Inside Bolivia’s Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), conservationists from Asociación Armonía rigged up a network of nine camera traps and 15 audio recorders. They were seeking out the horned curassow (Pauxi unicornis), or pilisto, as the Indigenous Yuracaré people call the bird.
TIPNIS is one of just three protected areas, all in Bolivia, where this critically endangered species has been recorded. For Asociación Armonía, this survey was just part of a wider effort in collaboration with local communities to protect Bolivia’s areas of natural beauty and its wildlife.
“This bird is found in only three parts of Bolivia: in Amboró National Park, Carrasco National Park and the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory and adjacent areas,” says Tjalle Boorsma, director of Asociación Armonía’s conservation program. “Studies were carried out by Armonía’s director, Rodrigo Soria, in the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Communal Lands, in Madidi National Park, and in the rainforest areas in foothill regions where it [was thought to] live, but it was not found there.”
The results of the camera and audio survey in TIPNIS have been encouraging for the conservation of horned curassow, since TIPNIS has long been where the highest population density of the species has been found, Boorsma says. “The area is truly the last refuge of habitat in good condition for this species.”
Search for a bird endemic to Bolivia
The horned curassow is a very difficult species to record, Boorsma says. Because of this, it was decided that camera traps and audio recorders would be the best option for the TIPNIS survey, since “during the breeding season, the male pilisto produces a very deep sound that can be heard from far away.”
“We installed the recorders and camera traps in August 2021, and removed them three months later. When we analyzed the images, we found that 45% of the camera traps — that is, four of them — contained recordings of the pilisto,” Boorsma says.
Further analysis of the images allowed the team to identify at least 17 individual curassows. They did this by measuring the distance between beak and crest to determine if the birds were different individuals.
“Considering that we only installed nine camera traps and that [with these] we were able to detect [the presence of the bird] in 45% of them, it means that, hypothetically, if we were to increase the number of camera traps, there is a high probability of recording many more individuals in this area,” Boorsma says.
He adds that “this is an indicator of the fact that there is a sizeable population in the area. Furthermore, when we analyze satellite images of the area, we can see that there is an area of vast and continuous forest that has the characteristics that this species needs for its natural habitat.”
The team is still analyzing the data gleaned from the audio recorders, as they don’t have an automated process to identify distinct species’ birdsong. As such, they have to manually review every hour of audio gathered by the 15 recorders over the course of three months.
“At the moment we are still listening to the audio recordings. I think that we also need to evaluate what the best method for identifying Pauxi unicornis is,” Boorsma says. “With good monitoring methodology, we can determine the abundance of the species, but we would also like to know the extent of the distribution of the horned curassow and where we should focus our conservation efforts.”
Asociación Armonía and BirdLife International drew up an According to the action plan for the horned curassow’s conservation back in 2007. At the time, they determined that this endemic Bolivian bird lived at elevations of 400-1,400 meters (1,300-4,600 feet) in the Andean foothills where the three protected areas are located.
The plan also notes that because the species has become the emblem of Amboró National Park, its protection could play an important role in promoting ecotourism activities benefiting both the protected areas and nearby local communities.
The action plan also describes the horned curassow as playing “an important role in the ecological functionality of tropical forests, being considered one of the most important seed dispersers, thereby contributing to the population dynamics of many plant species.”
Working with Indigenous communities
The horned curassow study also featured the participation of the Indigenous communities living inside TIPNIS.
“We worked together with the Yuracaré Indigenous communities for this study on the presence and absence of Pauxi unicornis. We started in 2019,” says Teodoro Camacho, Asociación Armonía’s assistant coordinator.
Camacho notes that this is the latest survey of the horned curassow by Asociación Armonía, which previously carried out studies in Amboró and Carrasco national parks. “Armonía started studying this species 15 years ago, and I got involved in 2017,” he says.
The action plan details how “this species was practically unknown until 1980, when more ornithological studies started to be carried out in Amboró National Park,” with the research then expanding to Carrasco National Park in the next decade. The plan says the studies that were carried out in the two areas revealed “the habitat, altitudinal range, diet, and breeding season preferences” of the species.
“I was the person in charge of coordinating our study with the five [Indigenous communities] with whom we worked as well as consulting them on the project we were planning to carry out,” Camacho says about his work in TIPNIS.
To spread the word and inform the local communities about the project, the team held assemblies in each community, led by sociologist Daniela Aguirre. These assemblies offered an opportunity not only to explain the scientific part of the research into the horned curassow, but to also communicate Asociación Armonía’s intention to work with the Indigenous communities and commit to delivering the results of the study back to them.
Camacho says members from four of the Yuracaré Indigenous communities actively participated in the project. “There were people from each community who were local guides or accompanied us on our expeditions. They also learned how to use the equipment that we installed, such as camera traps and audio recorders.”
The camera traps recorded the presence of the bird in two of these communities. “That does not mean to say, however, that it is not to be found in the other two areas,” Camacho says. “This is what happens when the gear is used in the field for only three months, and that’s why I think that we need to broaden the study.”
He adds that Asociación Armonía also held a workshop after the camera traps were collected, which focused on addressing the needs of each community, as well as exploring the possibility of carrying out conservation projects that also benefit the local Indigenous communities.
“I was very pleased with the reception we had in the Indigenous communities and we also did not expect such good results from a species in such a critical situation,” Camacho says.
The earlier surveys in the Amboró and Carrasco national parks didn’t use camera traps or audio equipment. Instead, the monitoring was carried out via direct observation.
In TIPNIS, the camera traps yielded up images of more than just horned curassows. They also captured shots of jaguars (Panthera onca), tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) and other wildlife.
“We found evidence of bird species that we didn’t think lived in the region. The results have been very interesting,” Boorsma says.
As for the threats that the horned curassow faces, the greatest danger is the loss of its habitat, Boorsma says. This is driven primarily by the constant encroachment of agriculture into the bird’s range. Hunting is also a key threat, as this large, land-dwelling bird is often killed for food.
“When the habitat is severely disturbed, the birds are the first ones to leave the area,” Boorsma says. “If you come across a forest that looks like it’s in very good condition, because there are big trees, if there are none of these birds then you know that the area has been disturbed by human activity, that they are entering the area and hunting this species.”
The 2007 conservation action plan notes that all 15 curassow species are only found in the Americas and that they’re a source of animal protein for human consumption. “The larger species of the curassows (from the Crax, Pauxi, and Mitu genera) are the most sensitive due to their slow reproductive cycle and their need for more intact habitats,” the plan says.
“We have to work closely with the Indigenous communities,” Boorsma says, “and that’s why the social impact study was very clear, because we already know where the communities want to go with it and what they want to do in the protected area.”
He says promoting sustainable farming models such as shade-grown coffee or cacao is one option for working with the communities to conserve the ecosystem. Another is to promote ecotourism in the area.
Boorsma says the images that his team captured on the camera traps have allowed them to identify the areas where the largest numbers of horned curassows live. This knowledge opens up the possibility of planning routes for observing the bird.
“Teodoro and I are going to visit one of these communities on the Global Big Day” — an international birding event — “which will be held in October, to try to record the Pauxi unicornis and evaluate the feasibility of a birdwatching project,” Boorsma say