The sounds of the Missionary Forest

FSC / Emilio White
red yellow and black winged bird perched on branch
FSC / Emilio White
October 18, 2023
Category : Stories

The province of Misiones, located in north-eastern Argentina, is an area favoured by nature. Here we find the Missionary, or Paranaense jungle, part of the ecoregion called the "Atlantic Forest", which extends from the Serra do Mar (Brazil) to the East (Paraguay).  

The ecoregion is characterised by a great variety of trees, plants, and orchids, which have thrived over the centuries. Rainfall is constant throughout the year, which helps maintain the humidity, as well as the various rivers and streams that run through the forest of ancient red earth. These conditions have also been favourable for the development of wildlife, which has made this jungle its home.  

The heavy pressure exerted on its natural resources led to the devastation of more than 90 per cent of the 1.5 million km2 Atlantic Forest. Argentina, the country with the smallest original representation of this ecoregion, now has proportionally the largest area. This is developed exclusively in the province of Misiones, which has almost 50 per cent of the original area that existed before colonisation. 

Today, the Missionary Forest continues to be threatened for similar reasons as in the past, including clearing for agriculture, illegal and indiscriminate timber extraction, and hunting, all of which greatly affect the delicate balance of the ecosystem, putting the lack of these resources at serious risk for the future. 

shot of trees in Argentinian jungle
FSC / Emilio White

Arauco's forests 

Arauco is the main forestry company in the province of Misiones. They have more than 218,000 hectares certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) since 2015. These are divided in equal proportions between native forest (consisting of large conservation blocks and connected areas) and productive forest (pine and eucalyptus plantations), which are managed according to the FSC Forest Stewardship Standard of Argentina.  

"Arauco's conservation areas are integrated into the heritage and landscape. That is the concept we have regarding forest management. The lakes and forest plantations are interconnected and separated by strips of native forest used by the fauna between one block and another. We co-ordinate all research activities and the monitoring of flora and fauna and permanently study the impact of the operations on the rest of the conservation areas," says Pablo Cortez, Head of Arauco's Environment and Communities Area. 

"The contribution to biodiversity conservation of certified companies is very significant because it allows the existence of natural areas in a very good state of conservation. In the case of Arauco, they conserve almost half of their heritage in the province of Misiones, helping to maintain native forests for future generations," says Esteban Carabelli, Director of FSC Argentina. 

little angry monkey in a tree
FSC / Emilio White

The strategic location of Arauco's native forest areas in the north of Misiones province contributes to the conservation of large mammals and other important species. A particular case is that of the San Jorge reserve (16,500 hectares of highly biodiverse and conserved Paranaense jungle between the Iguazú National Park and the Urugua-í Provincial Park, thus widening and enriching an especially important biodiversity corridor for species with a high demand for territory and one of the most important conservation areas in Argentina. 

"FSC forest management certification allows us to demonstrate that well-managed forests are allies of conservation and in turn sustain indicators in different areas such as economic, social, and environmental, bringing the entire operation to the highest standards," added Pablo Cortez. 

Pink wood and monkey ladders 

We had the opportunity to learn first-hand about Arauco's efforts to contribute to the preservation of biodiversity in the San Jorge Reserve. The first thing that caught our attention was a majestic tree that stood out among the others for its height and beautiful canopy. At the foot of this tree, we found a branch that had fallen naturally, and its wood was an intense pink colour, almost as if it were a fresh salmon fillet.  

"This is a peroba rosa  (Aspidosperma polyneuron), declared to be a natural monument of the province of Misiones: its extraction and commercialisation is prohibited. The specimens reach 30-40 metres in height and 1.60 metres in diameter; there are some trees that are more than 400 years old", says Emilio White, a professional photographer who has travelled through this jungle like no-one else. 

aerial shot of a peroba rosa tree in Argentina forest
FSC / Emilio White

Around the peroba rosa tree we also found several palm trees that were none other than the famous palmiteiros or juçara (Euterpe edulis) trees, another endemic species. It looked like a family, the big tree (peroba rosa) and some small ones accompanying it. The heart or crown of the upper stem of the palmiteiro is used for the preparation of culinary dishes, which has led to an overexploitation in the region. 

The palmiteiro is a species that reaches 18 metres in height and bears fruit between May and September, just when others are scarce, becoming a vital source of food for the fauna of the area. Each specimen can produce between 1,500 and 4,800 fruits annually, which attracts many birds such as the scaly-headed parrot (Pionus maximiliani), the yacutinga or black-fronted piping guan (Pipile jacutinga), the spot-billed toucanet (Seledidera maculirostris) and mammals, as well as their predators. 

Among the dense vegetation of the forest, we were struck by some extremely wide and not very thick vines that connected some trees like winding aerial roads. These are known as "monkey ladders" (Bauhinia sp.). In this case, it was a climbing plant, which was anchored in the ground hundreds of years ago and then slowly grew upwards until it overpowered the trunk, which allowed it to ascend in search of more sunlight.  

As we looked closely at the ground it was evident that several animals had come to feed. We found tracks of collared peccaries (Tayassu tajacu) and ring-tailed coatis (Nasua nasua) as well as their excretions, which contribute to the distribution of the palmiteiro seeds. And, as we were about to resume our tour, we heard the branches of the adjoining trees shaking loudly. A troop of tufted capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) had arrived to feed. It was quite a sight to see them swing to the fruit and then continue on their way.  

