Tucked in a corner of southern Ecuador near the Peruvian border and spanning 360,000 acres, Podocarpus National Park includes cloud forests, high-altitude grasslands, and a series of small Andean lakes. Huge swaths of exposed volcanic rockface stand out among steep, green mountainsides. Not only is Podocarpus important for protecting biological diversity, but it is also critical for the more than one million people who draw their water from four rivers with headwaters in the park.
The Podocarpus National Park area has one of the largest concentrations of bird species in Ecuador, with more than 500 registered species, although some experts believe that number could be as high as 800. Some of the most threatened birds in Ecuador have healthy populations in and around the park, such as coppery-chested jacamar, bearded guan, Equatorial graytail and Peruvian antpitta.
More than 40 mammal species occur in the area, including the jaguar, wooly tapir, Andean bear, pudú (the smallest deer in the world), giant armadillo and Neotropical otter.
According to a Birdlife International study, the area is estimated to have more than 260 butterfly species and more than 1,200 moth species.
Podocarpus is a paradise for plants, with around 3,000 different species of vascular plants, many of which are endemic (see sidebar). The park was created in 1982 to shelter the largest remaining forest of three species of the tree genus Podocarpus. Commonly referred to as “Romerillo,” the Podocarpus is the only native conifer in the Ecuadorian Andes.
Why the Conservancy Works Here
Podocarpus National Park and its surrounding areas are important for conservation due their high concentration of species, many of which are endemic. Heavy agricultural activity in the area, as well as infrastructure projects such as mining and road development, have impacted the biological diversity of the park and the freshwater it provides to more than one million people. As the only protected area in southern Ecuador, Podocarpus resembles an island surrounded by productive lands. Isolation can represent a threat to maintaining healthy populations of the park's flora and fauna.
What the Conservancy is Doing
Designing wildlife corridors: The Conservancy and Fundación Arcoiris are deploying a new strategy to establish “biological corridors” that link protected areas and allow flora and fauna to expand their territory. Fundación Arcoiris, with support from the Conservancy and Conservation International, undertook several technical studies to design the corridor. The first step involved assessing 1.2 million acres using as criteria the habitat requirements of the spectacled bear. The spectacled bear, South America’ only bear species, served as “umbrella” species for the study, as its survival depends on large extensions of land for food and shelter. The study showed that the bear is using habitat both inside and outside Podocarpus National Park, and this information guided the design of the corridors.
Establishing new protected areas: The Conservancy supported the social component of a study required by the Ecuadorian government to facilitate the declaration of new protected areas that link Podocarpus with other natural areas. Several workshops were held with local communities and local authorities to discuss the importance of conserving these special forests. Local communities are supportive of this initiative because they are interested in protecting their water supply.
Leading the way towards sustainability: Fundación Arcoiris is working to design a water fund to safeguard Podocarpus National Park’s watersheds. The Pro-Cuencas Podocarpus Fund was established in early 2006 and it is supported by city of Zamora, Fundación Arcoiris, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment, the Universidad Tecnica de Loja, Conservation International and the Ecuadorian National Environmental Fund. It aims to capitalize resources through private donors, local corporations and bilateral cooperation in order to provide for watershed protection and conservation projects.