Unfortunately, this is the reality of many areas in the Atlantic Forest designed to protect biodiversity, especially on the Paraguayan side. In this challenging scenario, Smithsonian scientists and researchers from Itaipu Binacional, the second-largest hydroelectric power company in the world, co-owned by Brazil and Paraguay, have been working together since 2017 to promote Atlantic Forest conservation. In Paraguay, where only 3% of the Atlantic Forest is under some level of protection, Itaipu Binacional fully manages eight protected areas that play a key role in biodiversity conservation.
Many projects have been developed from the Smithsonian-Itaipu Binacional partnership – including one where the bare-throated bellbird crossed my path for a second time. This project aimed to identify ecological corridors, areas where forest conservation or restoration could improve the movement and survival of many species.
Initially, we planned to visit the forest to support the identification of corridors. However, it was early 2020 and we were all caught off guard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, we carried out the study remotely, based on information made available in biodiversity databases – information systems that store data on the location of species and/or biological aspects through the collaboration of many researchers, organizations or even citizens. The bare-throated bellbird was among the 15 species whose data would guide the identification of corridors. The species was selected because it is endangered in Paraguay, it was elected the national bird, and it has an important ecological role in dispersing seeds.
After a few months of compiling species records from camera traps, mist nets, point count and other sampling techniques, as well as data related to weather and land use, we decided to apply a methodology known as habitat suitability modeling. From this approach, we identified and quantified the main environmental elements present in the landscapes where the species are found, such as temperature, altitude, and the presence of forest. We then mapped these favorable conditions throughout the study area. It was the first time anyone applied this method to identify corridors in the Paraguayan Atlantic Forest. With these maps, we had a good hypothesis of how species are affected by the environment. Then, we could simulate how they might be moving through the study region.
If we could identify the paths animals would most likely take, we could indicate which routes should be protected. In this way, we could essentially indicate the “bridges” (ecological corridors) to be added between the “islands” (protected areas) in order to maintain healthy, long-term animal populations.
But what about the people who lived and farmed on that land? Or companies working there? We knew that we needed to address the human component as well. Our work would also be the first to include socioeconomic data in the process of identifying and prioritizing those “bridges” between Paraguayan protected areas.