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Indigenous-Led Wildlife Travel in the Ecuadorian Amazon: Sunka Biological Station

Nature and wildlife enthusiasts (and especially birders) have been drawn to Ecuador for decades.

From the cloud forests of the Andean highlands to the tropical wet forests of the Amazon and the Chocó, coastal lowlands and, of course, the Galapagos islands, Ecuador is home to some 23,056 taxonomic species–6.1 percent of total global species–and one-sixth of the world’s bird species (1,600). 

Thanks to an excellent road system connecting the country’s various ecoregions, nature and wildlife tourism are also very convenient in Ecuador.

The coast, the highlands and the eastern Amazonian and Chocoan regions, for the most part, are all connected by good roads–albeit often hard on the stomach–that allow for easy transportation and touring around the country. 

What’s more, Ecuador’s environmental history is, at least regionally, quite unique. Its exceptionally high biodiversity has long attracted both attention and funding from international conservation and environmental organizations, including Conservation International, the WWF and the United States Agency for International Development, as well as universities throughout Europe and North America. 

Perhaps even more importantly, homegrown conservation, combined with concerned private international actors, have helped to protect a lot of land in Ecuador. There are over 200 environmental groups in the country, and Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, despite confounding realities on the ground, grants Ecuadorian citizens constitutional rights to nature.

The signs that Ecuador’s recognizes the importance of its globally important natural capital abound. From jaguar and tapir sculptures marking the entrance to Amazonian towns to painted homages to iconic Amazonian plants and animals covering the sides of rural schoolhouses. 

Symbolic gestures aside, Ecuador’s flora and fauna face the same deluge of pressures and threats present in neighbouring countries. Ecuador ranks second in Latin America when it comes to high levels of deforestation. 

Urban expansion, agriculture, overfishing, invasive species, poverty, and the overexploitation of natural resources represent the major drivers of biodiversity loss in the country.

The time to see Ecuador’s amazing natural richness is now, and thankfully, the country is home to places like the Sunka Biological Station. 


Sunka Biological Station

The Sunka Biological Station is a new (or, more accurately, renewed) field station in Ecuador’s Cutucú Range, an Amazonian mountain range close to but partially isolated from the Andes, and much older geologically. 

Previously the Wisui Biological Station (WBS)–named after the local Shuar indigenous community–Sunka is part of the sprawling Bosque Protector Cutucú-Shaimi, a 311,500-hectare protected area (the largest in Ecuador) identified by botanists from the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Real Jardín Botanico in Madrid as a site of immense biological importance. 

Source: Google Maps

The forests around what is modern-day Sunka, previously only accessible by landing a small plane on a grass strip deep inside Indigenous Shuar territory (or after an arduous multi-day trek from the Panamerican highway), have been connected to the rest of the Americas for a couple of decades now. 

Everything and everyone making its way to Sunka and the surrounding indigenous communities must pass through here. 

And the juice is well worth the squeeze. 

Sunka’s forests are a beautiful melange of different terrestrial and aquatic habitats, including premontane creeks and rivers, terra firme Napo forest, wonderful cave systems and immense Ceibo trees. 

The WBS (now Sunka) began its life in 2008 as a site to host the Menéndez y Pelayo International University and the Spanish Council for Research’s field courses in the Master’s Programme in Tropical Areas and its Conservation.

It is now a private venture run by Cataluñan conservation biologist Robin Corria and his wife Lizbeth Liliana, an entrepreneur and member of the Wisui Shuar community, in conjunction with the local Shuar indigenous people.

Sunka is named after the “Sunka” bird, the local name for the Andean Cock of the Rock. 

Unfortunately, the bird has been heavily hunted in the forests immediately surrounding the station–prized by local indigenous hunters for both its gorgeous plumage and meat–seeing the station’s namesake requires treks further up into the Cutucú Range. 

The hope is that through Sunka’s conservation efforts, this iconic species will once again become a common sight and sound in the forest immediately surrounding the station.

Sunka’s facilities include two traditional huts with space for 12 people, and future plans for more accommodations as well as a laboratory and at least one private vehicle to ferry visitors and researchers back and forth between the station and Ecuador’s larger cities. 

