The Wild World of a New Nature Preserve in Ecuador

Scientists have already begun discovering new species in the hotbed of biodiversity

Leafhoppers are known for devastating crops like potatoes and grapes. But they can be a benign presence within a balanced jungle ecosystem. Javier Aznar

To visit the Chocó Forest in Ecuador, you have to take a rickety ferry across the Canandé River. On the other side, you’ll find a pristine wilderness with plants and animals that exist nowhere else. This leafhopper, for instance, is unlike anything that Javier Aznar, a Spanish photographer and biologist who has been fascinated by insects since childhood, had ever seen before. Likewise, three tropical entomologists who examined his photograph agree that the bug, a cicadellida from the genus Chinaia, might be a previously undocumented species.

This brilliant little creature represents the new and enormous promise of this corner of the world, which has long been shrouded in mystery. Part of the Chocó is in Colombia, where militants have made it almost impossible for researchers to study. The other part is in western Ecuador, where loggers have destroyed 95 percent of the forests since World War II.

Now, though, things are looking up for the land and its undiscovered wildlife. The conservation group Fundación Jocotoco has purchased nearly 20,000 acres of the Ecuadorian Chocó between two government reserves, with plans to establish a protected area larger than Yosemite National Park. The land so teems with life that a PhD student who spent just five months in the Ecuadorian Chocó discovered 284 new ant species. Martin Schaefer, who heads the foundation, says, “There are so many treasures there that we don’t even know about yet.”

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