Palms, Primates, and People
Sometimes conservation activities aren’t always intuitive: there are a few links in the chain between conservation activity and conservation outcome. While it’s fairly clear that planting cactus will provide homes for cactus wrens, it’s not obvious that we would help translocate ground squirrels to help burrowing owls (the squirrels do the actual burrowing, the owls move in later and remodel a bit).
So it usually takes a bit of explanation to show the link between planting palm trees in old agricultural fields in the Peruvian Amazon and conserving primates – and macaws, and tapirs, and peccary, and more.
People make up the links in this story. The palm trees we are helping people plant in their fields are aguaje palms, a species with tasty fruits that have been harvested in Peru for a long time, usually by cutting down the entire tree to reach the fruit. This extensive cutting isn’t endangering the palm, which is found throughout South America. But eliminating large patches of this palm tree also eliminates a food source for wildlife that is rich in oil and vitamins.
Palm swamps that have a lot of fruiting aguaje usually have a lot of monkeys, peccary, deer, and so much more passing through. When fruiting trees are cut, locals always note the decline in wildlife.
The goal of our conservation research project is to prevent people from cutting trees and overharvesting this important fruit.
The first step was to teach the people harvesting how to climb trees to reach the fruit rather than cutting them down. Because fruit ripens throughout the season and not all at once, it is extremely difficult to harvest all the fruit in a forest, so by not cutting the tree down, there is more fruit for wildlife later in the season (not to mention the years to come).
With climbing, people quickly realize the benefit of caring for their own palms that can be harvested over and over again; they become interested in growing it in places where they don’t have to walk for hours to harvest it (I definitely understand their desire to avoid lugging 100 pound sacks through swamp and forest!). This brings us to the next step: help people grow their own aguaje so they can leave the wild grown fruit for the wildlife.
But as with many things in conservation, this step is easier said than done. Aguaje palms grow slowly and can take 10 years to grow large enough to bear fruit. If they ever bear fruit: these palms are dioecious, meaning there are male and female palms, so 50% of the trees planted will be male and never provide tasty fruits for market.
As part of our research, we are tracking the growth and survival of aguaje fruit from germination bed to planting and eventually through reproduction, to see what factors help get planted aguajes producing fruit faster and exactly how many someone needs to plant to get a good population of females.
We are tracking palms in three different villages, but we hope that what we learn can be shared throughout the region. In our demonstration villages, the people have eagerly participated in collecting, cleaning and planting the seed, caring for them as they sprout and placing them in bags, offering their guesses as to which will grow to be fruit bearing females and which will be undesirable males. But these guesses won’t be answered for at least another 8 years… we hope their interest continues!
Years from now, people will be harvesting aguaje as well as plantain and yucca from their own fields to sell at the market. They will be less inclined to walk deep into the forest and harvest fruit from the wild, which means more happy, well fed primates crashing through the trees overhead.
By Christa Horn, Conservation Program Specialist