Ecuadorian brothers fight to save reserve


Rodrigo Paz feeding antpittas. (Photo by Vinicio Paz)

In Ecuador’s Chocó cloud forest, Ángel Paz, co-owner of a private reserve called Refugio Paz de las Aves, ventures into the woods each day to call in wild birds of the rare antpitta (Grallariidae) species. Sometimes he gets no response. But surprisingly often, at least one of a number of antpittas he has come to know flutters into view. The birds respond to the names he has given them: María (Grallaria gigantea); Willi (Grallaria flavotincta); Susana y José (Grallaria alleni); Shakira and her son Junior Piqué (Grallaricula flavirostris); and Andreíta (Grallaria ruficapilla).

When that happens, Ángel, who has come to be known as “the Antpitta man,” hand-feeds the birds small quantities of cut up worms as a reward for appearing.

Ángel, 58, and his brother Rodrigo, 52, created the 49-hectare (121-acre) private refuge in 2005 as a family business catering to birders. They and their larger family had previously used the property for crop and dairy farming as well as logging. The refuge is located in the rural parish of Nanegalito, a popular center of ecotourism and natural-adventure activity in the Ecuadorian Chocó, less than two hours northwest of Quito.

Part of a bioregion running from Panama to Peru, the Ecuadorian Chocó ranges in elevation from 360 to 4,480 meters above sea level and is a biodiversity hotbed, with mammal, reptile, bird and amphibian species numbering 270, 210, 200 and 130, respectively, experts say.

Among the native mammal species are the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata), pacarana (Dinomys branickii), olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) and oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus).

The region draws birders from countries around the world, and for no small number of them Refugio Paz is a prized attraction. Experts say it embodies an important model for local tourism development in the Ecuadorian Chocó, one that generates income for families while boosting woodland conservation in a crucial region of privately owned land.

“Private conservation efforts are extremely important, since there are no large holdings [in the Ecuadorian Chocó] that are protected by the government,” says Elisa Bonaccorso, head of the ecology department at the University of San Francisco of Quito. “Since many of these private areas depend on tourism income, and many of their owners have a strong interest in conservation, protection of the woodland is, in effect, achieved.”

Bonaccorso adds that some of the tourism income goes to members of local communities who work in the private conservation areas, which tends to reduce the pressure for logging, mining and conversion of land to agriculture.

The refuge, whose name—in English, Peace Refuge for Birds—plays on the Paz family surname, offers visitors the opportunity to view a wide variety of species. Arguably the star attraction for birders are the normally difficult-to-see antpittas, which hunt ants and other insects—occasionally trailing mammals such as deer and spectacled bears to do so as these animals disturb the soil and vegetation while moving through the forest. But many other birds can be observed as well, including dark-backed wood quail (Odontophorus melanonotus), rufous-breasted antthrush (Formicarius rufipectus) and the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus), whose males are known for their intense red plumage and elaborate mating displays.

The refuge has accommodations for six overnight guests and, with day visitors included, can make its trail system available to 15 to 20 people a day. It has planted fruit trees that serve as supplemental food sources for species such as the sickle-winged guan (Chamaepetes goudotii), the plate-billed mountain toucan (Andigena laminirostris) and the red-headed barbet (Eubucco bourcierii).

“From the macro point of view of conservation and nature tourism, the refuge is of great importance,” says Richard Parsons, owner of the Bellavista Cloud Forest ecolodge, which is also located in the Ecuadorian Chocó. “It is one of the places that first jumps to the thoughts of nature-tourism lovers.”

Adds Parsons, whose ecolodge occupies the first private reserve established within Ecuador’s National Protected Areas System: “Peace Refuge for Birds is a must-see destination and has a double effect because it encourages people to preserve the region.”

Despite its popularity among birders and its contribution to the cause of Chocó conservation, however, the Peace Refuge for Birds could soon disappear. Following the death last year of Ángel’s mother, the owner of the property, seven of her nine children—all but Ángel and Rodrigo—decided to sell the land for US$200,000 and distribute the proceeds among all nine siblings in equal shares.

To prevent that outcome, Ángel and Rodrigo signed an agreement in April to buy the property and used their savings and a GoFundMe campaign to make a $45,000 down payment. The agreement stipulates that if they have not raised the remaining $155,000 needed to purchase the property by Aug. 8—which they are attempting to do through their ongoing GoFundMe effort—the property will be offered to other would-be buyers. As of June 29, their GoFundMe page reported contributions of $107,955.

If the brothers can’t buy the land, the property will likely be sold to a dairy farm operator, which would mean deforestation of its 20 hectares (49 acres) of primary and secondary forest—including the five-hectare (12-acre) orchard Ángel planted. If, on the other hand, the brothers acquire the land, they plan to reforest its former pasture until the property is once again 100% woodland.

Ángel’s son Vinicio Paz, 32, says that if it weren’t for his father and his uncle Rodrigo, much more of their land would have been deforested already. “With the exception of Rodrígo, my uncles are not dedicated to ecotourism,” Vinicio said as he guided a visitor around the property recently. “Right there, where we see birds, there are 10 or 12 hectares [25 to 30 acres] of primary forest that my father and my uncle [Rodrigo] did not want their other brothers to cut. So we agreed to pay them a monthly amount [US$300] to protect the woodland that remained, and that’s how it has been for the last 17 years. And now we don’t want to see the disappearance of all this, which has been my Dad’s dream but is a genuine effort to conserve the forest.”

