“When I came here for the first time, it made me sad,” recalls moor ranger Manuel Simba. “Everything was full of artificial ditches built by the owners of the different ranches [located in Antisana reserve]. They served to drain all the water of the moors, to make them able to have their sheep and cows. It was a pity not to be able to see perhaps a deer or a condor.”
As he leads us on a trail in the Antisana Ecological Reserve, he explains how the landscape has changed in the past decade. "It is a source of pride to us now to be able to see deer, carunculated caracaras, Andean ibises, condors and even moor wolves roaming the moors," he says.
Manuel Simba is 58 years old, with gray hair and beard, and a deep gaze beneath his bushy eyebrows. Since 2015, his work has been to protect the moors, specifically the Antisana moors, between the provinces of Pichincha and Napo in Ecuador. He says his love for nature arose in his childhood. “My late [farmer] father liked to keep his land. He did not like to destroy it. I learned all those teachings”.
Now, as he tells us how this wasteland is recovering, he smiles, narrows his eyes, puffs out his chest under his blue sweater and says that camera traps have even caught bears and pumas.
Not so long ago, Simba says, breeding among these species was almost impossible, despite the fact that the Antisana Ecological Reserve is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in Ecuador. This area is the habitat of 418 species of birds, 73 mammals and 61 amphibians and reptiles, according to the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP by its acronym in Spanish).
But the lack of protection and the abandonment of introduced domesticated animals caused some of the native animals to move and leave their habitat for at least 10 years.
“The western side [of Antisana volcano] has been one of the most destroyed moors in Ecuador,” says Robert Hostede, a Dutch biologist with a PhD in moor ecology.
For many years, throughout the 20th century, there were farms in Antisana dedicated to raising cattle. In 2019, Ecuadorian journalist Cristian Corral wrote that, in 1977, a man named José Delgado, bought "the Great Ranch" called Pinantura that the current reserve now occupies. Delgado's ranch had around 20,000 heads of cattle.
But more than 40 years later, between 2020 and 2021, the last cows living in this wasteland were dislodged. The measure was part of a plan to conserve the soil and water sources. Susana Escandón, coordinator of the Sustainable Water Conservation Areas program of the Water Protection Fund (Fonag), says that after the cattle were removed and recovery plans began, the vegetation slowly began to appear once again.
For centuries, Escandón explains, the moors had housed thousands of cows, horses and sheep that exerted great pressure with their hooves, compacting and eroding the soil. The cattle were also consuming the vegetation of the moors, and displacing wild animals.
Introduced livestock nearly wiped out this fragile ecosystem.
The moors are made up of mosses, grasses and other vegetation that act like sponges. As we walk over them, guided by Manuel Simba, they sink and then slowly inflate again. The moors also store a large amount of carbon. And they are important sources of water: the Antisana moor, for example, supplies water to a quarter of the population of Ecuador’s capital, Quito. That is, around 650,000 people, according to the Ministry of the Environment.
Healthy moor vegetation is key to achieve ecosystem balance: harmony and stability between living beings and the place where they live. Microorganisms, insects, amphibians, small animals such as rodents, medium-sized animals such as white-tailed deer, moor wolves, and tapirs interact with the vegetation. Larger animals such as the puma and spectacled bears also coexist, as well as scavengers such as the condor, the falcon or the carunculated caracara.
All of them are necessary to maintain balance. But when humans introduce domestic animals, problems begin. The trophic web is altered, a space where species interrelate through water and under sunlight. If one of these spaces is altered it provokes imbalances and a chain of action and reaction is created. If the vegetation disappears, the small animals disappear, then the medium ones, and so on. The disturbance caused by humans in the Antisana wasteland did not extinguish everything. But it did generate new dynamics between introduced and wild animals.
As the introduced animals had been in the moor for more than 100 years, some wild creatures had become used to their presence. Wild predators fed on introduced livestock. Susana Escandón, from Fonag, explains that before removing the cattle they feared the impact; they wondered if predators and scavengers would get used to eating wild animals again or if they would try to enter community areas in search of livestock.
The technicians of the project, which was implemented between 2020 and 2021, also feared that predators such as the puma or the moor wolf and scavengers such as the condor would not return to eat deer or rabbits, their original diet.
But this did not happen. Between those years deer, foxes, bears, pumas and condors began to return little by little.
These animals have not only been photographed by tourists who are happy to be around them. When Antisana and Cotopaxi, both protected areas, close their doors to visitors, the animals take the opportunity to walk around. Organizations like Fundación Cóndor Andino have placed camera traps where you can see pumas, tapirs, rabbits, deer and other animals that visit the moors of these two volcanoes.
