The Making of Amazon Gold

An in-depth look at the gold mining in Madre de Dios, from fieldwork dramas to an award-winning new film. A super interesting read.

Surround Science

New film documents a shadow world: the illegal gold mines of the Peruvian Amazon.
When Sara duPont first visited the Peruvian Amazon rainforest in the summer of 1999, it was a different place than it is today. Oceans of green, tranquil forest, met the eye at every turn. At dawn, her brain struggled to comprehend the onslaught of morning calls and duets of the nearly 600 species of birds resounding under the canopy. 
Today, the director of the new award-winning film,  Amazon Gold , reports that “roads have been built and people have arrived. It has become a new wild west, a place without law. People driven by poverty and the desire for a better life have come, exploiting the sacred ground.”

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Jaguars in Argentine Chaco on verge of local extinction

This article was written for the environmental news website, and the original can be found here.
The majestic jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest of the New World cats, is found as far north as the southern states of the US, and as far south as northern Argentina. In the past jaguars ranged 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) further south, but their range has shrunk as habitat loss and human disturbance have increased. Overall, jaguars are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN, but the level of risk facing jaguars varies by region. Populations in Argentina, at the present-day southern range limit, have previously been identified as some of the most threatened of them all.

The Chaco is considered home to the largest Argentine population, but the inaccessibility of the region has meant that until recently very little was known about the exact status of the population here. To address this lack of knowledge, biologists have undertaken a major study of jaguar range and abundance, recently published in Fauna and Flora International’s journal, Oryx. The results of the study point to a striking conclusion: the jaguar population in the Argentine Chaco is in crisis, and at risk of imminent local extinction.

Biologist Veronica Quiroga with a jaguar pelt hunted in the Argentinean Chaco.
Biologist Veronica Quiroga with a jaguar pelt hunted in the Argentinean Chaco. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

A vast wilderness of dry forest, scrubland and plains, the Gran Chaco is the second largest forest region in the Americas. It encompasses parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, and is a hot, inhospitable and sparsely populated region. It was partly this isolation that drew biologist Verónica Quiroga, of the National Research Council of Argentina, lead author of the study, to the Argentine Chaco, where she has been working for over a decade.

“From the first time I went to the Chaco and watched the first mammal footprints marked in the dry powder, I knew that I wanted to work some time in that environment and with large mammals,” she told Her studies of mammals in the Copo National Park sparked an interest in jaguars in particular. “The first alarming conclusions were that very little was known of the species in the Chaco region, that nobody was studying jaguars particularly there and that, apparently, populations were having an important numerical decrease throughout the region.”

Biologist Verónica Quiroga colecting scats of pumas in the Aborigen Reserve. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

Quiroga and her team have since carried out an intensive long-term survey of jaguars in the Argentine Chaco. They focused on locations thought to have the highest likelihood of jaguars, including Copo National Park and Aborigen Reserve, as well as sites that differ in their levels of legal protection, livestock burden and hunting pressure. A large network of camera traps collected more than 5,320 nights of footage, and over 120 local people were interviewed about their knowledge and experiences with jaguars. The team walked more than 900 kilometers (560 miles), searching for signs of jaguar presence. But despite this exhaustive effort, the results were bleak. No photographs of jaguars were captured by the camera traps, and very few tracks were found. In total, 35 records of jaguars were obtained, and only 13 of these were direct observations.

Jaguars inhabit three regions in Argentina, and the Chaco population is important to maintain population connectivity not only within Argentina, but also between populations in Bolivia and Paraguay.

“Until this study began, it was believed that the Chaco population of jaguars was the largest in Argentina, by the large surface area occupied and its connection with other populations, like the Paraguayan Chaco,” said Quiroga. “It was a big surprise to discover that not only the densities were very low, but this population is the most threatened of the three remaining in the country.”

A puma (Puma-concolor) marking its territory on the banks of the Bermejo River in La Fidelidad.
A puma (Puma-concolor) marking its territory on the banks of the Bermejo River in La Fidelidad. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

The conversion of jaguar habitat to cattle ranching and the persecution of jaguars themselves are the main drivers of this population decline. The number of hunted jaguars reported in interviews can be used as an indicator of jaguar abundance, and the study found that this has dropped ten-fold over the last decade. Rather than indicating a change in hunting practice, or in the perception of jaguars as a threat to livestock and people, this reflects the rate at which local people now come into contact with jaguars. Although the overall range size has not decreased, the dramatic drop in abundance will spur conservation action.

“At this time it is necessary, with utmost urgency, to develop a campaign to improve awareness of the problems facing the species, its conservation value, and its importance in the ecosystem as top predator,” Quiroga explained.

