Nestled deep within the Escalera Mountains of Peru lies a piece of paradise that has awaited exploration by scientists for hundreds of years. Until now, scientists have been unable to set foot there due to the severe and isolated terrain: cloud-shrouded cliffs rise out of the Amazonian lowlands far from the main Andean range, crisscrossed with mountain creeks and waterfalls topping out on 7,500-foot ridges.
The region harbors exceptionally diverse plant and animal communities due to its broad altitudinal range, variety of vegetation types, intricate geology, and the longstanding protection of local indigenous peoples. Cordillera Escalera is the ancestral territory of the Kampu Piyawi (Shawi) indigenous peoples. Their rich cultural heritage – including petroglyphs that archaeologists estimate to be between 1,500-3,000 years of age – make it a high-priority area for biological, social, and cultural conservation.
From mid-September to mid-October, a team of 12 Field Museum biologists, geologists, and social scientists carried out a rapid inventory of the region to collect the information needed for effective conservation planning and natural resource management. The inventory was conducted in cooperation with Nature and Culture International, several indigenous organizations, and the Peruvian government.
“We may have seen species new to science, and we were certainly the first scientists in this area,” said Corine Vriesendorp, Field Museum scientist and Director of the Andes-Amazon Program.
The rapid biological inventory team spent a total of two weeks at three different sites in the heart of this remote, roadless wilderness, surveying its geology and biodiversity. At the same time, the social inventory team visited a number of nearby indigenous communities to carry out social assessments that identify local ecological knowledge, social organization, cultural practices, and the aspirations of local residents.
"Despite a history of slavery, forced labor, and other disruptions, the Kampu Piyawi people have maintained a strong cultural, social, and linguistic identity, as well as a strong knowledge base that can serve as a building block for sustainable management,” added Tita Alvira, a Field Museum environmental social scientist who led the social inventory.
Now that both teams have returned from the field, the next phase of work is underway: a 10-day marathon of writing, analyzing data, and sharing it with partners to develop integrated recommendations that will protect the landscape and enhance the quality of life of the local people.
“A rapid inventory, like this one, puts compelling scientific data into the hands of decision makers fast for quick action and solid conservation results,” said Vriesendorp. “In preparation for this inventory, we have worked for months meeting with Kampu Piyawi indigenous leaders to secure their support for the conservation of Cordillera Escalera – and for our rapid inventory in their lands.”
Over the last 13 years, The Field Museum has made three other rapid inventories in isolated mountain ranges in Peru – Cordillera Azul (now protected as a national park), Sierra del Divisor (now a reserved zone), and Kampankis –which together yielded discoveries of several dozen new plant and animal species.
You can retrace the action from beginning to end on Twitter at #FMRI26 and see the team’s live updates from the field!