Vale do Bugio: Tourism as a Tool to Protect Private Ecosystems

Our weekend visit to Vale do Bugio, Valley of the Howler Monkeys, didn't yield any non-human primates. But it did get me thinking about ecotourism, the difference between private and public ecosystems, and bloated dead bats.

It all started when Duca, Lygia and I loaded into the rusty truck and bumped down two hours of red-dirt roads to arrive here at Vale do Bugio.

One reason we'd come here was because, as Duca told us, "The place is gorgeous!" The second reason was practical. Duca and Lygia were hoping to strike up a partnership with the landowner to use this primary-forest reserve as a tourism destination.

This sign, if you couldn't tell, says, "Vale do Bugio," meaning "Valley of the Howler Monkeys." We didn't see any howlers, but we did see some potential infrastructure improvements!

As a comparison, here is the well-signed entrance to Taboco, the small town near Quinta do Sol (the forest reserve where I live).

Duca and Lygia are on a mission to bring ecotourism to Taboco. Ecotourism is one of the conservation strategies championed by the Wildlife Conservation Society. When practiced by the community, with local guides and homestays, tourism provides a source of income that consumes fewer natural resources than, say, cattle ranching, the most common occupation in this region.

Ecotourism also helps build a conservation ethic by increasing the value placed on intact ecosystems by local communities. When customers will pay to see birds in the primary forest, that forest becomes more to the landowner than a waste of space where pasture could be. When tourists stay at a farm in hopes of sighting an ocelot, the farm's owner has a good reason not to shoot that ocelot, even if it does steal chickens from time to time.

An aside: during my interviews with farmers, I have heard families complain of chicken-stealing ocelots, duck-killing foxes, dog-strangling anaconda, garden-wrecking tapir, and chick-grabbing hawks. These wild species become less of an economic burden when they "pay their way" and provide an additional source of income through tourists.

The private driveway to Vale do Bugio could also use some work. Our truck lurched over high berms and listed sideways in eroded tracks. We decided that tourist groups would walk up the driveway as an introductory hike, while an intrepid driver crawled behind them in the four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Ecotourism opens the door for environmental education. Already, as outreach coordinator for WCS, Duca has spoken with dozens of families about lower-impact farming methods, non-lethal techniques for managing wildlife damage (such as electric fences to keep tapir out of manioc fields), and skills to help community-members guide tourists on hikes and host them as overnight guests.

Vale do Bugio has a few simple accommodations already in place, like this stand-alone bedroom, but it will take a huge amount of work if Duca and Lygia decide to turn the place into an ecotourism attraction. Signs, road grading, trail maintenance, handrails, maps, bedding, kitchen and bathroom improvements, and potable water are all on the list. 

During my time in Brazil, I have been struck at how precious little public land exists here. Magnificent waterfalls, towering cliffs, expansive views, ancient cave drawings, old-growth forest, and endangered-species habitat lie entirely within fenced, private land. Only a handful of state and national parks dot the massive expanse of Cerrado.

Lygia blows on a dandelion while we tour the property. I told her to make a wish, but she has a different legend for dandelions. If you blow all the seeds off in one breath, it means you're going to get married.

What's wrong with a lack of public land?

For one, nature on private land inaccessible to nearly everyone: city-dwellers, foreigners, scientists, and anyone without the means to own rural property.

For another, private nature is vulnerable to the whims of a single owner. I don't mean to imply that ecosystems on public land are secure: cattle grazing on Bureau of Land Management desert, logging in US National Forests, damming of the Colorado River, mining uranium near the Grand Canyon, and harvesting solar energy at Ivanpah are enough to dissuade me of that optimistic notion. Yet public lands are accountable to a large and slow-moving bureaucracy, with at least some measure of public input and transparency. An ecosystem on private land, on the other hand, can be extinguished overnight without making any headlines (or should I say, any Facebook statuses.)

Lygia found this grasshopper with short, sassy antennae.

Now, there is one saving grace for the semi-deciduous forests of the Cerrado. By federal law, Brazil mandates that a minimum of 20% of every parcel of land in this region must be covered by forest. Some landowners, like Duca, choose to retain nearly 100% of their land in forest cover. The more ambitious cattlemen tend to deforest right down to the 20% limit. The leftover fragments of forest are called reservas, reserves. There is some political push to have the law eliminated. From the other side, Duca and other local scientists have lobbied the government to increase the reserve percentage to 100%, effectively outlawing further deforestation in the Cerrado. Unsurprisingly, neither side has made headway, and the limit remains 20%.

