The Otorongo Forest

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
Jaguars, commonly known as “otorongos” by locals, are thriving in an FSC-certified forest in Peru
camera trap image close up of jaguar in peruvian rainforest
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
May 31, 2023
Category : General news

The abundant Peruvian rainforest – part of the larger Amazon Rainforest – is one of South America's main natural forest areas. Its ecosystems shelter an incredible diversity of plants and animals that has been recognized since ancient times, especially in the traditions and legends of Indigenous People with strong connections to nature.  

However, in recent decades the forest has been rapidly disappearing due mainly to indiscriminate logging driven by timber trafficking, the spread of cultivated farmland, forest fires, and illegal mining. Fortunately, there are still forest areas in the eastern region of Madre de Dios where responsible forest management coexists with respect for native communities and biodiversity conservation.  

Committing to Sustainability 

In Madre de Dios, over 600,000 hectares of forests have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and over a third of them belong to Maderacre. This Peruvian company has around 220,000 hectares of natural tropical forests that have been managed according to FSC forest management standards since 2007. 

“When we began our operations, the forest had only received minimal intervention. Both biodiversity conservation and ecosystem health were in good shape. However, things would have been very different today if we had not opted for sustainability or FSC certification, as evidenced in the areas surrounding our concession where deforestation continues to advance,” Nelson Kroll, Regional Manager of Maderacre, explains. 

We visited one of the company’s temporary camps near the Brazilian border. Getting there required a long drive from the concession’s entrance gate in the town of Iñapari. It began to get dark as we traveled along the winding, compacted road.

tapir in headlights in dark forest
FSC / Sebastian Castañeda

Certain nocturnal species took advantage of the darkness to move around. Some, like the docile tapir (Tapirus terrestris), did not mind our presence, allowing us to get out of the car and photograph them. But others, like the ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), quickly hid in the forest as soon as the vehicle’s lights illuminated them. They were only a prelude to what we would see during our visit; -what we admired during those hours was merely the “tip of the iceberg.” Biodiversity monitoring has shown that Maderacre has very significant wildlife indices, which demonstrates the ecosystem's health. A variety of birds, mammals, and reptiles are sighted daily by forest management workers.  

The Otorongos 

One of the most symbolic animal species in the Peruvian jungle is the jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest feline on the continent. Commonly known as the otorongo by Peruvians, this animal can reach almost two meters in length and weigh over 120 kilograms. Its yellow-brown fur is covered with rose-shaped spots that allow it to camouflage itself in the dense forest vegetation. 

In Peru, the jaguar population has decreased to 22,000 individuals, and across its range the species has lost 50 per cent of all habitat. As a result, it is now categorized as a near-threatened species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List. They are reclusive by nature and live in increasingly remote areas to avoid contact with humans. This becomes a problem as their habitats disappear due to deforestation and other human activity. 

Madre de Dios has become an exception. Camera traps installed in strategic areas of the Maderacre forest management unit have regularly captured several jaguars living within the area. It is common to find their tracks and residual DNA on the roads crossing the forest. 

two jaguars walk along logging road in Madre de Dios forest
San Diego Wildlife Alliance

According to estimates made by San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, with whom Maderacre has signed a biodiversity monitoring agreement, these forests are home to one of the world’s highest population density of jaguars. “Once, when we were hiking from one camp to another, we saw a group of 20 peccaries making a tremendous fuss and running away from an otorongo who was after them. It all took place without the animals realizing that we were there because of the moment's frenzy,” says Nelson Kroll. 

Several Maderacre team members have experienced similar encounters, some very close to the logging camps. We also saw many jaguar tracks on the roads and trails within the concession, evidence that the felines move freely through the forest management unit.  

A Healthy Ecosystem 

In addition to the jaguars, ocelots, and tapirs, there are over 50 animal species recorded in the forest management unit, including the peccary (Tayassu pecari), the black-faced black spider monkey (Ateles chamek), the large-headed capuchin (Sapajus apella macrocephalus), the red brocket (Mazama americana), the red-and-green macaw (Ara chloropterus), and Cuvier’s toucan (Ramphastos cuvier). 

During our visit, the cameraman had to always be attentive as animals appeared out of nowhere, curious to see whom these visitors entering their territory were. Some, like the monkeys, stayed in the trees when they saw us coming, losing interest in us after a few minutes and continuing on their way.  

One small monkey nearby climbed nimbly up and down the trunk of a palm tree. Noticing that the little monkey was sticking its hands into a hole in the bark, one of Maderacre’s collaborators said, “He is looking for eggs to eat.” But there were no eggs to be found, and after a show of agility and balance, the monkey sought refuge in a taller, leafier tree. 

little monkey on tree branch eatin somethin
FSC / Sebastian Castañeda

“Look, there are the toucans,” exclaimed Luis Ñaña, who is in charge of Forest Management. We looked up to see a flock flying among the trees. They perched on one of the trees for a few minutes, showing off their large beaks and striking plumage that stood out in the sunlight.  

