Since its inception in 1998, Reserva Las Gralarias in Mindo, Ecuador, has been a conservation project. The name Las Gralarias is the Spanish for the three species of Grallaria antbirds then known at the reserve—all rare, elusive and range-restricted. The hope then and now is that the reserve will provide safe haven for these and many other rare species.
Though the 7.5 hectares/19 acres which first comprised the reserve was a start, such a tiny parcel was not large enough to allow for the continued survival and propagation of wild flora and fauna. The experience and expertise of Jane Lyons made expanding the reserve a priority. As Jane notes, “In my conservation career I had observed numerous small islands of habitat officially conserved and intended to protect certain species, and yet the species were no longer there.” Jane’s doctoral studies in biogeography and her twenty years of professional work experience with endangered species provided additional perspectives about the restrictions inherent in small islands of habitat. “For many species,” Jane observes, “it is not enough just to have a protected natural area but rather one that supports, over the long term, all the components of plants and animals that should naturally occur there.”
In an area with over 300 bird species, the tiny reserve of 19 acres was clearly too small and in danger of being disconnected from the larger ecosystem of which it is a part. Thus, the Las Gralarias Foundation made one of its core goals the purchase of more and adjacent cloud forest habitat. In less than ten years, 425 hectares/1063 acres of cloud forest were purchased to provide increased habitat as well as protect corridors between previously disconnected parcels. Much was primary forest though large chunks were cow pasture, but by early 2015 the old cow pasture, replanted with native trees, had reverted to secondary woodland. The three species of Grallaria antpittas are now found throughout the reserve at their appropriate elevations.
One of the key components of the Chocó cloud forest ecosystem are the many creeks and streams that run off the mountainsides and down to the Pacific Ocean, and the Las Gralarias Foundation determined early on that successful habitat conservation in the area must also include conservation of the many waterways that connect and feed the forests.
Averaging about an inch per day, the rainfall in the mid-elevation Andes Mountains gives life to the cloud forest system. Rain nourishes an amazingly diverse multi-strata broad-leaf vegetation, provides the right conditions for every type of moss (used by birds to make their nests and by frogs for hiding), and allows sufficient water to run back down into the soil and into rivulets that create larger and larger creeks.
This is the water used by glass frog tadpoles to slowly grow into adults; by bizarre tiny catfish to gorge on water striders and caddisfly larvae; by tiger-herons, ducks and dippers to feed themselves and their young; and by Water Opossums, the female of which has a hermetically-sealable pouch to take her underdeveloped young underwater while she feeds along the bottom of the creek. What water the mountain vegetation and animals do not use runs downslope to other natural and human communities and back into the ocean.
Since 1998, habitat has been added to the reserve that includes the headwaters and most all of the water systems of Lucy’s Creek, Kathy’s Creek, Heloderma Creek, Hercules Creek and 5 Frog Creek as well as a substantial portion of land along the Santa Rosa River and 220 meters/700 feet on both sides of the Chalhuayacu River.
Another major component of the Chocó cloud forest ecosystem is its topography. The cloud forest zone is located in the mid-elevation of the mountains and runs from about 2500m down to 1500m and is where the clouds coming in from the Pacific ocean hit the mountains. Early on, LGF knew that conservation of just one narrow horizontal band of a mountain would not provide the full range of habitat options needed by many species and could, in fact, exclude other species altogether.
Some species of birds, bats, and butterflies fly up and down the mountains with marked seasonal migratory movements, nesting at one elevation and spending the non-nesting season at a different elevation. Other species are equally mobile but on a daily basis while still others are sedentary residents with no marked movements at all. Too, large mammals need large territories and move from area to area looking for their preferred foods and water sources. And then there are small, discrete mountainous microniches, with numerous frog and bird species existing within very narrow elevational ranges.
Since 1998 Reserva Las Gralarias has expanded its elevational range from 1750 to 2400 meters and now encompasses an altitudinal gradient of 650 meters/2133 feet, providing a large protected altitudinal corridor for many species.
Habitat conservation is not a simple task, and the Las Gralarias Foundation was formed to support the goals of Reserva Las Gralarias and the efforts of many dedicated people working to conserve the natural habitat found within the reserve, to regenerate disturbed areas with native species, and to create where possible habitat connections along the waterways and forests both upslope and downslope.