Andean cocks-of-the-rock


With its rich diversity of bird species, Ecuador has seen a surge in bird tourism, prompting many farmers to transform their lands into nature reserves.

Anita Cajas and Vinicio Bacuilima experienced this firsthand when their crops attracted numerous birds. Initially seen as a nuisance, their perspective shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic when bird photographer Manu Espinosa suggested they embrace the birds instead. This led to the creation of Maraksacha Reserve, marking the beginning of a significant change in their lives and a new commitment to conservation.

“Because we’re on the main road from Quito to Mindo, we get lots of visitors – especially bird photographers,” Cajas says. They “enjoy sitting on our terrace, drinking coffee, and getting such closeup views of the birds”.

Ecuador is a prime destination for bird watchers, boasting over 1,600 species, nearly double the number found in all of Europe, within an area slightly larger than the UK. The rise in birding tourism has encouraged more subsistence farmers to convert their agricultural lands into bird reserves, benefiting both the environment and the economy.

Sustainable tourism consultant Angie Drake notes that improving biodiversity and attracting wildlife tourists have expanded the potential of these lands beyond traditional farming.

“They are finding ways to balance profitability with environmental stewardship,” she says. “This innovative approach offers a blueprint for other farmers wanting to reconsider their relationship with the land.”

Luis Ajila is one example of this shift. Near Recinto 23 de Junio, he transitioned from dairy farming to conservation, focusing on the long-wattled umbrellabird, a unique species with a distinctive appearance. By replanting trees and promoting his site to wildlife tourists, Ajila has found a more sustainable livelihood in conservation.

“Wildlife tourism is far more profitable than farming but that’s not the only reason we made the change,” says Ajila’s son, Luis Jr. “We wanted to save not just the umbrellabird, but all the special creatures here, and safeguard them for future generations.”

While the Ecuadorian government offers funding for such conservation projects, the application process is complex, and funding is inconsistent. Consequently, some landowners, including Bacuilima and Cajas, have abandoned their applications. Nonetheless, the income from bird tourism alone has encouraged many farmers to adopt the nature reserve model. Favián Luna, for instance, converted his 120-hectare tomato farm in the Tandayapa Valley into the Alambi Reserve, attracting visitors with species like the Andean emerald.

Similarly, Doris Villalba and Sergio Basantes created Mashpi Amagusa, a reserve that attracts 260 bird species, including rare ones like the rose-faced parrot. Jacqui, the owner of Finca La Victoriana in Pichincha, also turned to bird tourism after her crops were stolen during the lockdown. She discovered that her land was home to the Andean cock-of-the-rock, a charismatic bird that draws numerous visitors.

Ángel Paz and his brother Rodrigo have also transitioned from dairy farming to bird conservation in Mindo. Initially struggling to attract visitors, they have now habituated five species of antpitta, a notoriously elusive bird family, to appear on cue, with one named Shakira for her distinctive movements. Their reserve, Refugio Paz de las Aves, became renowned but faced potential sale after their mother’s death. A global crowdfunding campaign raised $160,000, allowing Ángel and Rodrigo to buy the land and secure its future as a bird habitat.

For Ángel Paz, the key to success is providing wildlife the time and space to return and thrive.

“My brother and I have protected our home and its birdlife for almost two decades, and watched the wildlife – and the people who visit – flourish,” he says. “For us, it’s all about making a connection with the unique species that live here.”

This approach, shared by many other farmers-turned-conservationists in Ecuador, highlights a growing trend where the protection of biodiversity and sustainable tourism go hand in hand, benefiting both the environment and local communities.



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