As the day passed, a wide variety of species of different sizes filled the forest with color. Sometimes, we could hear them a few yards away, and we had to move deeper into the forest to see them. 

“We are constantly monitoring biodiversity to better understand the health of the ecosystem. We do this together with global institutions such as the WWF, the San Diego Zoo, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and Perú’s Sernanp (their National Natural Protected Areas Service),” explains Nelson Kroll. This positive impact was verified in 2016, allowing the company to obtain FSC’s Ecosystem Services claim for biodiversity protection.  

Forests provide society with a wide range of benefits, from reliable flows of clean water to productive soil and carbon sequestration; these are known as ecosystem services.  

FSC’s Ecosystem Services Procedure builds on FSC forest management certification by allowing forest managers or owners to make specific, credible claims on how their management activities are contributing to maintaining and/or enhancing various ecosystem services in their forests. 

As we crossed the rivers within the forest concession, we kept an attentive eye out in search of more wildlife. We saw a cayman (Caiman crocodilus) resting on the shore, making the most of the midday sun to warm up, and a few other smaller species difficult to identify in the dark.  

One of the most special places in this forest is the macaw clay lick, discovered a few years ago during monitoring activities. The clay lick is a clay deposit in rainforests where various wildlife gathers around to lick for minerals such as sodium and magnesium. Each species has a schedule for feeding at the clay lick. The first to partake are the parakeets at 4:30 a.m., then the macaws come at around 6:00 a.m., and after that, it’s the primates' turn.

flock of macaws taking flight into sky with trees in background
FSC / Sebastian Castañeda

 A Maderacre team member guided us there with GPS, using a machete to clear a path through the quite dense vegetation until we finally reached the small creek. We camouflaged ourselves using some available branches and waited patiently on the facing bank for the birds to disregard our presence. 

After over an hour of noticing no suspicious movements, the macaws dared to come down from the treetops to feed. It was a marvelous spectacle. There were so many of them that it was as if the clay lick had been covered by a red and blue curtain, and the sound of the flock was a pleasantly deafening roar. They enjoyed that all-inclusive buffet of clay for several minutes, always on the lookout for their natural predators. 

After the flock left, we hiked to the creek. We found several tracks of tapirs and other species, including jaguars. Butterflies abounded, feeding on the mineral salts in the waste left by the mammals, thus completing the virtuous circle of life. This area is of high conservation value, and following FSC standards, it is marked to avoid any activity affecting the fauna. 

Responsible Forest Management 

Maderacre’s 220,000 hectares are distributed in 20 harvesting plots. The area is so large that it covers four river basins and two districts. But only one plot is harvested annually, from which an average of one tree per hectare is extracted.  

Before this extraction, they first identify high conservation values within the units and timber trees. This information is incorporated into the forest management system to avoid or mitigate the impact of operations on these forest areas and the ecosystems within them. 

hands of forest worker holding tape marking an HCV
FSC / Sebastian Castañeda

They also define forestry variables to ensure that timber species are harvested sustainably: minimum cutting diameters, harvesting intensities, and seedling percentages that allow species to survive and continue to fulfill their ecological roles in the ecosystem, among others. 

Peruvian legislation determines specific minimum trunk diameters for harvesting, but the company uses stricter parameters. For example, while the law allows cutting shihuahuacos (also known as cumaru) at 51 centimeters, Maderacre cuts at 75 centimeters, leaving numerous seed trees in the forest.  

Not all timber species are harvested at the same time. Among the over 25 species, four or five are selected each year. For example, in 2022, the company harvested plot number 19, an area of 10,000 hectares, from which it only extracted shihuahuaco, chihuahua, ana caspi, and azúcar huayo. 

During logging operations, areas of high conservation value are fenced to restrict any activity that could affect them. Moreover, during their operations, if loggers find trees with nesting birds, watering holes, clay licks (such as the macaw clay licks), or oxbow lakes, they immediately mark these areas and exclude them.

drone image of Madre de Dios rainforest in Peru
FSC / Sebastian Castañeda

“Maderacre has a very different vision compared to other forestry companies. While it is true that we are dedicated to logging, we also consider ecosystem services as a main resource of the forest, and we take care of them to make it sustainable. Working in an FSC-certified company means having another level of understanding,” says Luis proudly. 

“FSC-certified operations have been generating valuable information and proving that it is one of the most effective forest management systems out there” added Nelson Kroll. “Certification contributes greatly to the conservation of forests and everything they represent and has also allowed us to position ourselves in markets that value this effort. But I believe the most significant thing has been to enable us to better communicate how we work.” 

In a country where illegal logging and deforestation are a constant threat, Maderacre is an example that environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable forestry is possible. Great things can be accomplished when there is a will and commitment.