“We also need a campaign to suggest changes in livestock management to prevent possible conflicts with the species. It is necessary to work with rural schools, with park rangers, with local communities and with other key actors of the rural Chaco region, to try to change the local perception about the species.”

An Aguará guazú (Chrysocyon-brachiurus) in dry chaco forest from La Fidelidad Argentina.
An Aguará guazú (Chrysocyon-brachiurus) in dry chaco forest from La Fidelidad Argentina. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

The jaguar’s decline in the Chaco is indicative of wider population declines affecting other species, such as the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), the endemic Chacoan peccary (Chacoan wagneri), and puma (Puma concolor). Therefore, action taken to benefit the jaguar will also benefit many other species.

“The creation of new protected areas, as well as the correct implementation of those that already exist, such as conservation corridors where poaching is controlled, are urgent actions to be carried out by the local government,” Quiroga said.

Quiroga and her team are continuing their work to document and protect the mammals of the Argentine Chaco. A major focus for their future work is a region known as La Fidelidad, which has been proposed as a future national park.

Verónica Quiroga and Veterinarian Juan Arrabal checking trails in Copo National Park.
Verónica Quiroga and Veterinarian Juan Arrabal checking trails in Copo National Park. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

“This area is located in the heart of the Argentine Chaco, it is 2,500 square kilometers of Chaco forest in excellent condition, without rural inhabitants and with a great potential for the recovery of the jaguar. This site is one of the last with these characteristics in the region, is in a strategic location with respect to other protected areas, and has a high availability of prey for the jaguar,” Quiroga explained.

“Our research efforts will be focused in the coming years at La Fidelidad and in other sites of the Chaco region where we believe that the jaguar still has a chance.”

Tapir (Tapirus-terrestris) in dry chaco forest from La Fidelidad Argentina.
Tapir (Tapirus-terrestris) in dry chaco forest from La Fidelidad Argentina. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.


  • Quiroga, V. A., Boaglio, G. I., Noss, A. J. and Di Bitetti, M. S. 2013. Critical population status of the jaguar Panthera onca in the Argentine Chaco: camera-trap surveys suggest recent collapse and imminent regional extinction. Oryx. DOI:

Journey into the Amazon, devastation before beauty

We flew from Quito to Coca, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, to get to Tiputini Biodiversity Station deep in the rainforest. It was a tough choice, whether to take the bus or plane, and flying felt like the shameful, hypocritical choice given the region’s controversial and damaging oil extraction in recent decades. The alternative for the return trip was 2 days of treacherous mountain roads in the rainy season, and two nights in Coca, a busy, polluted town, home to local communities and oil workers. The flight was half an hour each way. It is this convenience, and our expectation to take the quicker, simpler journey, that has helped us become dependent on oil. We are now so desperate to find new oil fields to exploit, that one of the most biodiverse places on earth, Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, could be irreversibly damaged to meet our fuel demands. If this does happen, then in exchange for the suffering of indigenous peoples and the destruction of biodiversity, we would gain enough oil to keep the world running for about a week. It seems a ludicrous choice to make.

However, just like the many passionate scientists working in the depths of the forest at Tiputini Biodiversity Station, fly we did. Stepping off the plane was like stepping into a sauna, hot and muggy, but instead of the heady smell of tropical rainforest we were greeted by an unpleasant mix of traffic fumes and smoke. Before long we were in a boat on the Napo river, heading downriver, the banks so far apart that the mighty rainforest – where it was still standing and hadn’t been cleared for oil or agriculture – appeared to be no more than a hedge along each side. We passed a gas flare burning on the banks, and were overtaken by speedboat ferries taking their cargo of workers to the oil and gas extraction sites. Ecuador (263)

After an hour and a half we arrived at a checkpoint owned by Repsol YPF, a Spanish-Argentinian oil and gas company that controls access to a road that would take us to a second boat on the Tiputini river. We filed through, our bags were x-rayed, and we drove for an hour, on a bus with no sides and hard wooden bench seats, along the gravel road.

Repsol YPF are so sensitive to security that photography is forbidden. This region was first and foremost home to the indigenous Huaorani people. The Huaorani remain, some living in wooden homes built for them by Maxus (the Ecuadorian company that originally constructed the road) that bear no resemblance to their traditional houses.  We saw these, and paths disappearing into productive crop gardens, drove over rivers with signs giving their indigenous names, and saw dugout canoes in the water beneath us.

