Pinero: One Solution in a Complicated World
By Lynne E. Miller
Cattle ranching and ecotourism have gotten a
lot of bad press recently. Millions of acres of rain forest in Central
South America have been decimated to provide grazing land to feed the
publics growing demand for beef. Ecotourism, originally developed
in the name of conservation, has often spiraled out of control, doing
more harm than good in the long run. Managed carefully and effectively,
however, cattle ranching and ecotourism can do a great deal to preserve
certain ecosystems. Hato Pinero provides one example.
Hato Pinero is a functioning cattle ranch in the llanos or central
plains of Venezuela. It is owned and operated by the Branger family, led
by Sr. Antonio Julio Branger. The family bought the land, some 200,000
acres of it, about 50 years ago, when land was cheap. Their plan was to
enter the growing beef industry. Indeed, this has become a successful
enterprise. Hato Pinero maintains some 20,000 head of zebu hybrid cattle.
The operation is run the old fashioned way, by cowboys on horseback. This
is an efficient way to move cattle around and it has minimal impact on
the land. However, there is now much more to Hato Pinero than just ranching.
Hato Pinero now features a thriving tourist business and an internationally
known biological station. These ventures were undertaken in the name of
conservation. It all starts with the ecosystem. The llanos landscape is
naturally a mosaic of open grassland, where cattle are grazed, and huge
stretches of forest, home to monkeys, anteaters, large cats, and a great
variety of birds. (It is not rain forest, by the way, but dry forest.)
The region changes dramatically with the seasons. During the wet season,
from about May through October, 200mm of rain falls monthly on the landscape.
This water supports lush vegetation, including heavy foliage on the trees
and thick, green grass. During the other six months of the year, from
November through April, the llanos receives little rain and everything
dries out. The ground becomes hard and cracked; lakes are reduced to tiny
ponds, supporting thirsty wildlife; many trees drop their leaves; and
the grasses turn brown. These are the natural, annual changes of the llanos.
Many years ago, Don Antonio noticed that this natural pattern was being
interrupted. The owners of ranches around him were cutting down the forests,
selling the wood and making room for more cattle. This seemed like good
business to them. It was changing the natural scheme of things, however.
Without the trees, the rains never came. The dry season became longer
and longer, and eventually the land became useless. Don Antonio realized
that if he wanted to maintain his cattle operation on a long-term basis
he would have to preserve the forests.
This was a far-sighted perspective. In those days, conservation was a
word used only by loud gringos with fancy degrees from big universities.
However, Don Antonio had first come to Hato Pinero as a young man and,
in many ways, had grown up there. He had come to treasure the wildlife
of the llanos and wanted to safeguard its future. But there was a problem:
Don Antonio had no sons to carry on this tradition. His family didnt
immediately see the wisdom of conservation. What would happen to Hato
Pinero when he was gone? In order to preserve the land he loved, Don
realized that he would have to make the wildlife lucrative. Enter ecotourism.
At that time, some 15 years ago, ecotourism was a fledgling industry
in South America. Under Don Antonios watchful eye, a tourist house
was built at Hato Pinero. Following a traditional colonial plan, the
was built by local workers using local materials and hand tools. It was
rustic but comfortable. Over the years, Hato Pinero has become a favored
destination of bird watchers from around the world. Having seen how much
is to be gained by tourism, various members of the Branger family have
encouraged Don Antonio to expand the operation, but he steadfastly refuses.
The tourist operation accommodates only 20 people at a time. This reduces
the number of people walking through the forests and the number of trucks
driving the dirt roads. Carefully managed, this enterprise is fulfilling
its goal of preserving this stretch of the llanos.
Tourism at Hato Pinero has become very successful. Thanks to Don Antonios
pioneering efforts in the name of conservation, and because of the regions
varied landscapes, the area supports tremendous diversity of wildlife.
There are no large herd animals as there are in Africa and sightings
jaguar or giant anteater are rare. However, there are over 400 species
of birds, and an avid watcher can easily see 100 different types in a
day. There are parrots and storks, small songbirds and hummers, and many
water birds, such as scarlet ibis and snowy egret, which flock to the
watering holes. Hato Pinero is a haven for both wildlife and nature enthusiasts.
Don Antonio didnt stop there. Not long after the tourism program
became established he realized that, in order to preserve an ecosystem,
one must understand it. Thus, science was brought to Hato Pinero. Under
Don Antonios direction, builders constructed a biological station
which provides comfortable accommodation for 20 scientists, has a library
and an herbarium, and a complete kitchen and dining room, staffed by
people who assume the domestic chores, thus freeing up resident scientists
to pursue their research. It is a first-class operation.
I was one of the first scientists to come to Hato
Pinero. My research with capuchin monkeys began in 1989. Following me
were those who studied the spectacled caiman, the green iguana, the capybara,
the giant anaconda, the strange and interesting hoatzin, and the mysterious
jaguar. In 1995, I returned to Venezuela with the support of the Earthwatch
Institute, which provided volunteer research assistants to help me with
my work. Slowly, we are piecing together how these animals interact with
one another and with the forest that is their home.
My studies of capuchin monkeys have paralleled the work of anthropologists
around the world. Like humans, monkeys have various problems to solve
as they go about their daily lives. Capuchins are small monkeys, about
the size of a large house cat. They feed heavily on fruit and insects,
but will also eat baby birds and squirrels and other small mammals. Because
of their small size, predation is a tremendous problem for them. As the
seasons change, food sometimes becomes scarce and hard to find. These
are some of the pressures that complicate their lives.
I have learned over the years that one of the major factors in a monkeys
life is the size of the group in which it lives. Large groups have many
advantages. They can push smaller groups out of feeding sites and thereby
monopolize resources. Larger groups can also forage in dangerous areas
where smaller groups dare not go. Because there is strength in numbers,
monkeys in large groups often come down to the ground to feed on wild
pineapple (bromeliads) and large terrestrial snails. Members of smaller
groups fear the predatory cats and snakes that hunt on the ground and
therefore avoid these areas. Overall, smaller groups have limited access
to scarce resources. Life in a large group, however, also has its problems.
With more mouths to feed, competition is stiff and aggression can be fierce.
Larger groups experience the stress of this social situation. The parallels
with human behavior are clear.
However, like humans, monkeys have found solutions to their problems.
Monkeys in smaller groups have to be flexible in their approach to life.
While larger groups can move about with impunity, smaller groups must
conserve energy through the times of scarcity. When food is abundant,
large groups squander their time in rest and play while smaller groups
devote their time to gorging, storing up fat reserves for the tough times
to come. On the other hand, monkeys in larger groups have to do what they
can to avoid aggression within the troop. When feeding, they spread out
as much as possible, giving each individual a little more elbowroom and
reducing the number of fights.
Hato Pinero provides several examples of solving problems. Thanks to the
conservation efforts of Don Antonio and the Branger family, the forests
of Hato Pinero continue to thrive, supporting the abundant animal life
that depends on them. Within that forest, capuchin monkeys, like humans,
face daily pressures that relate to group size, but they cope with these
pressures in creative ways. As studies of the llanos ecosystem continue,
we will learn more about how to maintain this piece of paradise and save
it from the problems of a complicated world.
Dr. Lynne E. Miller is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology
at the University of California at San Diego, and a principal investigator
for the Earthwatch Institute. Her research with capuchin monkeys will
continue, with Earthwatch support, in 1999. For further information about
the Earthwatch Institute, go to their website at www.earthwatch.org.
This article is based upon a talk given at the Earthwatch Institute Festival
of Science and Culture, Harvard University, October 24, 1998.
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