After a long day out in the field, we made our way back to camp, happy to have set up the last camera trap on the highest point of the Cerros del Sira mountains in the heart of Peru. While we idly waited for our evening coffee to brew, we could not believe our luck when a large group of woolly monkeys swung through the canopy above our campsite. These monkeys are categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and are almost locally extinct in these lowland forest areas. Suddenly, we heard two gun shots echo through the forest. The monkeys started screaming. We were shocked. We were in a protected area, miles from the nearest town. When two of our guides checked the area, they found only shotgun shells. Camera-trap footage taken shortly afterwards confirmed the presence of hunters carrying two dead woolly monkeys.

View of the Cerros del Sira mountains at 1,650 m.

The remoteness and rugged terrain that characterize the beauty of the Sira Communal Reserve have so far protected its core area from extensive human pressure. Human population growth and growing demand for economic development are increasingly exerting pressure on these high-elevation areas. Combined with the threats posed by climate change, species loss could be catastrophic.

The Cerros del Sira are known to hold a diverse assemblage of endemic birds, amphibians and plants, as a result of its geographical isolation, yet its mammalian community remained largely unknown. Our team ventured into the depths of the Sira Communal Reserve to rectify this lacuna in our knowledge. Our study was the first camera-trap exploration of the mammal community of this area, detecting 34 medium and large mammal species. Eight are categorized as Threatened on the IUCN Red List, three as Data Deficient and one is yet to be assessed.

Expedition team member Andrew, Sira Communal Reserve Park Ranger and local field guide setting a camera trap.

Our research, published in Oryx, shows that the Cerros del Sira is exceptionally diverse, with a unique assemblage of mammals comprising typical lowland Amazonian as well as high-elevation species. The detection of large-bodied species, including the spectacle bear, jaguar, lowland tapir and giant anteater, which require extensive intact habitats, suggest a high degree of ecological integrity within the core area of the Reserve. The presence of many small, rare and cryptic species, including the margay, oncilla, short-eared dog and pacarana, further underlines the importance of the Reserve in sustaining species of conservation significance.

Self-portraits of a threatened lowland tapir and a male jaguar retrieved from a camera trap in the Cerros del Sira.

In addition to the incredible wildlife, we also detected illegal hunting activity at 1,400 m altitude and within the protected area of the Sira Communal Reserve, despite the presumption that the montane terrain of the Reserve probably receives little attention from hunters. In 2016 we also witnessed illegal logging inside the core area, at 1,250 m. Previously, most anthropogenic impact had occurred outside the core area. However, our evidence, along with satellite imagery showing canopy loss in the northern parts of the core zone, indicates this is a real and substantial threat.

A hunter carrying a shotgun, at 1,400 m within the core area of Sira Communal Reserve.

There is a clear need for increased protection of the roadless areas and intact core area of the Reserve. It is vital to ensure the maintenance of connectivity with other key protected areas of the Oxapampa–Asháninka–Yánesha Biosphere Reserve, of which the Sira Communal Reserve is a part, to facilitate species migration and gene flow for the persistence of viable populations of the diverse assemblage of species, especially the larger-bodied ones. Plans for this will need to be developed in close collaboration with the local populace and the national park authorities, to help create viable sustainable livelihoods such as wildlife viewing opportunities and research facilities that limit impacts on biodiversity.

Three mammals recorded at camera traps in Sira Communal Reserve: left, spectacled bear; middle, giant anteater; right, puma.

In addition, providing park rangers with the necessary facilities and resources to implement protection of the Reserve, such as remote sensing technologies (camera traps and acoustic monitoring devices), would complement traditional patrolling in this remote landscape. Conservation of this area would also benefit from the establishment of a biodiversity monitoring network of researchers, community members and National Park staff in key areas of the Sira Communal Reserve.

Video-trap footage

From our recent 2018 expedition to the mountains of the Sira Communal Reserve. Although the research discussed in our recent Oryx article was from our 2015 and 2016 expeditions, the video quality from our 2018 expedition was better.

All photos © Exploration Sira –

The article Camera trapping reveals a diverse and unique high-elevation mammal community under threat is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya is a tropical botanist and conservation ecologist committed to integrating the biological and human aspects of conservation. In 2018 she was one of 10 nominees for the Future for Nature Award for outstanding conservationists under 35.