Expanding a Research Facility in the Cloud Forests of Ecuador

With greater capacity to host scientists in their oasis of exceptional biodiversity, the Mashpi Reserve will promote international veneration of a threatened ecosystem.

mashpi reserve cloud and rain forest view from canopy

In the Chocó ecoregion of Ecuador, you can find some of the most incredible biodiversity on earth. Lying in a transition zone between rain and cloud forest, the warm, moist climate hosts myriad flora including mosses, ferns, and palms. From the mist-shrouded canopy all the way down to the leaf-strewn forest floor, this verdant jungle is alive with the sounds of hundreds of species of birds, reptiles and mammals, each thriving in their specialised niches of this rich ecosystem. Needless to say, it’s a biologist’s dream come true.

Unfortunately, however, this unique ecoregion faces multiple threats. It has suffered a great deal of degradation and destruction in the last decades, from the expansion of agriculture, highways, infrastructure, and human settlements – and not least due to exploitation of its natural resources. Today, just 4-8% remains of the Chocó ecoregion’s original area.

The Mashpi Lodge and Reserve

These multiple threats prompted the creation of the Mashpi Reserve in 2002. Since then, the reserve has grown from 800 to over 2,900 hectares of rain and cloud forest, and now employs six forest rangers to protect the area from illegal logging and hunting. The rangers patrol the area and even employ real-time acoustic monitoring to detect threats. They also help with in-field activities such as explorations, monitoring fauna with camera traps, maintaining trails, and species monitoring. Their acoustic sensors help with these activities too, using artificial intelligence to identify and analyse key species.

In 2010, construction began on Mashpi Lodge, a luxury hotel nestled in the middle of the cloud forest. At the heart of the reserve, the lodge is a perfect springboard for guests to explore the wonders of the forest and recognise its value – and consequently finance the reserve’s management and protection efforts. Guests staying at this highly eco-conscious hotel can enjoy the flora and fauna from a system of trails or from the Dragonfly cable car, which allows them to discover the diverse topography of valleys, hills, slopes, rivers and waterfalls. Meanwhile, they can be sure their stay is contributing to an excellent cause.

 Since 2002 the reserve has grown from 800 to over 2,900 hectares of rain and cloud forest.
Since 2002 the reserve has grown from 800 to over 2,900 hectares of rain and cloud forest.

A sanctuary and a beacon

Hand-in-hand with the introduction of ecotourism came the promotion of scientific research in the reserve. The visiting scientists also make good use of the trail system to investigate different aspects of this preserved pocket of forest. The trails cover the whole altitude range of the reserve and give access to three rivers, providing opportunities for different research methodologies. In fact, scientists have discovered 12 new species here since 2010, and have contributed significantly to the world’s collective scientific knowledge.

In addition to the trails, the reserve has a science lab and a well-equipped butterfly study facility. Moreover, a cable car system that was originally built to carry guests through the treetops has proven to be a valuable tool for researchers, giving unparalleled access to the canopy.

As a result of such activity, this ecosystem has been recognised as a conservation priority by different NGOs and international agencies. In 2018, it was recognised as a core area for the newly designated Andean Chocó UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Milestones like these are vital to the continued reverence and conservation of this area, as is the continued generation of international scientific research and activity emanating from the reserve.

Expanding the facilities to attract more scientists

Currently, the Mashpi Reserve can house only 12 researchers at a time, which limits the size, scope and impact of the investigations that scientists can carry out. The reserve is keen to encourage more, so they can increase international awareness and even expand the scope of the area that they protect.

To this end, the reserve is now embarking on a project to build new facilities that will have room for 20 people to stay at a time. Moreover, the new building project will include a classroom where they’ll be able to train and educate their staff and guides, forest rangers, and people from the surrounding communities.

Some of these will become what they like to call ‘parabiologists’. These are local people who empirically know a great deal about the forest from living with it, and who have subsequently had the chance to interact and learn directly from fully qualified biologists and researchers in the Mashpi Reserve.

With support from Hurtigruten of NOK 50,000 (approx. USD 4,800), the building work is ready to go ahead. Once complete, the reserve will offer free accommodation to visiting researchers for the first year of its operation – hopefully enabling a wide range of scientists and conservationists to take advantage of the facilities.

Progress in multiple dimensions

Through this expansion, the Mashpi Reserve will further their goal of raising international and national awareness of this unique ecoregion and its precarious condition. They will also be able to give at least 96 more researchers the opportunity to study here each year. Discoveries of more new species are sure to follow.

At the same time, they will help local people pursue careers as field assistants or researchers, or perhaps start businesses that apply their knowledge and techniques to sustainably managing the forest. Such people also present examples to others of how value can be extracted from this amazing ecosystem without damaging it.

The project also moves the Mashpi Reserve towards their ultimate goal. In partnership with the Fundación Futuro, they plan to expand further to encompass 14,000 hectares of forest, and establish new biological corridors that connect the reserve with larger conservation regions.

About Mashpi Reserve

The Mashpi Reserve was created with the aim of conserving the forest, supporting the local community, and launching an ambitious research initiative. It was established when Ecuadorian businessman and conservationist Roque Sevilla bought a 700-hectare plot in 2002. Since 2010, the reserve has been financed by a sustainable and high-level hotel operation – Mashpi Lodge – and has steadily expanded to protect more than 2,900 hectares in this incredible forest.

Where can I learn more?

You can see more on the Mashpi Lodge website.