We learnt a great deal more about what we had seen later in the week, when a presentation and documentary on the road and Huaorani communities was shown at the research station. The road itself, necessary for the transport of oil, resulted in direct deforestation, but as discussed in a previous blog, roads bring people which lead to further deforestation. To prevent colonisation along the road, the oil company became guardian, hence the checkpoint. It was alleged that at one point, unsure what to do with a particular waste product, and apparently seeking to fulfill an obligation to be of benefit to the local communities, this waste was spread on top of the gravel road to keep dust levels down. Not only was dust not a problem to start with, this toxic waste soon washed off in the rain, and into the surrounding soil and water. It was also alleged that the education that has been provided by the oil companies has been a failure, with the level of education so poor that school graduates are not employable in towns, where many now wish to live and work. We heard anecdotally that it has also deprived them of their chance to develop the knowledge of the forest that is needed to live as previous generations have done. As a result, school graduates now often end up as beggars in town, or reliant on an elderly relative who will support up to twenty people in the forest. From what we heard and saw, it appears that the social fabric of this Huaorani community has been destroyed.

The road remains gravelled and not paved so that one day the forest can grow back… when this was explained to us it was met with a grim, hollow laugh, as if this small token gesture would redeem the companies of the devastation they have caused.

Elsewhere in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the legal battle between indigenous communities and Chevron, responsible for extremely destructive practices over the last 30 years, is ongoing. Support for the local communities is one of several campaigns run by Amazon Watch, and their statement about Chevron’s activities is chilling:

“The company deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and streams, spilled millions of gallons of crude oil, and abandoned hazardous waste in hundreds of unlined open-air pits littered throughout the region. The result is widespread devastation of the rainforest ecosystem and local indigenous communities, and one of the worst environmental disasters in history.” Amazon Watch

While extraction practices now need to be seen as far more socially and environmentally responsible, the fact that the gas fields are now harder to reach, and the grade of the oil much lower, means that extraction will be increasingly energy intensive and destructive. One must only look to neighbouring Peru, where the sadly familiar dance between government, oil companies and indigenous people is also taking place, to see oil companies acting in their own interests despite their statements to the contrary. In Peru, the very existence of groups in voluntary isolation is denied by the oil companies who want to work in their territories, despite clear evidence that indigenous people are present.

Seeing the effects of our thirst for oil, as first-hand as we were able, was shattering. An understanding of what is at risk makes it even more difficult to contemplate the effects of further extraction, encroaching more and more on areas like Yasuni National Park. Since we visited, an oil spill caused by a ruptured pipeline (belonging to another oil company) resulted in 11,000 barrels of oil entering the Coca river, which then made its way downstream to the Napo, and onwards into Peru. The Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, has offered an innovative solution to the conservation of the region: rather than continue with oil extraction, the oil will remain in the ground if the international community donates half the value of the oil to Ecuador, for use in social and environmental projects. This would amount to $3.6 billion, over 13 years, which in global economic terms is the bargain of the century (this ‘Billion Dollar-o-Gram‘ helps put it in perspective). But even this – a simple lifeline for some of the last pristine rainforest in the world – has been met not only with apathy by governments around the world, but with fierce criticism. Critics argue that Correa is blackmailing the world, and that his assurances cannot be guaranteed. The argument in favour asserts that as Ecuador could very much use the economic benefits of this oil, they should be compensated for foregoing its exploitation. I think it is a small price to pay to at least buy some more time to work out a cleaner way to exploit the oil reserves, or to come up with a sustainable alternative to oil, that we will need sooner or later anyway.

Our bus stopped at the top of a bank above the Tiputini river, and we hobbled off. Huaorani families were washing, playing, and fishing in the river, small children giggling, and a woman cackling with laughter as she shared jokes with our guides and coaxed a fishing line. This was the last leg of the trip, down the much narrower, meandering Tiputini. Trees hung low over the water. We spotted monkeys, herons, kingfishers, and still life arrangements of turtles on half-submerged branches, who would tip sideways into the water as we went past. We were scouring the trees for wildlife, and hoping against hope for a jaguar on the bank, as river travel is often the best way to see a big cat in the rainforest. A boat on a narrow jungle river is one of my favourite places to be, and the hour and a half it took to reach the research station was a joy. As the afternoon sun turned golden we rounded the final bend and saw wooden steps rising out of the water, leading to a roofed platform, beyond which lay the dining room and narrow trails leading to cabins in the forest. Ecuador (170)

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The journey had been long, and had shown us one of the uglier sides of the world, before ending in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Without the sound of the boat engines, the jungle noises could now be heard, and we sat and watched the water flow round the bend beneath the station, as the light faded, macaws flew back to their roosts, and bats emerged to skim the surface of the water.

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