Race Against Extinction
A museum scientist’s dream of reaching one of the world’s most remote biodiversity hotspots has come true. Now he aims to study and help conserve it.
As José Padial and his research team hiked into an isolated part of the Peruvian jungle in February, they became the first outsiders to explore the wildly diverse region in more than half a century, and the first scientists ever to scale its highest mountain.
José Padial (right) and team on the soggy slopes of Vilcabamba in 2008.
Just getting to Cordillera Vilcabamba, a vast and remote chain of the tropical Andes Mountains, is no small adventure. From Peru’s capital of Lima, the team flew south to the major city of Ayacucho, drove for eight hours to the secluded town of Pichari, and walked an hour into the jungle to the indigenous village of Marontuari. From there, they hiked a half a day through dense rainforest before setting up the first of three camp sites near the base of a 13,000-foot mountain. Their ultimate destination: grasslands not far from its peak.
The immediate reward, says Padial, is something nearly unimaginable. “It’s amazing,” says Padial, a herpetologist and Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s William and Ingrid Rea Assistant Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles, who’s been close to the area on a previous expedition. “It’s a huge, rocky massive that comes out of the nothing of the lowlands. It has amazing cliffs and unbelievable waterfalls. It’s a remarkably diverse natural area that is poorly known. A dream for an explorer.”
The southern part of the range is well known for the Inca site of Vilcabamba. The northern stretch, where Padial and team spent much of February in the teeming rain, is virtually unexplored, due largely to its isolation and the fact that until the 1990s, it was under the control of the Shining Path guerrillas.
“We need to know what’s there before it vanishes. It’s the perfect natural habitat to study and monitor climate change.”
- HERPETOLOGIST JOSÉ PADIAL
As one of the least known and most biologically diverse regions of the Amazon, it earned fleeting international attention in 1964 when National Geographic published the account of a team of wealthy explorers who parachuted in a year earlier hoping to find the riches of a lost Inca city. The group survived, but not before the treacherous environment altered their plans and nearly cost them their lives.
Padial’s goal: to reach the highest and most isolated area, which lies outside of the nearby Otishi National Park. (When this story went to press, Padial was still in the field.) Once there in the grasslands, the team of six herpetologists, including researchers from the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute and the natural history museums of Cusco and Arequipa, would work night and day turning over rocks in search of frogs, snakes, and lizards to create the site’s first-ever inventory of species. Scientists will now be able to monitor the inventory annually for years—and decades—to come. In the short term, the hope is to use this new knowledge to expand the borders of the national park, protecting this extraordinary place indefinitely. Ultimately, for Padial, “it’s a race against destruction.”
While there is no imminent threat to the grasslands due to its difficult-to-reach location, Padial does anticipate dams and roads being constructed in support of regional development, which would permanently alter the one-ofa- kind environment. Much of the Peruvian jungle is already in serious jeopardy due to mining, uncontrolled logging, coffee and coca plantations, and gas and oil production. Padial says one never knows when an area could be targeted for the next big money-making opportunity.
“We need to know what’s there before it vanishes,” he says. “It’s the perfect natural habitat to study and monitor climate change.” It’s also a gold mine for discovering new species. “Like when Lewis and Clark went to the far West,” says Padial, “everything they found was novel.”
Armed with axes and machetes, local guides hired by Padial hiked upward while the scientists and accompanying filmmaker Maira Duarte surveyed near base camp, located at about 3,200 feet. The guides cleared a narrow tract through a dense bamboo and tree-ferns forest, building bridges when necessary, and then carrying all equipment and supplies to a second camp at 7,000 feet, a backbreaking task that took about a week. They repeated this process until a third and final camp site was set up above the tree lines at about 11,000 feet, with scientists surveying every step of the way.
The change in altitude is key. Near base camp at 3,200 feet, Padial expects to find 40-50 species of amphibians and reptiles; at 7,000 feet, the numbers will drop to less than half; and between 11,000 and 13,000 feet in the upper grasslands, Padial expects they’ll find only four or five endemic species—species found no other place on Earth. An explorer’s dream, for sure.
“This is why this place is so important; why altitude tracking is so important,” explains Padial. “As evolution works, things that are isolated for a very long time from their ancestor, they evolve in their own unique way.”
He explains how species migrate when the climate changes. And because amphibians and reptiles are cold-blooded, their metabolism doesn’t generate enough heat to maintain body temperatures above air or surface temperatures, which means their diversity decreases in colder climates.
“As weather got warmer during the last 10,000 years, species migrated upward. Eventually, the species in the grasslands will have no place left to go and they’ll disappear,” he says. “With our effect on the environment, this will happen even faster. By collecting this data now, it will represent the first landmark for evaluating this unique place—what will happen with the climate and the species that live there.”
The expedition, which was funded by the Carnegie Discoverers, a group of passionate museum supporters, is expected to yield 200 to 400 specimens, half of which will remain in Peru and half will be added to Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s herpetology collection, which numbers nearly 210,000 specimens.
The team’s meticulous preparation, led by Padial, well surpassed the lead up to a 2008 expedition he joined that ended before successfully reaching the upper grasslands. He learned from that experience, as well as the experiences of those who parachuted into the region on the 1963 trip funded by the National Geographic Society and the New York Zoological Society. Padial even reached out to Peter Lake, who at the age of 18, was the youngest member of that adventure.
Lake had joined the early expedition through a friendship with Peter Gimbel, then director of the Zoological Society and heir to the Gimbels department store chain. He and Gimbel went on to be the first to film great white sharks in the wild.
Despite vivid memories of the “miserable experience” of wearing no dry clothes for months, inadequate food supplies, 150 black fly bites in a single day, and a brush with death during an exchange with a hostile indigenous tribe, Lake says he would jump at the chance to join Padial.
He still regrets that the team failed to meet one of its main objectives—to build an airstrip so scientists could fly in and survey the area. But where that group failed, Padial and team have succeeded in preparing for botanists from the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis who may follow in their footsteps next year, now that the heavy lifting of clearing a passable tract up the mountain is complete.
“This kind of ongoing exploration and conservation,” says Padial, “if translated well by scientists and the museum, can really help educate the world about some of the most pressing issues of our time.”