Because of the station’s relative newness and inaccessibility, accommodations and amenities are a work in progress (and constantly improving), built in the tradition of the local Shuar people–a round, open-air-style tambo-like dwelling with a dirt floor. 

Food, basic but hearty, is cooked over a wood fire. Water (for the time being) is drawn from a local river and boiled, but it is also recommended to bring water purification drops or tablets. 

Your bed is a mattress on top of a bamboo frame and a mosquito net for protection from nighttime visitors; bathing is done in the beautiful local creek and the bathroom is “ecological” (essentially an outhouse with a wooden hole in the floor). 

It’s worth reiterating that Sunka is a very new project, or rather, an old project that Robin and the Shuar people who help run it are currently in the process of reimagining. The amenities and infrastructure are a work in progress.

As of writing this (May of 2023), I would recommend the current iteration of Sunka to a specific type of person–i.e., someone with a fairly high tolerance for “wild” living. If you are willing to sacrifice comfort for a chance to see a gorgeous Amazonian foothill location that very few others have had the privilege to see, then Sunka is a dream and undoubtedly one of the most unique cultural and ecological experiences in the country. 

The only bio station in the entire Cutucú Range, Sunka’s 4,000 hectares of protected community forest (a substantial amount of which is primary) are relatively unexplored and well-preserved, especially given the history of slash-and-burn agriculture in the area. 

The station, in partnership with concerned and determined local people, organizes custom research and wildlife travel itineraries, birdwatching, as well as cultural experiences. 

A large elevational range between 650 and 1,360 metres encompasses both lowland and highland forests, making for excellent cross-niche wildlife observation and study opportunities. 

Photo courtesy of Sunka

Of the 501 birds species originally recorded in the Cutucú Range, studies performed at Sunka have added an additional 61, bringing the new total to 562.

56 species of amphibians have been recorded near the station (two caecilians, two salamanders and 52 anurans), including two IUCN red list species and four undescribed ones, as well as 37 bat species, 14 non-flying micromammals, 50 species of butterfly and a presumably high but understudied reptile diversity. 

Sunka is accessible by bus from throughout the country or domestic flight, via Cuenca, from Quito. 

The plan is, eventually, to have a vehicle available for guests who wish to be picked up and driven straight to the site. For now, however, getting there involves terrestrial transportation to the outskirts of the reserve and local guides to get you in. 

The hike in takes about an hour and includes a very unique cable car river crossing.


The uniqueness of this ancient, unexplored and partially isolated mountain range

Modified figure from (Pozo-Zamora et al., 2022

Sunka’s uniqueness lies in both its isolation and, therefore, preservation, as well as its position at the meeting of two ecoregions. Its location at the transition between Eastern Cordillera Real Montane Forest and the lowland Napo Moist Forest ecoregion of the Amazon basin, combined with its large elevational range (From 600masl to 2,480masl), allows for a variety of habitats and microhabitats that provide a home for both highland and lowland flora and fauna.

These montane and foothill forests feature high levels of endemism (Jimenez-Robles et al, 2017) and, because of the inaccessibility of the Cutucú Range, survey and inventory work at Sunka are still ongoing, which means visitors have the chance to participate in and contribute to potentially groundbreaking citizen science. 

From herpetofauna to mammals to botany to birds, this Napo Moist Forest-Montane Forest convergence zone on the Amazonian slope presents an opportunity to experience both well-documented biological richness and ample new discoveries. 

Herpetofauna

Amazonian foothills forests at places like Sunka are a Fieldherper’s dream. The mix of secondary and primary growth, combined elevational range and designated breeding areas, means the potential for both Amazonian lowland and higher elevation montane species (particularly frogs). 

Snakes

The herpetofauna around Sunka and throughout the Cutucú Range is understudied. That, combined with the uniqueness of this mountain range, means a high potential for new discoveries. 

A list of the reptiles and amphibians of Cutucú has been put together here, which includes species like (clockwise top to bottom): Amazonian Coral Snake (Micrurus spixii), Rainbow Boa (Epicrates cenchria), False Fer de Lance (Xenodon Rhabdocephalus), Amazonian Bushmaster (Lachesis muta), Tropical Flat Snake (Siphlophis compressus), Amazonian Toad-headed Pit Viper (Bothracophias hyoprora).

images courtesy of Sunka

Amphibians

56 species of amphibians have been recorded at Sunka over the years (52 of which are frogs and toads). 

