People behind the giant otter project - Romina Najarro

We are surveying a beautiful oxbow lake in the buffer zone of Manu National Park for otter presence. With me on the rubber boat is one of my research assistants, Romina Najarro. Romina joined the project at the start of 2019, after she had spent several months in the jungle, assisting with research on birds and primates. Her field experience, reliability and motivation stood out. She is a true nature lover and conservation advocate. I asked Romina five questions.

What are your position and responsibilities in the giant otter project?

I am a research assistant. My role in the project includes following giant otters, observing and registering their behaviors. We also paddle quite a bit on the lakes, maintain and prepare the research instruments, like the drone, the video camera. Aside from research-related activities, we also cook, wash dishes and help with the rest of the campsite tasks.

Which animals have you studied before joining the project?

I studied birds and mammals, such as monkeys and tapirs. I also took part in a bat project, which was nice. The majority of research I participated in was on birds in the Amazon.

What aspect of the giant otter project attracted you the most?

I was interested in the impacts of gold mining, because it has been going on in these areas for several years and not many people thoroughly studied its effects on aquatic ecosystems. I am especially interested in the effects of mercury. Some basic research has been done, but I think it’s important to use a comparative approach, and this is what this project offers. 

I also like that we study not only the otters, but also the overall state of oxbow lakes, quantifying things like water quality, doing bird censuses, and examining how mining is affecting these aquatic ecosystems. It’s interesting to see how diversity changes as you move into the gold mining zone, where so far we have seen very few otters. 

Another important aspect is giant otter behavior. For example, in Huitoto (a lake in the gold mining zone) the otter group is harder to observe and is more careful around the researchers, probably because of the noise of dredges and the constant presence of people. 

One of the things that I like about the project is that we collect giant otter hair to assess mercury levels, because this allows us to measure accumulation of effects over time. It would also be interesting to compare with mercury levels in Manu (a protected area), that may already have high natural levels of mercury. I find this very interesting and I would like to read the results when they are published.

I am also interested in what we can do about it. I think it’s important not only doing research but also making sure this information is used for conservation. Working with the communities is also something that the project does, including education on the effects of mining. Speaking to people who practice gold mining about the effects of mining may be unsafe for us because we are entering the lakes and they can show a hostile attitude, but it’s important to know how to communicate so the local people understand that it’s not only the impact on biodiversity and the otters, but also on the people themselves. 

It’s also important that the government takes responsibility and understands the needs of people. People do not practice gold mining because they are crazy or because they want to contaminate the environment, but because they need to work, and that is a social problem. I find the subject of gold mining very interesting.

You have been in Cocha Cashu Biological Station a few times. What is your connection with Cashu and why do you think it’s important?

I first arrived at Cashu because Dr. Ursula Valdez hired me as a teaching assistant for her course. It was marvelous, because I had never been so deep into the rainforest. It was incredible and I was surprised with everything. Every day I learned something new. I never thought there could be that much diversity in one place. 

I later returned to Cashu as an assistant in other projects. I think Cashu is very important because it’s a research center that facilitates the study of anything a biologist is interested in - birds, mammals, fishes or plants. The comforts that Cashu offers, like shelter from the rain, platforms to pitch tents and internet access that helps with research, are not easy to maintain. 

Having Wi-Fi connection allows you to communicate with the outside world and your family while you are there but also helps searching for papers and doing things that assist with research. You can sometimes find literature that can improve your methodology and make changes to your work or also consult other researchers or your advisor in case you have problems. 

Cashu provides many possibilities, given its history. Many characters that are important for Peruvian and tropical ecology have passed there, and it keeps growing.

What you think of life in the field, of sleeping in tents and cooking your own food? 

I love sleeping in a tent, it’s great. I like it because the floor is flat and I feel that my back rests more. I also like hearing the sounds of nature at night, whether we sleep on beaches or inside the jungle. I enjoy looking at the stars at night. The tents are waterproof, so if it rains we are protected. This last trip it rained a lot and some of us got a little wet but it is not something that seriously bothers me.

I also like cooking in a group because everyone cooperates and people have different tasks, so I think it’s fun. I don’t feel that any aspect of field life is uncomfortable.

Do you have an interesting story to share?

Once with the giant otter project, we had trouble finding a place to sleep for the night. We eventually found a beach on a river bank that was spacious but a bit flat. That night it rained a lot. I woke up and ground was a bit soft , like I was sleeping on a water bed. I thought it was strange. One of the volunteers passed by my tent and said: “Hey, Romina, there is no more camp site, we are flooded”. There was no more beach. We were practically in the middle of the river.