Fabricio Narváez, executive director of the Fundación Cóndor Andino, says that in the systematic monitoring of camera traps they have managed to identify up to 17 species that roam both moors.
Removing cattle was not the only approach taken to bring back wild animals. Increased hunting control by moor rangers and park rangers, as well as conservation, restoration, monitoring and tracking programs for wild animals, by foundations such as Cóndor Andino, Jocotoco and Oso Andino, also contributed.
The main objective of the foundations has been to conserve endangered species and restore their ecosystems. Monitoring, tracking and research have managed to identify direct threats to wildlife and, little by little, control them. The foundations also implemented buffer zones that allow wild species to interact with the environment without the presence of humans.
Constant monitoring is key to conserving overall biological diversity.
In Cotopaxi National Park moor, the same thing as in Antisana moor happened: destroyed vegetation and the near-absence of wildlife. But the invaders here were horses, not cows. The herds that were initially part of the ranches, and were later donated to the national park as a tourist attraction, kept the area with little vegetation.
“They ate a lot and somehow competed [for food] with the deer,” says Robert Hofstede.
For better or for worse, landowners and visitors to Cotopaxi got used to seeing wild horses galloping through the National Park. They had been around for so long that, in 2016, when Fonag began to remove all introduced animals from Cotopaxi, Hofstede recounts that one of the moor rangers said that they should warn people in the nearby communities, because he thought the horses had owners.
Overnight, half of the horses were gone, recalls the biologist. “Many of those that were in the Park belonged to private owners who kept them there and occasionally saw them,” he says. It has not yet been possible to remove all the horses from Cotopaxi. However with the significant decrease, the number of deer rose and, with them, the number of moor wolves.
But once all the efforts to bring wild animals back to the moors paid off, technicians and foundations ran into new problems: they couldn't fully foresee how people would react to the return of wildlife.
The ecosystem recovery program, in some way, also caused humans to now have more contact with these species. In Antisana, the deer no longer get scared or run when they see a person. They stare and allow themselves to be photographed. Even with the noise of the cars, they hardly even; they barely raise their heads.
Biologist Robert Hofstede says that this has both a positive and a negative side. By getting used to humans, as is apparently happening in Cotopaxi and Antisana moors, the animals no longer see us as a threat. It's good because they don't run away as they used to and they feel confident to stay in place.
The downside, Hofstede explains, is that they see the human as a source of food. This phenomenon has been happening in Cotopaxi for about three years. In 2021, when I visited this National Park, a small pack of three moor wolves, on the trail leading to the volcano, seemed to be waiting for people to give them food. When I returned to this place in June 2023, one of the park workers told me that now there was also a wolf in the parking area and another in a nearby lagoon.
According to Hofstede, this behavior is unnatural for wolves, which, by nature, are elusive and hunt in small packs. What is happening in Cotopaxi, he says, is a sort of "animal opportunism”. That is, the wolf will prefer to wait for a car that it knows will give it food, rather than hunting a rabbit. This behavior, adds Hofstede, is collateral damage caused by increased contact with humans, mainly due to poorly controlled tourism.
Tourism allows an interaction between the visitor and the animal that, the biologist emphasizes, should not exist.
A moor wolf begging for food in the Cotopaxi parking lot can be a striking sight for many. But Hofstede explains that this is a problem. If animals lose their natural behavior and then need to survive in the wild, "they won't know how to hunt anymore". He adds that if one generation "learned that so soon, a next generation may come along that is not so tame, but aggressive" if they are not given food.
In other words, a seemingly harmless decision such as approaching and taking a photo near the animal can change its natural behavior and mark it for life. Throughout 2022, when the park rangers noticed that it was no longer just one wolf begging for food, but five, they started a campaign with the slogan “If you want to see me alive. Don't feed me." The project aimed to raise awareness among visitors and discourage the small gang from waiting for food.
Beyond grazing and fast food
Cattle, horses, and the current harmful interaction between humans and moor animals are not the only threats facing Cotopaxi and Antisana species.
The first threat is agriculture. By preparing the soil to grow food, farmers destroy peatlands. As well as being natural reservoirs of water, these lands store organic matter — plant remains that degrade and in this process release nutrients. This organic matter prevents natural gasses from escaping into the atmosphere. But farmers dig canals near the peatlands to drain the water and turn up the soil to use that organic matter as fertilizer.
However, this is not the only way in which agriculture affects the fragile moor ecosystem. Another way that farmers have to prepare the land is to burn the grass and leave the soil ready for sowing. After growing crops for two or three seasons, the farmers plow the land and leave it ready to introduce cattle.
