Conservation management and soundscape analysis in the cloud forests of Ecuador

This summer of 2016, I am spending 6 weeks in the cloud forests of Ecuador. I am conducting research on the role of sound in residents’ ecological knowledge. Using methodologies from ethnography and soundscape ecology, my goals for this pilot research are to interview residents and set up passive acoustic recorders to monitor the variety of soundscapes in the area.

My home base is a private conservation reserve, La Hesperia, which is above a small town and along the Santo Domingo-Aloag highway, which runs from the mountains to the coast. The majority of the reserve is forested, with a small portion used for agriculture and housing for volunteers, tourists, employees and the owners. The recorders are installed in 3 diverse locations on the reserve, which I tested when I first got here. I recorded an hour around the sunset in 4 different locations suggested by Alexandra, who runs the tourism and volunteer program here. She lives here with her two sons and husband, who’s family owns the reserve. We both looked over the 4 site recordings and decided on three. One is at the edge of a field of coffee, another is on a trail that is closer to the highway, where you can hear the traffic, and the last one is a 1.5 hour hike into the forest, far from the farm and the road. We chose these because of their diverse locations in terms of human interaction, and when we looked at the recordings we saw a diversity in the variety of species and intensity between the sites.

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The cloud forest is considered a biodiversity hotspot, so the soundscape here is quite loud and variable. I picked this particular location because of my previous experience of working in La Hesperia last summer for 9 weeks.

In my initial conversations with residents and volunteers, the intensity of sound at night was quite commonly brought up. For one volunteer in particular, she used earplugs to sleep at night as the sounds from the animals and insects kept her awake.

One of the employees on the farm will be maintaining the recorders over the next year, by switching out the batteries and downloading the data from the SD cards onto an external hard drive every 50 days. Just a week ago, he helped me find a good spot to put the recorder that is deep in the forest. We hiked on an established trail for about an hour and then he veered off to the side and started to cut a trail with his machete. From time to time he would point out things along the way, like where a wild pig had eaten a plant. At one point he gestured towards palmettos that had been pulled up, with the base eaten away. He said it was a bear, and seconds later he found a paw print. On other hikes, I’ve also seen him point out plants and what they are used for, in some cases when a volunteer gets a stomachache he will pick some leaves off a particular plant and give them to the cooks to make a tea for them.

The first few weeks I focused on getting my equipment installed, which has almost been completed. More recently I have been focusing on interviews. Both aspects of my project are to test the feasibility for my dissertation research. I am starting by casting a wide net in interviews by asking extremely general questions. As my Spanish still needs some work, I am recording the interviews with permission, so that I can later translate more accurately. Overall, these first few weeks have been exceptionally fruitful in figuring out what might work and what might not work for my dissertation research. My conversations have led to additional questions and a refinement of the ones I started out with. I have also realized the vast difference between interviewing someone I have known since last year and interviewing someone who is more of an acquaintance. The more I know someone, the more they elaborate on their answers. Thusly in the last few weeks, I will be working to establish more relationships with people in this area so that when I return I will be in a good place to jump off from.

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Claire Wright is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology.

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