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Urgent Request for Help with Royal Cinclodes Research and Conservation Project at Abra Málaga, Peru

From: Gunnar Engblom

February 2000

Royal Cinclodes C. aricomae - Photo copyright Garry George

Big day in Peru to support conservation of the Royal Cinclodes. (Postponed)

Proyecto Polylepis [Royal Cinclodes video]

UPDATE - 19 May 2001 from Mike Catsis - He and Juvenal Ccahuana observed a pair at the traditional site on 10 April, but he also saw evidence of recent cutting of large, old Polylepis trees. Gunnar Engblom and Gregorio Ferro Meza observed a pair in a different grove on the same day.

UPDATE - 21 November 2000, from Huw Lloyd: On recent trips to Abra Málaga (30th and 31st October 2000), myself and other groups witnessed further deforestation of the Polylepis forest fragments. On the 30th October, five horses were loaded with freshly cut Polylepis wood, and the cutting continued the next day, with local farmers in the process of felling some of the largest Polylepis and Gynoxys trees within the immediate home range of the Royal Cinclodes, located at the site. Thus one of the fragments has been considerably reduced in size, posing the question of whether the remaining area of woodland can sustain viable populations of the avifauna. In my opinion, all the Polylepis will have been cut within the next 18 months to two years.

Further to Huw Lloyd's note, from Gunnar Engblom, 21 November 2000:

The basic scenario we have here is that one family out of some 17-18 families in the area doesn't care about the efforts being made. This is not a poor family. They have large numbers of livestock, own a chainsaw and run the little restaurant on top of the Abra Málaga pass. Barry Walker has previously mentioned that Polylepis wood is being sold to hotels in Urubamba and Ollantaytambo - where the tourists can warm themselves - while this extremely threatened habitat - Polylepis woodland above 4000 m within the range of Royal Cinclodes (C. aricomae) and White-browed Tit-Spinetail (Leptasthenura xenothorax) which most certainly does not include more the 750 ha altogether within 3 mountain ranges not too far from Cusco - is being trashed.

Abra Málaga is not the most important area to safeguard of course, and I am very much aware of this. But it has a tremendous symbolic value. Lots of lessons can be learned and have been learned through the years we have run the project. (Please see Málaga.htm). The project lacks funds on the immediate basis. The field workers have just formed an NGO, and the legal paperwork is just about ready. Very soon we shall be able to receive larger sums to coordinate a large scale project trying to conserve some more ecologically sound areas. I don't think it is wise to ask for huge sums to try to save Abra Málaga, but rather was hoping to secure the project through a one-year project which consists of

1. Replacing the current use of Polylepis wood with Eucalyptus brought from the valley below.

2. Maybe introducing kerosene as a low volume and fairly cheap fuel for cooking and introducing kerosene stoves.

3. Replacing open fires with clay stoves which reduce the demand of fire-wood by 50%.

4. Reforestation.

5. Commercialization of the area for the benefit of the community. Apart from the obvious interest by birders I am exploring the possibility of introducing the area to the circuit for more general ecotourism. The walk down the valley from the pass to the main road is very pretty and should be enjoyed by any tourist. This in combination with some sort of interpretation center - could work as agrotourism or ethno-tourism with visits to the school and to a house where people live. In the area the people still wear traditional clothing. Furthermore ecotourism companies could cut direct deals with the community for supplying porters to the nearby Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

6. If this latter could be a result of a one-year project, then financed through entrance fees and general tourism the project can be self financed.

In short term it is vital to secure funds of minimum 500 dollars per month to be able to supply the firewood. The family that is currently cutting down the forest should be announced to the ecological police in my opinion. I have run out of patience.... All groups of visiting birders should coordinate with myself or with Ecosistemas Andinos.

1. Consider inviting someone from Ecosistemas Andinos on your trip. Bring along the ecological police. Cutting down Polylepis trees is against the law.

2. See that 10 dollars per person for visiting Abra Málaga is donated to Ecosistemas Andinos for the purchase of firewood.

I hope that the ecotourism companies in Cusco will cooperate.

One more thing, and I want to make this absolutely clear. There are many areas which need action, but they are not as easy to get to as AM. Therefore, safeguarding these areas needs more time and more money. For us the Abra Málaga project is important to show that we are able to manage a project. After all, we are practically the only ones who have done anything concerning Polylepis conservation the last 10 years. Just now do we start to coordinate the project ourselves through our own NGO which will be a great advantage.

For more information about Polylepis, see the excellent website: Forgotten Forests of the High Andes, by Michael Kessler.

This is a plea for help direct to you. If you qualify in any of the categories below you may be able to help:

1. Anyone planning to visit South America in the months to come.

2. Anyone planning to visit Abra Málaga near Cusco, Peru this year.

3. Anyone able to donate spare second-hand binoculars, recording equipment or camcorders for a conservation project. We can coordinate with those in categories (1) and (2) above to bring them to South America.

4. Anyone who can assist with rapid funding to finance a small project to  survey Royal Cinclodes at Abra Málaga.

5. If you have visited the Abra Málaga site in the past and would like to contribute to its conservation.

I will try to be brief in explaining the above. For more in-depth information about the conservation of Abra Málaga see:

This manuscript has been submitted to Cotinga for publication. For the complete project proposal for the study of Royal Cinclodes (Cinclodes aricomae) see

In short, the Polylepis woodland at Abra Málaga is the only accessible locality where Royal Cinclodes is known to occur. We have been working on a conservation project for several years together with the local community. This project has been successful thus far, in that logging seems to have ceased and Polylepis wood from the woodland has gradually started to be replaced by supplied Eucalyptus. Royal Cinclodes is the most sensitive of the threatened birds at Abra Málaga (which also include White-browed Tit-Spinetail (Leptasthenura xenothorax) and Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrant (Anairetes alpinus)), as it needs intact moss cover, that will dry if the forest is cut down. We are preparing a small survey of the ecology of Royal Cinclodes of which very little is known. At the same time we will also be monitoring the site and the success of the fuel replacement program.

1. If you are coming to Peru or South America during the coming months you may be able to bring donated equipment for the project.

2. If you are planning to visit Abra Málaga this year or in near future we invite you to coordinate with us and help with a donation of c. 10 dollars/visitor for buying alternative fuel for the benefit of the community and the forest. There may also be equipment you can bring with you to help us.

3. Anyone having spare equipment  as above, please contact me.

Gunnar Engblom
Project Coordinator of Acción Conservación Polylepis

Kolibri Expeditions
Birding in South America

[JWW comments: I birded at Abra Málaga, a high altitude site on the road between Urubamba to Quillabamba, on a trip with Karl Overman and Al Maley in 1979, before the discovery that it held Royal Cinclodes, which was considered untwitchable at the time. There was a substantial patch of Polylepis along the road, but it has since been severely reduced. Nevertheless, the rare, endemic birds are still present.

This is the sort of project into which conservation funds should be invested. Instead, while worthwhile projects go unfunded, the international conservation and development banking elite travel around the world from meeting to pointless meeting, suck up to wealthy potential donors and loathsome political hacks, gush over counterproductive captive breeding and release programs, and spend whatever is left after fundraising expenses on superficial, glossy brochures. If you were planning to make a donation to a large, Beltway environmental group (I can't believe regular readers of this website would be so misguided!), I recommend diverting it to the Royal Cinclodes project, in which I have no financial interest.]

Copyright © 1992-2012 John Wall