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CREES Manu: Wildlife Travel and Community-led Conservation in Peru’s Manu Biosphere Reserve

Peru is the fifth most biodiverse country in the world, with Amazonian, Andean, dry forest and rich marine ecosystems.

Of special importance, however, is Peru’s Amazon, the second largest swath of the world’s largest tropical forest after that of Brazil’s, covering around 60 percent of the country’s total land area. There are some truly magnificent parks and nature reserves in the Peruvian Amazon, including marquis names like Manu and Tambopata. 

Peru’s Amazon has come under increasing anthropogenic pressure over the last ten years, especially from oil palm plantations–which are a significant driver of deforestation in the region– combined with illegal small-scale gold mining, and the omnipresent regional deforestation driver that is cattle ranching. 

Despite this, Peru has managed to conserve millions of hectares of its Amazon, as well as small parcels of land elsewhere in the country. 

Of the various nature and wildlife tourism experiences available in Peru, two of the most special are undoubtedly the Manu Learning Centre and Romero Rainforest Lodge, both run by Crees Manu, a pioneer in experiential learning and scientific tourism in the Manu Biosphere Reserve and Manu National Park, respectively, since 2007. 

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Manu: One of The Most Biodiverse Places on Earth

courtesy of Crees Manu

Manu, both the larger biosphere reserve and Manu National Park–the core zone within the reserve–is considered among the most biodiverse places on earth, where the tropical Andes meet the Amazon basin.

A large altitudinal gradient supports a wide range of ecosystems, species diversity and ecological communities, including a high degree of endemism. 

Well over 1,000 vertebrate species, including at least 200 species of mammals and more than 800 species of birds, have been recorded inside the reserve. 13 different primate species and 8 cats, including Jaguars, Pumas and the endangered Andean Mountain Cat, as well as Ukari Monkeys, Short-eared Dogs and other standout micro and macromammal species call Manu home.

The protected area also boasts some 68 species of reptiles, 77 species of amphibians and a staggering diversity of freshwater fish species. Thanks to both its location and its remoteness, it is little wonder that Manu is a premier tropical ecology study site, widely considered one of the most pristine parts of the Peruvian Amazon, where animals like Harpy Eagles, Jaguar, and Giant River Otters, live free from large-scale human interference. 

The Manu Learning Centre

Source: Google Maps

The Manu Learning Centre is a 643-hectare private reserve situated inside the Manu Biosphere Reserve and forms an important buffer zone between surrounding land/communities and Manu National Park. 

It is home to a permanent staff of locals, educators and scientists who oversee one of the longest-running large-scale biodiversity studies in the Amazon basin and has been collecting scientific data on key indicator species since 2003. 

The Romero Rainforest Lodge

Source: Google Maps

Most of the places that I have set out to cover are not-for-profit lodges, for several reasons, but the Romero Rainforest Lodge is worth consideration not only because it is part of the larger Crees conservation and scientific umbrella, but for other reasons as well. 

First and foremost, it is the only lodge inside the heart of Manu National Park, its existence sanctioned by Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. 

This, in and of itself, makes the Romero Rainforest Lodge unique, given that so many of the lodges throughout the Amazon are outside the protected areas. This means they are subject to more disturbance from human activities like hunting, natural resource extraction, agriculture and infrastructure projects, which ultimately implies a less rich wildlife travel experience for serious wildlife travellers. 

Both Crees locations offer simple but comfortable accommodation options–lodgings for visitors interested in immersion and substance over luxury add-ons and frills. 

Courtesy of Crees Manu

The foundation also does a lot of its own sustainable permaculture food production.

Courtesy of Crees Manu

The Southwest Amazon Mosit Forest Ecoregion

Source: https://ecoregions.appspot.com/

The Southwest Amazon Moist Forest Ecoregion covers an extensive area of the upper Amazon Basin, including large parts of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. 

It is home to some of the most inaccessible, largest and richest tracts of land in the entire Amazon, with Manu being one of the largest uninterrupted swathes in the entire ecoregion. 

Courtesy of Crees Manu

This southwestern segment of the Amazon contains the largest number of mammals and birds in the entire Amazonian biogeographic realm–257 (11 endemics) and 782 (17 endemics) for mammals and birds, respectively. 

A mix of upland non-flooded terra firme forests, alluvial plains, and seasonally flooded varzea forests, this part of the basin allows for a fantastic range of well-preserved habitats, making for spectacular biological richness and diversity across animal groups. 

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Whether you are primarily interested in herpetofauna, birds, mammals, invertebrates, freshwater fish or want to see as much of everything as possible, you would be hard-pressed to find a better piece of Amazon forest anywhere. 

Herpetofauna

Manu National Park is the world’s top biodiversity hotspot for reptiles and amphibians, and both the Manu Learning Centre and the Romero Rainforest have recorded an impressive number of species over the years, including dozens upon dozens of snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, climbing salamanders, turtles, tortoises, and caimans. 

There is quite literally no better place in the world for fieldherpers than Manu, and it is little wonder that the park is a mecca for amateur naturalists interested in herpetofauna and herpetological researchers alike.

Snakes

It is hard to decide whether it is the snake or the amphibian diversity that most define a place like Manu National Park. 

Either way, Crees and its visitors to both the Manu Learning Centre and the Romero Rainforest Lodge have registered a wonderful variety of the staggering snake diversity present in the park, including some of the Amazon Basin’s most iconic residents.

Clockwise (top to bottom): Rainbow Boa (Epicrates cenchria), Amazon Tree Boa (Corallus hortulanus), Amazon Tree Boa yellow phase (Corallus hortulanus), Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus)

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Rarities like the American Pipe Snake (Anilius scytale) coral mimic.

