By Marcela Torres
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The sea breeze gently brushes the Peruvian booby’s wings as it glides down to land comfortably on one of the 33 islands and capes of the newly protected Guano Islands and Capes National Reserve, created by the government of Peru in December 2009.
The Peruvian booby and other “guano” birds — once highly protected for the value of their droppings (guano) — have been under threat as their food sources have begun to diminish. The birds are attracted to the Humboldt Current’s rich marine and coastal ecosystems that teem with an abundance of marine life, from microscopic algae to huge humpback whales.
The Guano Islands and Capes National Reserve, which encompasses more than 348,000 acres, is the culmination of almost a decade of promotion by The Nature Conservancy and other groups.
Who Cares About Guano?
The term guano comes from the word “wanu,” which in Quechua — the language of one of Peru’s main indigenous cultures — means manure. The guano that covers the islands and capes in the new reserve is white and powdery. It is rich in minerals, such as nitrate, phosphorus and carbon, and it often gets mixed with feathers, bones and other animal parts. The millions of marine birds that live on the rocky islands and cliffs of the Peruvian coastline left layers of guano that once reached up to 150 feet high.
In this area of Peru, the birds that produce guano include:
- The Guanay cormorant (Phalacrocorax bougainvilii)
- The Peruvian booby (Sula variegata)
- The Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus)
Guano has been widely used as fertilizer since pre-Inca times and sustained Peru’s economy between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s. After heavy extraction during the 1800s, the Compañía Administradora del Guano was created in 1909 to ensure the continued commercial viability of this product.
Although the primary motivation was to ensure monetary profit, the result was the continued protection of the guano birds and other key species of marine mammals, fish and shellfish, as well as their natural environment.
The importance of guano to the Peruvian economy diminished in the mid-1900s when organic fertilizers were replaced by synthetic alternatives. Therefore efforts to protect the vast colonies of the birds producing guano were lessened. At the same time, industrial fishing became an increasingly significant activity, reducing the availability of food for these species and the entire marine life network.
But in 2001, the Biomar Consortium — an alliance of universities and conservation organizations, including the Conservancy — responded to this critical situation. The Consortium developed a technical proposal for the network of islands and capes to become part of Peru’s National Protected Areas System.
Protected Capes and Islands Protect Wildlife and Livelihood
The Conservancy has been involved in the process to create the Guano Capes and Islands Reserve since 2001, and in the last two years directly boosted the protected areas authority’s efforts by providing technical and institutional support.
“The establishment of the new reserve on December 30, 2009, is a significant achievement that will protect species, habitats and ecological processes of high biological and economic value, and it is a milestone for marine conservation in Peru and the entire world,” says Fernando Ghersi, the Conservancy’s Humboldt Current project manager.
In addition, Peru’s national park service, SERNANP, will coordinate with other government agencies to ensure that the production of guano can continue, but under tighter environmental and social standards. SERNANP will also work to offer alternative livelihoods to local communities of guano gatherers to ensure their economic stability while increasing the environmental health of the reserve. “First we need to know exactly how much guano is currently available in all of these islands and capes, and then plan its extraction being careful not to disturb the birds’ sensitive nesting and breeding grounds,” says Miryan García, head of the Guano Islands and Capes National Reserve.
Elsewhere in the Humboldt Current…
The Conservancy works in both Chile and Peru to protect the large Humboldt Current marine ecosystem in the face of mounting threats, including overfishing, irresponsible aquaculture and pollution. Our work in the area involves increasing the number and area of coastal and marine environments being preserved and, at the same time, promoting sustainable fishing measures.
Our aim is to help create a functional network of protected areas able to effectively conserve the Humboldt Current’s marine biological diversity and contribute to the well-being of human populations in the long term.
Thanks to these efforts, the Peruvian booby and other marine birds can now fly freely along the Guano Islands and Capes, safe from the impending dangers that until now threatened their survival.
Marcela Torres is a marketing specialist/writer for The Nature Conservancy in Latin America.