In addition to the high species diversity you would expect across this kind of elevational transect, Robin and co have also gone and created frog spawning habitats very close to the station–flat spaces that fill with water, deliberately planted with reeds and long grasses to stop hunting and collecting, and surrounded by trees with good canopy connectivity. 

Here, many of the station’s species, especially tree frogs, can be observed. 

The small fish aquaculture ponds scattered throughout the Wisui Indigenous Reserve are also fantastic places to observe frogs, snakes and large spider species. 

Below is a representation of some of the most striking and iconic species found at the station:

Clockwise from top to bottom: Zaparo’s Poison Frog (Allobates zaparo), Clown Tree Frog (Dendropsophus bifurcus), Demerara Falls tree frog (Hypsiboas cinerascens), Pucuno Slender-legged Treefrog (Osteocephalus mutabor),  Reticulated Poison Frog (Dendrobates ventrimaculatus), White-lined Leaf Frog (Phyllomedusa vaillantii)

Images courtesy of Sunka Biological Station

The Peruvian Climbing Salamander (Bolitaglossa peruviana) is also fairly common around the station: 

Image courtesy of Sunka

And Smoky Jungle Frogs (Leptodactylus pentodactylus)

As are Brilliant-thighed Poison Frogs

Amphibian survey work is ongoing at the station, meaning ample opportunity for visitors to be the first to record new species for the reserve and, given the comparative underexplored nature of the Cutucú Range, perhaps even discover entirely new species and subspecies. 

Birds

Foothills and cloud forest sites are very often the most interesting sites to neotropical birders and Sunka is no exception. 

A growing eBird hotspot with an attractive combination of primary, secondary, and disturbed habitats across a large elevatinal range, Sunka has registered some 269 species (14 of which are considered Red List or nationally threatened) of the more than 562 recorded in the Cutucú Mountain range–256 of which have been logged on eBird. 

Evergreen montane rainforests from 600 to 1,200m, unique “elfin” forests at the plateau up to 1,360m and lowland forests below 600m provide many days of highly varied sighting opportunities, especially given the understudied nature of the Cutucú Range’s avifauna. 

Standout species include (clockwise top to bottom): Paradise Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, White-plumed Ant Bird, Blue-Capped Manakin, Kinglet Manakin, White-Bearded Manakin 

Images courtesy of Sunka

A newly reinaugurated site, many more sightings and discoveries undoubtedly await. 

Mammals

While Sunka has recorded a total of 14 non-flying micromammals, not a lot is known about the macromammals around the station. 

The area has been inhabited and hunted by indigenous people for centuries, if not millennia, which, of course, has a marked impact on mammal diversity and composition in an ecosystem. Sunka’s goal has been to create a safe space for animal populations to thrive and recover from human interference. 

A recent fauna survey performed by researchers of the INABIO included mammals, birds and herpetofauna, will soon add more species to the list.

The station forms an important buffer zone between the Cutucú Range and the indigenous communities that live in its foothills and from conversations with the Shuar people helping to run Sunka, the protected areas are home to animals like deer, agouti, wild pigs, small cats like Margay and Ocelot, porcupines, and more and walks through the forest yield myriad footprints, claw-sharpening marks on trees, plucked feathers and half-eaten fruits and nuts.

The Shuar have an encyclopedic knowledge of the forest and its various den sites, mineral deposits, and food sources–ideal for survey work and setting up camera traps. 

They also know how to navigate Sunka’s spectacular cave systems.

Invertebrates

The invertebrate species diversity and density at almost any intact site in the neotropics is going to be mind-blowing. 

Thousands of species (many, almost certainly, yet to be described, let alone discovered) of ants, termites, bees, wasps, dragonflies, damselflies, robberflies, scarabs, worms, leafhoppers, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, tarantulas, orb weavers, wandering spiders, jumping spiders, fishing spiders, ogre-faced spiders, Uropygi, praying mantises, cicadas, katydids, stick insects, crustaceans, and molluscs can be seen (and heard) in every direction.