Duca and Lygia cross a creek to begin hiking the Trilha da Fenda, the Gap Trail. You'll see why it's called that in a moment.

Community-based ecotourism is Duca and Lygia's vision for opening the Cerrado to the world, and opening the minds of local landowners to conservation.

Last week, Lygia was invited to a private meeting with the mayor of Corguinho (arranged over a piece of beef at the Lasso Club Party, where else?) about making the municipality more inviting for tourism. Her pitch was so successful, she was then invited to discuss benefits and needs with the state tourism secretary in the capital, Campo Grande. These things move slowly, and only thanks to a lot of hard work by everyone involved, but it seems that Duca and Lygia may be making history here in this corner of the Cerrado -- for both wild organisms and human livelihoods.

Enticing botanical oddities lined the steep, slippery path. Unfortunately, a handrail did not. (But now, thanks to Lygia's lobbying, a plan is in the works.)

Enough abstract scheming. Let me take you to the Fenda, the Gap, the most magical slot-canyon I have ever experienced. (And if you know slot canyons, you know they are a magical bunch.)

The stunning, moss-coated slot canyon at the end of the trail.

From my journal entry:

Saturday, August 5, 2017. This morning we hiked along a clear mountain stream that led us back into a water-carved, sandstone canyon. The walls glistened with eerie moss, all the way up. I estimate 50 feet. In the spirit of Humboldt, I eyeballed some measurements. It took 18 seconds for a fluttering leaf to fall from the top edge of the canyon to the bottom, and only 2 seconds for a fat droplet of rain.

The canyon soon stooped underwater. We swam up to our necks, scrambled over boulders, and noted the odor of bat droppings. "The stream begins in a cave full of bat poop," Duca told us. "Don't drink the water!" As if I was tempted? 

The canyon floor soon dipped underwater, but that didn't stop us.

Then Lygia, who was leading us, came sloshing back and whooping in fear. "A very, very, very, very, very, very--" a very what? we thought as she yelled --"very, very, very, big, big, big SNAKE!" (I realized in this moment the advantage of Portuguese, a language in which the noun comes before the adjective.) We craned our necks around a bend in the canyon to see a massive rattlesnake curled on a cool, damp rock. Unlike Lygia, the snake was calm. She didn't rattle or raise her head. I estimate she was 4.5 feet long and 4 inches in diameter. Needless to say, we turned back. There is something about being wedged deep in a slot that makes fooling with a venomous snake even less appealing than usual.

As we swam back with some urgency, Lygia noticed a decomposing lump on the rock ledge. "Is this a dead bat?" she asked. I peered at the bloated ball and confirmed. I'd noticed similar lumps and suspected they might be carcasses, but in the dim light I'd dismissed them as leaves. Now that I paid closer attention, I counted seven dead bats in all. Some were bleached skeletons, discernable by the five slender bones fanning outward to support a long-gone wing. Others were bloated and floating bodies. We were all grossed out, knowing bats carry such lovely zoonoses as ebola, rabies, nipah, and hendra.

We rinsed off in the clean stream at the trailhead and applied Purell to our open cuts. Not exactly Biohazard Level 3, but it was all we could do before a picnic lunch in the bed of the truck.

Back at the truck, we hung most of our clothes on branches to dry out while we ate a picnic lunch of oranges, sweet rolls, white cheese, and the ubiquitous terere (communal yerba-mate tea with ice water).

A tatu, or armadillo, eyed us warily from the roadside grass. The creature is a ball of armor with legs.

For a ball of armor, it sure has a cute face!

Mom's Daily Bird

White woodpecker. Pica-pay-branco. Notice that sky-blue eye in the yellow face patch. If you think animals don't make art, consider the plumage of a male bird, meticulously crafted over millennia by the aesthetic tastes of females.

Dad's Daily Bug

It's a fly! It's a moth! It's a wrought-iron window pane with antennae! (Honestly, I have no idea what it is. But it's pretty, and it landed on Duca's hat.)