Dancing birds and sorcerers' houses 

The deeper we went into the missionary jungle, the more we were amazed by its biodiversity. We came across some enormous trees with hollow trunks, as if an army of termites had eaten them away. Such was their size that it gave the impression of being the house of a sorcerer or a magical portal to another dimension. One of them had traces of being used as a den by a terrestrial animal. 

A few metres ahead Emilio made us stop suddenly. "There are some dancing birds, swallow-tailed manakins (Chiroxiphia caudata), on that branch", he told us in a low voice. And so, without planning it, we witnessed a marvel of nature: the courtship dance of these native birds of the Atlantic forest.  

The dancers (males), with their blue, black and red plumage, showed us all their agility, rhythm, and talent, as they danced and flapped their wings to impress a female of their species (green plumage). Also, at another point we saw the band-tailed manakin (Pipra fasciicauda). The warm colours of their plumage are a beautiful sight to behold. Like the blue manakins, these are also skilled dancers, always for amorous purposes. 

black and blue bird with little red cap perches on branch
FSC / Emilio White

We also came across some ferns that grew several metres above the ground. They were tree ferns (Cyathea atrovirens) that looked like part of the scenery of a dinosaur film. They can reach up to 5 metres in height and their 15-centimetre trunk is covered with thorns as a defence mechanism. Its bipinnate and triangular leaves reach 2 metres in length.  

When we had gone deeper into the forest, we had the opportunity to observe and listen to the chirping of other bird species such as the maroon-bellied parakeet (Pyrrhura frontalis), the toco toucan or giant toucan (Ramphastos toco), the rusty-margined guan (Penelope superciliaris), as well as the green-crowned plovercrest hummingbird (Stephanoxis lalandi) and the red-breasted or green-billed toucan (Ramphastos dicolorus), these last birds all endemic to the region. A dream place for any ornithologist.  

"Currently, any company employee can enter the report of the species they saw, as well as the time and exact location. This information is added to the database where we have recorded our own monitoring and that of the researchers working in our forests," said Pablo Cortez. 

Finally, we heard whistling sounds from deep in the jungle. Emilio White warned us that this was the song of the pavonine cuckoo (Dromococcyx pavoninus), a bird that is closely related to Guaraní mythology. Legend has it that there is a goblin of the same name that attracts children during siesta time, when their parents are resting, and they escape to play in the mountains. The goblin uses his whistle, which emits a sound similar to that of this species of bird, to lead them further and further away until they get lost in the forest.  

The roar of the yaguareté 

The jaguar, known locally as the yaguareté, is the largest feline of Latin America; displaced in most of Argentina, it is still present in the north of the province of Misiones. The main threats to them are the disappearance of their habitat and poaching. However, in Arauco's FSC-certified conservation forests, they have found an area where they are protected, which has helped the species to thrive. 

This improvement has been recorded by the specialists of the Yaguareté Project, who have been studying the status of the species' population in Misiones for twenty years. "Several areas of Arauco's forests are located in strategic sites. This contributes to maintaining a significant jaguar population for the conservation of the species. It is one of the few places where we already know that it has been recovering," said Agustín Paviolo, Yaguareté Project Coordinator. 

jaguar caught on a camera trap in midnight forest in Argentina
FSC / Emilio White

"Wildlife monitoring shows that the populations are increasing. In the case of the jaguar, it was believed that there were 30 individuals in the entire province at the beginning of 2000 and today it is estimated that there are around 100 specimens," added Pablo Cortez. The company supports the work of the Yaguareté Project and uses the scientific information gathered in its forest management activities. 

Around noon, on one of the tours, we spotted a multicoloured perch on the side of the road. The butterflies were indicating to us that there were fresh excreta on which they were feeding to subsist. Upon closer examination, it corresponded to a jaguar. We decided to continue without making too much noise and, about 100 metres away, we found some bone fragments that the animal had not been able to digest and preferred to eliminate, as cats do with balls of fluff. 

And, as we turned around, we saw the jaguar's claw marks on a dry log that led to a wildlife corridor. It was as if a razor sharpener had been repeatedly testing the cutting edge of the blades. Some grooves were deep, others a little shallower, but all firmly made. The male jaguar had marked his territory, he wanted everyone to know that he was out there, on the prowl, waiting for the sun to go down to hunt.  

As the temperature began to drop and we continued walking through the reserve, we were startled by a hoarse roar a few metres away from us. "That's a jaguar," Emilio told us in surprise, "It's very, very close, hidden in the vegetation," added the Arauco park rangers who accompanied us. We were all silent, waiting… and we heard it again, but now a little further away. Apparently, this time it preferred to follow another path and not follow ours. 

On our way out of the forest, imagining that we had seen all its wonders, we had to stop the truck to appreciate the fresh tracks of a female jaguar and her cubs, which were recorded in the mud of the road between the trees. Undoubtedly, a perfect ending for this visit to the missionary jungle, a confirmation that responsible forest management under FSC standards contributes to the conservation of biodiversity.