Cocha Cashu Dreamin’
“I never saw a bigger world than from a little tent at Cashu.”—Nigel Pitman, alumni of Cocha Cashu Biological Station (aka“Cashu Nut”)
Such is the legacy we inherited recently at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, quite possibly the most remote and pristine field station on the globe. Hundreds of students and researchers have been there in the past four decades and experienced life-changing transformations that put them on new trajectories. No place on Earth provides a better opportunity to study, understand, and connect to nature in its unspoiled state. Here, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, nature has remained almost unchanged by humans through the eons. Our dream is to carry this legacy forward, standing on the shoulders of giants.
A young student arriving in a decade’s time to San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station will find an enchanting and rustic station where she can begin to unravel some of the biological mysteries of the vast Amazonian ecosystem, the greatest repository of biological diversity on Earth.
At night she drifts off to sleep listening to nature’s cacophony outside her thin tent walls. At dawn she awakens to the guttural, eerie roars of the howler monkey, meanders along a short forest path to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, which she enjoys on the dock overlooking the serene oxbow lake. She takes in the raucous calls of the prehistoric-looking hoatzin and observes the playful antics of the lake’s master, the 6-foot giant river otter.
After a breakfast of toast and omelet, she will gather up her GPS unit and handheld micro-computer from the charging station, log on to the web to check the latest positions of her GPS-collared spider monkeys, and set out on the network of trails in search of Troop 3. This primate unit just happens to be her favorite monkey group because of a special relationship she has developed with a “juvie” she fondly refers to as “Curious George.” He seems as intent on studying her as she is on studying him, hence the special bond.
Along the way, she will spot six other species of monkeys, though not the more rare pygmy marmoset. She will marvel, where else can one spot a half dozen species of monkey during a single morning’s outing? Back in camp, she will take a quick dip in the lake to cool down, grab a cold drink from the fridge, and head for the office to crunch data. She props her head in her hands, and gazes through the mesh window at the tiger heron fishing on the shore of the lake in front of her.
She logs on to the satellite image of the forests surrounding Cocha Cashu to check the status of fruiting fig trees, uploaded by another researcher at the station. “Aha! So that’s where they’re headed!” she murmurs when she realizes her monkeys’ current travel path will soon take them to an enormous fig tree with ripening fruit. She jots a note entitled “future research question: how do monkeys know when a tree is about to fruit?” Then she opens a file, “Effects of global climate change on keystone resources for primates and other frugivores” and loses herself in her data for a couple of hours. Before dinner, she uploads a video to Facebook of a line of leafcutter ants carrying pink flowers back to their nest.
That night around the dinner table she discusses her latest thoughts on the potential impacts of a changing climate on her study animals and, more so, on those animals residing outside the 4-million acre Manu National Park. These animals, she argues, will not have the same ability to “chase” the changing distribution of tree species on the changing landscape, trapped in their habitat islands among a sea of humanity. Her dinner companions—including among others a lepidopterist, a soil scientist, a forest ecologist, and a wetlands chemist—enthusiastically debate the points and counterpoints of her contention.
Filled with new ideas and her thoughts racing, she excuses herself and retreats to her tent in the forest, where, she knows, a peaceful night’s sleep will restore her for another day at Cocha Cashu.
By Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D.
Director, Applied Animal Ecology, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research