Experts say conversion of the reserve to pasture would be a blow to small-scale private conservation in northwest Pichincha province. There, they say, ecotourism business and jobs in recent years have countered pressure from loggers and encroaching dairy operations.

“Today these small reserves are a valuable contribution to conservation because they act as connectors to bigger private reserves,” says biologist Juan Freile, a bird researcher, author and guide. “If the owners of these reserves had not shifted away from a subsistence economic model based on extraction of natural resources, instead of a forest corridor there would be a corridor of cattle pasture.”

Indeed, the refuge is near a larger, privately owned ecotourism site—Parsons’ 700-hectare (1,730-acre) Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge and Reserve. And beyond that, in turn, lies the even bigger 4,000-hectare (9,900-acre) Mindo Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve, which is also privately owned.

In a reflection of the ecological importance of the Ecuadorian Chocó and its jigsaw puzzle of private reserves, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) designated the 286,805-hectare (708,710-acre) region a Biosphere Reserve in 2018.

The prospect of land-use conversion from forest to pasture haunts Ángel, who never went to high school because of his family’s economic needs but who, as an adult, has grown knowledgeable about—and closely connected to—the flora and fauna of northwest Pichincha province. “I’ve cried for the antpittas,” he says. “We are known throughout the world for these birds, and this is their home. We want to conserve this woodland and reforest the parts that were turned into pasture. We want to protect nature, the flora and the fauna.”

Many of the small private reserves in the area belong to local people with rural roots and little formal education, but who interact regularly with trained researchers drawn to the region’s biodiversity riches.

Species-rich region

Nanegalito alone is home to an extraordinary variety of birds. According to a 2020-30 land-use plan for the parish, these include: the torrent duck (Merganetta armata), fasciated tiger heron (Tigrisoma fasciatum), black-and-chestnut eagle (Spizaetus isidori), crested guan (Penelope Purpurascens), Colombian screech-owl (Megascops colombianus), oilbird (Steatornis caripensis), empress brilliant (Heliodoxa imperatrix), velvet-purple coronet (Boissonneaua jardini), black-breasted puffleg (Eriocnemis nigrivestis) and tanager finch (Oreothraupis arremonops).

From a young age Ángel Paz lived in close contact with nature—initially on land his family farmed in Baños de Agua Santa, which is located in central Ecuador, on the slopes of the Tungurahua volcano. His family moved to Nanegalito in 1982, when he was 18, in search of better economic opportunities. Ángel, his parents and his six brothers and two sisters made their living cutting timber, raising livestock and growing crops for the owner of the land. But his mother eventually purchased the property, using money she had inherited. As relatively lucrative fine-wood timber grew scarcer due to overcutting, the family began growing tamarillo (Solanum betaceum), naranjilla (Solanum quitoense) and blackberry (Rubus ulmifolius), with timber work becoming a sideline.

The idea to start a private reserve grew out of a trip that Ángel and his son Vinicio took to the Bellavista Forest Reserve and Lodge to sell berries. There, they saw people using binoculars to observe birds, and in the lodge they noticed a photo of an Andean cock-of-the-rock. Ángel met Parsons and struck up a conversation with him, learning how the Chocó’s extraordinary biodiversity was becoming a powerful draw for birdwatchers and other ecotourists.

Parsons later brought the Paz family its first birdwatcher, a Bellavista guest who wanted to see an Andean cock-of-the-rock. Eventually, more tourists began trickling in to see this and other birds—especially antpittas. “Ángel invited me to see how he called antpittas, species that are normally very difficult to see,” says Parsons, who began bringing tourists regularly to the Paz farm. “He started to call them and practically converse with them. Nobody had managed to do that. It was an incredible experience, absolutely special and very valuable.”

Initially, a difficult move

Ángel’s interest in birds nearly cost him his marriage. During a period of three months before starting the refuge he went into the woods every morning at 5:30 a.m. and returned at 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. for breakfast. When he was outside looking for birds and feeding them, his wife and children did all the work on the farm, starting every day at 6:30 a.m.

This did not make him popular at home. He says that when his wife María scolded him for not helping, he replied: “Don’t get mad. I am with my little friend. She is a little bird with long legs and a tiny body.” He was referring to a giant antpitta he had come across in the forest and had begun following and giving small worm snacks, taking care not to make her dependent on him as a major food source.

As he established a relationship with the bird, he called her María, and the pair attracted growing numbers of tourists interested in seeing a member of the elusive antpitta species and, even more so, in witnessing Ángel’s bond with the bird. In subsequent years Ángel befriended more birds, with members of five antpitta species growing comfortable enough to take cut-worm snacks directly from his hand.

With little more than a month to go before Ángel and Rodrigo Paz must raise enough money for the purchase of their land or see the property sold, the pair are redoubling their appeals for support. “The refuge for me is an honor,” Ángel says. “I want to continue inspiring people around the world to care for nature and not cut down what little is left of our forests. In the refuge the birds fly free and happy, and I fly with them. We can’t let the refuge and the home of antpittas be destroyed.”

- Mercedes Alvaro

In the index: An Andean cock-of-the-rock [Rupicola peruvianus]. (Photo by Vinicio Paz)

Elisa Bonaccorso
Director of master's program in ecology
University of San Francisco de Quito
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 297-1700
Juan Freile
Biologist and researcher
Quito, Ecuador
Richard Parsons
Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve and Lodge
Tandayapa, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 361-3447
Ángel y Vinicio Paz
Refugio Paz de las Aves
Instagram: @pazdelasaves
Nanegalito, Ecuador
Tel: +(593 98) 725-3674