I think I have just been to heaven. Well, I think I might have just spent a couple of days in a biologist’s heaven anyway.
I was staying at Mashpi Lodge, situated in The Mashpi Biodiversity Reserve, Ecuador. The Reserve is a part of one of the greatest biodiversity ‘hot spots’ on the planet.
Geography and terrain
This ‘hot spot’ is a rainforest called the Chocó which extends from Panama in the north to Ecuador in the south, squeezed between the Pacific coast to the west and the Andes to the east.
The reserve traverses the equator and Its position is mainly just to the North of the Equator with a small part to the south of it.
It runs to in the north to Panama together and with a vast range of altitudes, from sea level up to 2,500 metres, that has been a key factor in creating what is not an exaggeration, a mega-biodiversity.
The Panamanian and Colombian portion of the Chocó are relatively intact but it is thought over 95% of native forest in coastal Ecuador has been cleared, making it one of the most threatened tropical forests in the world.
One piece that does remain today is the Mashpi Biodiversity Reserve, protected as part of a private reserve since 2004.
There is a hugely positive back story to how this precious place came to be protected which I will explain further in this article, but for now I just want to try, if I can, to communicate to you why this place is so special and give you just a small glimpse into its treasures.
Variety of species
All you really need to know is that the Chocó forest supports huge numbers of plant and animal species. Many of which are endemic (found there and only there).
For example, there are approximately 830 bird species in Mashpi, if you include migrants, of which 85 (10.2%) are endemic.
The southern portion of the Chocó (where Mashpi is located) is particularly important for birds, with more than 40 bird species and 140 subspecies being endemic.
By way of comparison, in all of North America (Mexico, Canada and the United States) there are around 800 species of birds (including migrants).
North America covers over 9 million square miles. The Chocó biogeographic region extends over a mere 72,000 square miles. So if my (very) rough maths is right the Chocó is about 12 times more ‘bird bio-diverse’ per square mile than North America.
Some of the birds are easy it see – for example the mossed-backed tanager shown was photographed right outside the Mashpi Lodge dining room door!
It is thought that the Chocó forest supports an estimated 9,000 vascular (higher) plant species.
Approximately 25% of these (2,250) are endemic. To compare: Italy has only 5,600 vascular plants across its entire territory.
Mammal diversity is also high, with 235 species, 60 (25.5%) of which are endemic. The Ecuadorian Chocó alone is home to 142 mammal species, of which 15 (10.6%) are endemic to the region.
The Mashpi lodge camera traps have photographed Puma, Ocelot, anteaters, paca, collared peccaries, armadillos, margay and many others.
Your chances of seeing these mammals directly are slim – but its great knowing they are outside your door at the lodge – and Carlos the Mashpi lodge ecologist gives a great talk on the forest and it’s riches.
There are about 350 species of amphibians, including 210 endemics (60%), and 210 species of reptiles, 63 (30%) endemic.
It is possible this Eyelash Palm Pit Viper above is one of a yet unknown sub species that lives at higher altitude. The individual was very carefully collected by Carlos the Mashpi Ecologist and will be DNA tested to check if it is a new species of sub-species.
The Mashpi Biodiversity Reserve protects 1,200 hectares but the area protected as part of a Municipal Protected Forest extends to around 17,000 hectares in total as I shall explain and as I said above 95% of the Ecuador Choco has been destroyed so this is a very, very precious reserve.
The remarkable story of the saving of a rainforest
I want to tell you of the remarkable story of how the Mashpi Reserve came to be saved from the loggers.
95% of the Chocó in Ecuador has been destroyed but the story of Mashpi’s rescue from the loggers is an up lifting conservation story and gives one hope for the future of such special places around the world.
The story begins with a logging company buying Mashpi to log it out. They drove in the road and cleared a small area for the sawmill.
Working for the logging company was a local engineer called Fernando Timpe. Fernando fixed the machinery for the company and generally kept everything running.
Fernando, however, had become disillusioned with the destruction of the Chocó forest in Ecuador. He recognised how special the Mashpi forest was and, for him, it was the final straw. He quit his job and started to try and save the place itself from the loggers.
Fernando didn’t have the cash to do it by himself, however, he did know one of Ecuador´s leading Orchid experts and former Director of the Botanical Gardens in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, Juan del Hierro.
The retired Director came out to visit Mashpi and at once recognised what a special section of the Chocó it was. In particular, being an orchid expert, he saw the amazing diversity of the orchids in the area and surmised that the rest of the flora and fauna was probably as diverse.
As with Fernando, Juan himself did not have the personal resources to do much about it but, crucially, he knew a man who did – a certain Roque Sevilla. Roque is an important Ecuadorian businessman and had, at one point, also been Mayor of Quito.
The important thing for this story is that Roque is, as his Pilar wife says, “a frustrated naturalist” and an orchid nut. Fernando, the retired Director of the botanical gardens and Roque went out to see Mashpi together.
By this time the logging company had gone bust so the land was in the hand of the receivers. One visit was enough. Roque and some friends brought Mashpi – 1,200 hectares of primary Chocó rainforest.
Roque and his friends then set about saving more of the rainforest. They sent in an ecologist who spent years living in a tent in the forest to record as much as he could about the diversity of the forest.
With this evidence and Roque’s influence in Quito City, 17,000 hectares around Mashpi has been designated a special area of Sustainable Development. This means that the people living the area can stay where they live but the remaining forest is protected.
The Mashpi Biodiversity Reserve is at the centre of this huge area and provides the core of untouched primary reserve.
All this was done with the saving of the forest and its wildlife in mind. But once saved from the loggers things have developed. Community and education programmes have been introduced to those living around the reserve but to really save the forest you need to make it worth something standing rather than logged.
The Mashpi Lodge
So then came the dream of building a lodge from which guests could set out to explore the magic of the reserve. This would create employment for the locals that directly linked protecting the forest to employment for locals.
Mashpi Lodge, an amazing luxury hideaway hidden deep in the Mashpi rainforest, is now one of the most amazing and unique places to stay in the world. Featured on many TV shows both about travel and nature.
The lodge sits at 3,117 feet (950 meters) above sea level and is situated right in the heart of this paradise of rainforest and wildlife.
To get here it has been a long project. It took four years to build the lodge, as everything needed had to come in down the small logging track. Very little machinery could be used, as that would have meant taking out trees. All the glass panels where manhandled into position to avoid the need for cranes etc.
The result is amazing. Like a beautiful modernist spaceship that has quietly settled into a clearing in the forest Mashpi Lodge lies right at the heart of the reserve right on the site of the former saw mill.
I had the privilege of having dinner with Roque and Pilar in Quito. Whilst he is obviously a very successful businessman it was when we discussed wildlife and the rainforest than his eyes lit up. Although Mashpi Lodge is no doubt a business venture – and good luck to them – I have no doubt that it is first and foremost a conservation project.
Whilst Roque, Pilar and the dedicated team they put together that saved this corner of paradise, there is no doubt in my mind that it is Fernando Timpe that is the hero of the piece.
For who amongst us would have the bravery to quit our jobs and give up our family’s livelihood to save a forest and its remarkable wildlife?