From seed to tree
30 years ago, two young biologists embarked on a research project to study giant otters in Peru. The results of their work are felt even today, in surprising ways.
How it all began
This is exactly what Christof and Elke bravely did, in 1985, at a time when the only source of information about the National Park was a handbook about South America. The two were lucky though, they were in a yet unrecognized wildlife “global treasure chamber” as Christof calls it. They had a near endless variety of animals to examine, over 1,000 species of birds, for example. But it was the giant otters that caught their attention.
“We were heavily impressed by the giant otters and so we went home and we did a literature study as it was at that time because there was no Google and Internet” says Christof.
Five years after their initial trip to Manu National Park, Christof and Elke returned, armed with financial support from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and both with PhD project plans in giant otter behaviour ecology and conservation.
But it was no walk in the park!
Despite all of these challenges, Christof and Elke persevered. Their passion for the research and the love they had for the area kept them going for several years. During those years, they collected data about giant otters and their surrounding ecology, such as the negative impact of tourism, as well as the influence of mercury leaching from illegal gold mining on the otters and nearby communities.
The results of their findings benefitted their PhD theses but also went further by evolving into a long-term plan of action for the conservation of giant otters in the country, that in 2002 came to be known the ‘Andes to Amazon Conservation Program’. This program, established in partnership with Peru’s National Park Authority SERNANP, consists of many tasks such as biological monitoring of the giant otter and other species, surveillance of the protected areas to make sure illegal activities are not taking place and environmental education for tens of thousands of young local community members. Many of these educational activities are still in use today, such as specially developed giant otter colouring books for preschool children, mini-ranger programs, volunteering opportunities for young adults and much more.
...we feel proud because we could put the seed in the ground and from that a big tree has grown and now the system is more stable than it was before" Christof Schenck
Fast forward three decades
For example, the team that makes part of the conservation program, which now encompasses nine protected areas and over 8 million hectares, went from three to over 50 people. Some of the employees in the team have become professional biologists as a result of having gone through the environmental education activities organized through the conservation program, now they proudly protect the areas they learned about their whole lives.