All of this soil damage causes erosion and takes away an important place for the small animals at the base of the moors ecological pyramid, explains Segundo Chimbolema, a researcher at the Biosphere Institute of the San Francisco de Quito University (USFQ).
Feral dogs pose another threat. Susana Escandón explains that they are called feral because their ancestors were abandoned by humans and were left to roam through protected areas. This changed their behavior from domestic to wild. These dogs usually gather in packs in order to survive and hunt in the same way.
If they come into contact with wild animals, these dogs can spread diseases such as rabies. Cristian Cóndor, the administrator in charge of the Cotopaxi National Park, says that they have already had a case of a rabid wolf and it took a long time to treat it. After its reintroduction to the moor, they feared that others would become infected, but so far they have not registered another case.
Many of these feral dogs often enter the farms of nearby communities to eat chickens. To stop them, farmers poison the dogs. But when carrion birds find a dog's carcass, they eat it, and they get poisoned too. A direct victim of this has been the Andean condor, an emblematic bird of Ecuador whose populations have been in decline for years.
The main threats to condors are poisoning and hunting, explains Fabricio Narváez, from the Fundación Cóndor Andino Ecuador, which specializes in researching this bird. He also says that between December 2018 and December 2019, 20 Andean condors died from poisoning "that were not even aimed at the condor, but at dog control".
To control the dogs without threatening the condors, Nárvaez says that the Foundation has carried out sterilization campaigns. But it is just one line in the big problem.
Cristian Cóndor, from the Cotopaxi National Park, says that in this area they have used trap cages to capture the dogs. They send them to animal shelters of the Municipality of Cotopaxi so that they can re-domesticate them if there is a chance of doing so. But if they are feral, the decision on what will happen to these animals is made directly by the municipality.
The moors have never been exempt from hunting. Manuel Simba, the Antisana moor ranger, says that in the past there were "poachers". He says that they have had to "fight a lot against this, because they came to catch deer and rabbits." This problem worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic because it coincided with a natural phenomenon that occurs in rabbit populations.
Susana Escandón from Fonag explains that every three to four years rabbits have a "reproduction curve" in which they appear in large numbers. But then they get a disease that kills these small mammals and they disappear. After another three to four years, they reappear.
Escandón explains that they think that this disease could have been one "that they got many years ago due to urban-rural interaction" but they do not know for sure what is happening. Today they are studying this phenomenon. The high season for rabbits is when the hunting of these small animals skyrockets.
During the pandemic, rabbits appeared in droves in Antisana and Cotopaxi moors. The hunting of these small animals, says Escandón, is "very linked to the rural areas where people go out with their horses and their dogs to chase them, hunt more than 100 rabbits and take them with them."
Manuel Simba recalls that during the pandemic it was "very hard" in the Antisana moor. Only two moor rangers from Fonag remained: he and his partner Isidro. “People from the neighboring communities took advantage,” he says, referring to the increase in hunting.
"Every day we would find four or five groups hunting rabbits," he says. He and Isidro would give them a "little talk on the subject" since, as guards, they could not detain them or call the police, Manuel recalls that they were alone.
The same thing happened in Cotopaxi.
Víctor Cumbajín, a moor ranger for 17 years in Cotopaxi National Park, explains that during that rabbit season "people brought dogs to hunt them" instead of setting fire to the grasslands to flush the rabbits out, as they used to do. They did this to "not alert us, because if we see smoke, we know that they are hunting." Like Manuel, he only had the support of one other colleague to protect the 10,000 hectares that Fonag has in Cotopaxi.
When the rabbits disappear, as a natural consequence, so does the hunting of these animals.
Now, compared to previous years when control wasn't so strict, Cumbajín says that hunting has been decreasing, but that it still exists at low levels.
Cristian Cóndor adds that the cases of hunting are now very sporadic but "with the number of hectares it is very difficult to specify how many." The National Park covers 32,271 hectares and has only 19 park rangers who not only have to protect the areas. "The colleagues here do everything: masonry, carpentry, support with tourism and more," says Cóndor. In other words, the lack of personnel is also a problem that affects wildlife.
Human alterations to the moors not only affect these important water sources, but also impact the fauna that lives in it. Animals, lacking a voice, must depend on human actions in order to survive. But the attempts to preserve them do not seem enough. In the end, the protection of nature and the wild species that inhabit it falls into the hands of those who destroy it.
This story was produced with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published in Spanish by GK on 23 June 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.
Banner image: The páramo of the Cotopaxi volcano was affected by the large number of surrounding farms / Credit: Doug Greenberg via Flickr.