Courtesy of Crees Manu

As well as

Clockwise (top to bottom): Forest Flame Snake (Oxyrophys petolarius), Rainbow Boa (Epicrates cenchria), Amazonian Palm Viper (Bothrops bilineatus), Common Liana Snake (Siphlophis cervinus)

Courtesy of Crees Manu

This is just a very small sampling of the overall snake species observed by Crees and an even smaller subset of total Manu snake diversity. 

Lizards, Crocodilians and Turtles 

The well-preserved status of Manu, and its combination of river and flooded forest habitats, make it home to healthy populations of the now “conservation-dependent” Black Caiman (Melanoschus niger)

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Schneider’s Dwarf Caiman (Paleosuchus trigonatus).

As well as a neotropical constant, the Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Animals like the Yellow-footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata).

Courtesy of Crees Manu

And iconic lizards like the Golden Tegu (Tupinambis teguixin).

Courtesy of Crees Manu

And the Caiman Lizard (Dracaena guianensis).

Amphibians

Again, if you are a fieldherper, it is hard to decide whether it is Manu’s snakes or its amphibians (primarily frogs) that are its biggest draw. 

Clockwise (top to bottom):  Yungas Tree Frog (Boana balzani), Clown Tree Frog (Dendropsophus sarayacuensis), Polka-dot Tree Frog (Boana punctata), Manu Poison Frog (Ameerega macero), Osteocephalus germani, Convict Tree Frog (hyla calcarata)

Courtesy of Crees Manu

As well as a wonderful diversity of rare and iconic leaf frog species 

Phyllomedusa camba

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Clockwise (top to bottom): Barred Monkey Frog (Callimedusa tomopterna), Jaguar Leaf Frog (Phyllomedusa palliata), White-lined Leaf Frog (Phyllomeusa vallanti)

Courtesy of Crees Manu

And other beautiful oddities like the Suriname Horned Frog (Ceratophrys cornuta)

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Birds

As it is everywhere in the neotropics, the bird diversity at either of Crees’ two sites dwarfs that of all other vertebrate groups.

Some 800 resident and migrant bird species have been recorded in Manu, where the Amazon meets the Andes. 

This part of the Amazon has been a neotropical birdwatching mecca for years, and it is a marquis stop on several Peruvian birdwatching tours. The lodge and learning centre also offer birdwatching-specific tour packages

Among its primary avian attractions are some of the most spectacular Scarlet Macaw clay licks in the Amazon; sites that have been visited by documentarians for decades. 

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Clockwise (top to botom): Sparkling Violetear, Andean Cock of the Rock, Laughing Falcon, Wood Stork

Courtesy of Crees Manu

As well as (left to right): Pale-winged Trumpeters, Tawny-bellied Screech Owl

Courtesy of Crees Manu

You could spend a month birding at either of the two Crees sites and likely leave with at least a few hundred species missing from your list. 

Mammals

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Manu’s unmatched biodiversity, particularly its teeming aquatic ecosystems, also make it one of the world’s premier mammal-watching destinations. 

From iconic species like Giant River Otters and Jaguars

Courtesy of Crees Manu

13 species of primates–clockwise (top to bottom):  Brown Titi Monkey, Emperor Tamarin, Tufted Capuchin, Goeldi’s Monkey, Common Wooley Monkey

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Rarities like the Ukari Monkey.

And Short-eared Dogs

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Your chances of seeing a large diversity of mammals at places like the Manu Learning Centre and the Romero Rainforest Lodge are high. 

Invertebrates

The problem with a place like Manu is that it is almost impossible to say or show anything that is truly representative of the staggering invertebrate diversity here. 

Tens of thousands of species (many, almost certainly, yet to be described, and many, surely, still to be discovered) of ants, termites, bees, wasps, dragonflies, damselflies, robber flies, butterflies, scarabs, worms, cockroaches, leafhoppers, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, tarantulas, orb weavers, wandering spiders, jumping spiders, fishing spiders, net-casting spiders, Uropygi, praying mantises, cicadas, katydids, and stick insects colonize every square inch of space in a place like this.

Thousands of species of butterflies have been recorded in the Manu Biosphere Reserve, making it one of the world’s premier butterfly sites. 

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Beautiful mantis species are also possible 

Courtesy of Crees Manu

Wherever your invertebrate interests lie, a macro lens or a digital camera with good macro settings is a must at a place like this. 


Conservation through community empowerment

Crees states that “to save Manu, sustainability has to be a realistic choice for local communities.”

This economic incentivization of conservation for poor, isolated (geographically and economically) rural communities (often indigenous) is universally applicable and something I have seen in action all over the world, from South America to Indonesia. 

When you visit both or either of the Crees sites, you are helping facilitate conservation by contributing to this sustainable economy, with local people involved in Crees operations at every level, from administration, maintenance, education and housekeeping to guiding and transportation. 

What’s more, 100 percent of the profits from both locations are invested back into Crees projects. 

Initiatives like Crees provide the crucial economic incentive for geographically, economically and politically isolated rural people leading subsistence lives in one of the planet’s most important biodiversity hotspots to view their unmatched biological richness as economically valuable, worth stewarding and worth protecting. 

This understanding is a necessary part of mitigating and combating the damage done by things like new infrastructure and legal and illegal natural resource extraction in the region. 

If your goal is full immersion in the most well-preserved and thriving part of the Amazon basin, at a place that is guided by genuine and scientifically-backed sustainable nature tourism, where the conservation of Amazonian wildlife and ecosystems for the good of the planet and enjoyment of future generations is the raison d’etre, Crees and it’s two Manu Biosphere Reserve sites are worthy considerations.