Reichle likes to get up close and personal with his work. In the past 15 years, he has taken hundreds of close-up photos of reptiles and amphibians in South America’s southern forests.
But Reichle's interest in micro photography doesn't mean he takes a micro approach to conservation. A Nature Conservancy biologist working all over South America, he is especially passionate about his work to reduce deforestation in Bolivia through sustainably harvested forests that benefit both people and nature.
Nature.org spoke with Reichle about "cute" snakes, deforestation and what it really means to be sustainable.
Science Training Manager for The Nature Conservancy. Reichle has lived in South America for almost 15 years and has helped discover more than 20 species of frogs.
You get close enough with your camera to photograph snakes’ scales and toads’ toes. How do you do that?
Most of the species I photograph are nocturnal, so I'm working with a flashlight and have to be in the right place at the right time, which can be hard.
But if it’s mating season and I catch a couple trying to reproduce — well, then it’s easy! They’re not paying any attention: They have a one-track mind.
You must be in the right place at the right time pretty often … you have hundreds of stunning photographs.
I think it has more to do with having a deep interest and being motivated. Not everyone wants to trudge around the forest at two o’clock in the morning. Not everyone is willing to get 50 mosquito bites just to come back with one or two good shots.
What motivates you to do that?
Well, for one thing, originally I’m a herpetologist. I’ve been interested in these animals since before I was a conservationist. I have a very personal interest in discovering them, recording them and mapping their distribution. I go out there to know more, and to set the baseline for their conservation.
That, and some of them are pretty damn cute. I’ve taken pictures of some of the cutest reptiles and arboreal amphibians.
You know, not everyone thinks frogs and snakes are cute.
I think you’re wrong. I bet if you were to show a beautiful picture of a colorful frog to 100 people, 80 of them would say it’s cute. Of course, maybe only 20 respondents would think a stunning snake is cute. But I’d be one of them.
All these animals you photograph live in Bolivia's forests. What chance of survival do they have considering the country's high deforestation rate?
The only chance they have is through protection of large blocks of forests. Sustainable forestry and protected areas are crucial for their survival and for the stability of the region’s climate.
Through the Conservancy’s Bolivian Sustainable Forest Management Project (BOLFOR II), we’re working on a massive scale to protect biodiversity and reduce the impacts of climate change.
We’re monitoring a whole set of forests — dry Chiquitano forests, moist Amazon forests and forests in the transition zone between. And we’re working with indigenous communities so that they can achieve the maximum benefit from their forests’ resources.
BOLFOR II set an example for future Nature Conservancy sustainable forestry programs because it’s based closely on the principles and methods laid out in Conservation by Design. We’re aiming to not just protect forests: We’re aiming to conserve biological diversity and the well-being of people.
What is sustainable forestry, and is it really sustainable?
Forestry can be sustainable, and the way we’re doing it, it really is! It’s not just economically sustainable: It’s ecologically sustainable as well.
Sustainable forestry isn't about putting fences around forests. It's about finding a balance where you use as much timber as possible without impacting biodiversity too much.
In Bolivia, there are more than 22 million acres of managed forests, and more than 5.2 million are within certified forest concessions (forest areas certified by the international Forest Stewardship Council).
Bolivia is the worldwide leader in certified tropical timber management. The country's Gross Domestic Product from forestry is about 300 million dollars. Everything from doors and parquet floors to bowling balls, musical instruments and local crafts are made from sustainably harvested trees and exported around the world.
We’re working with forest managers, with forest concessions and with local people to help them see that sustainable forests can provide an economic basis for their livelihoods. When people start earning an income out of the forest every year, they get interested in maintaining that forest.
But isn’t there still deforestation in sustainably harvested forests?
What we’re seeing is that deforestation rates are actually lower in Bolivia's sustainably harvested areas than in most municipal and even some state protected areas!
Every year we check to see how many acres have been deforested in the forest concessions where we work and compare those numbers to deforestation rates in protected areas. We’re seeing that deforestation rates in municipalities where BOLFOR works have been decreasing since the start of the project.
In three certified concessions, we’re also monitoring about 50 species of birds, reptiles and amphibians. We’re seeing that not a single species has significantly dropped in population size. That’s good news. That means our forest concessions really are sustainable.
You’re kidding — deforestation rates are higher in protected forests than in sustainably managed forests? How can that be?
Because park guards alone can’t save an entire protected area. Because local people — if they’re able to use the forest for their income — are much more interested in conserving that forest.
Here, if you really want to protect a forest, you have to get local people to be enthusiastic about it. Without their support, you’ll lose in the long-run.
The fact is that you have more buy-in if you involve local people, and not just create off-limits area. Everyone becomes stakeholders in the conservation of their forest if they see that it provides sustainable incomes.
Cara Goodman is a marketing specialist/writer for The Nature Conservancy in Latin America.