It would be nearly impossible to fully survey invertebrate diversity at a place like Sunka, but the station has done an admirable job of documenting some of the more charismatic species. 

Images courtesy of Sunka

Large spider species like the Pink-toed Tarantula

And wandering spiders

are quite common around Sunka’s small gardens and aquaculture ponds. 

Starry Night Cracker Hamadryas laodamia

The butterfly diversity in the Cutucú range, and the Napo Moist Forests more broadly (a dispersal centre for Neotropical butterflies), is also spectacular.

50 species of butterfly have been observed at the station, many with identified by species.

Row 1: Red Flasher (Panacea prola), Asterope markii, Turquoise Emperor( Doxocopa laurentia), Sisters (Genus Adelpha), Zavaleta Glasswing (Godyris zavaleta), Row 2: Starry Night Cracker (Hamadryas laodamia), Lyca Numberwing (Callicore lyca), Catagramma hystaspes, Sunset Daggerwing (Marpesia furcula), Starry Night Metalmark (Echydna punctate), Row 3: Perrhybris lorena, Castilia perilla, Dynamine racidula, Scare Bamboo Page (Philaethria dido), Notheme erota

Images courtesy of Rudy Gelis

Community-based Conservation in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Sunka is a private sanctuary located in one of the least explored and poorest parts of Ecuador–the gateway to the Bosque Protector Cutucú-Shaimi, the largest protected area of this kind in the country and one that remains highly threatened by deforestation. 

The station is co-owned by a members of the Shuar community, a geographically, politically and economically isolated indigenous people who have lived in this area for thousands of years and who are integral to the station’s maintenance, guiding efforts and day-to-day operations. 

As is the case around the world, from Ecuador to Indonesia, these biodiversity hotspots and the people who call them home are, by and large, left to fend for themselves. “Forgotten,” was the word used at Sunka. 

This inevitably means, to varying degrees and unfolding in different ways based on different regional circumstances, destructive agricultural practices, the overexploitation of natural resources, and the general sacrificing of wild areas to subsistence living. 

When the choice is denuding the forest of hardwoods or not being able to pay your children’s school fees, it tends to be an easy one to make. 

Not surprisingly, nature and wildlife travel is an important part of the conservation equation here, as is the buy-in and participation of the local people, who benefit from this alternative economy.

The preservation and longevity of places like Sunka, as they are everywhere that poverty and lack of opportunity clash with conservation prerogatives, are predicated on developing and facilitating viable sources of income for local people. Without a clear alternative, harvesting the forest of its treasures and replacing cleared land with livestock is what happens. 


Recap: Why visit Sunka Biological Station?

Ecuador is a well-established nature and wildlife travel hotspot, particularly in the Neotropics. There are myriad wildlife tourism opportunities in the country, especially in the Amazon region. 

Sunka, however, is a one-of-a-kind opportunity in a uniquely unexplored part of the country.

Most people looking to visit Ecuador, and its share of the Amazon Basin, tend to end up further north, in much more established places like Cuyabeno or Yasuni–spectacular wildlife and nature travel destinations in their own right. 

But Sunka, and the Cutucú Range, are far less transited, much less expensive and part of a, potentially, much more surprising part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, in the foothills of an underexplored mountain range disconnected from the Andes, with a strong scientific history and driving force.

This is not your typical Ecuadorian Amazon package trip.

The Shuar people are immensely knowledgeable and adept guides and hosts. Their deep pharmacological understanding of the forest’s plants, encyclopedic knowledge of its habitats and sites of ecological interest, ability to spot and find wildlife, as well as their hospitality, makes for a wonderful cultural, anthropological and wildlife travel experience. 

This is a grassroots and currently shoestring project, premised on passion and a belief in community-based conservation, that is attempting to protect a small patch of one of the most biologically important and intense places on earth–an island in a sea of ecological devastation. 

By visiting Sunka, you help a fledgling conservation and nature travel project find its feet and build its infrastructure out to where it can start operating and conserving at full capacity. 

For those intrepid and hardy enough, Sunka is a hidden gem in a much less transited part of the Ecuadorian Amazon.