IUCN - Trapped in the Amazon!

Trapped in the Amazon!

04 April 2011 | News story

Renata Leite Pitman - Brazil

“Ten years ago, moved by curiosity, I planned a three-month expedition to the south east of Peru to learn more about an elusive species, and maybe trap and radio collar it. Ten years later, I feel it was the animal that trapped me!,” says Renata Leite Pitman.

The animal that captured Renata, a member of IUCN’s Canid Specialist Group, is the short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis), one of the world’s rarest wild dog species.

Renata has spent 10 years in Peru studying the species, living for five years in the middle of the Amazon without a telephone, television, or any form of luxury. During that time she had two children, raising them in the rainforest until the eldest was six when Renata and her husband decided to move for their children’s education and social reasons.

The short-eared dog, with its slender body and fox-like tail, is found in the Amazon rainforest region of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. It prefers areas with no human disturbance but not much else is known about the species.

One of Renata’s aims was to find out enough information about the animal, particularly its population size so that it could be properly assessed for its conservation status for IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.

“The short-eared dog’s social behavior has never been filmed in the wild previous to this project,” says Renata. “For the last two years we have had a tame short-eared dog called Oso in residence at the research station. We’ve been taking him on walks on a lead in the forest, so that he attracts others. In one incident, a wild female in heat approached and followed Oso. My assistant took as much film and as many photos as he could, and got some great material.”

Thanks to a grant from National Geographic, Renata attached a crittercam—a small video camera—to Oso’s neck to film his behaviour. This gives Renata a glimpse into his world— where he goes, what he eats and which other dogs he meets. After she had conducted the Crittercam study, she released Oso with a tiny GPS/VHF collar, allowing her to monitor his movements.

Renata now lives in the Atlantic Forest region of Southeast of Brazil on a two-hectare nature reserve but still coordinates Peruvian projects from there. This, she says, is only possible with the passion and commitment, beyond the call of duty of her field assistant Emeterio Nunnonca, an ex hunter and miner.


“Fortunately we have convinced our state government to create a park in the area next to us, and we’re now trying to consolidate this protected area—the Parque Estadual da Serra da Baitaca,” says Renata.
 

Renata, a wildlife veterinarian and an expert in mammalian ecology, also has a Master's Degree in Forest Science at the Federal University of Parana, Brazil. She has been a Research Associate with the Center for Tropical Conservation since 2000.

As if she didn’t have enough to do, another big focus for Renata is helping to minimize the ecological impacts of the Interoceanic Highway that will connect Brazil to the Pacific. In Peru, the highway bisects a globally important complex of protected areas, where key mammal species such as Andean bears, jaguars and giant otters are found and are known to cross the road.

Renata and her colleagues are providing the local government with scientific and economic reasons to maintain habitat connectivity through underground corridors for animals crossing the highway and the use of fences to avoid animal fatalities. The field team, made up of biologists from local universities, is training school teachers, park rangers and tourist guides about the impact of the highway on wildlife.

"We’re aiming to show how the presence of these species can attract tourists and help improve the economy in the region through organized development and ecotourism," says Renata.

"After 10 years in the Amazon, I wish other researchers, tourists, students, wildlife lovers, and any other member of the public in any part of the world could feel as trapped as I feel by the beauty and majesty of the Amazon, and treat it with the respect it deserves."
 

 Renata can be contacted by email at: mrpl@duke.edu; releite@yahoo.com