People behind the Peru giant otter conservation project: Alejandro (‘Apu’) Alarcon Pardo

Alejandro Alarcon Pardo (Apu) has been a field assistant with the Peru giant otter conservation project for the last two years. He has many professional skills, which is why I chose him. But he also has other unexpected qualities: he gets along with everyone and is the ‘glue’ person of the team. He is also an excellent cook. During a break in our giant otter observations in an oxbow lake, he agreed to answer five questions.

What is your position in the project?

I am a research assistant. In our research group, we all feel equal whether we are assistants, researchers, volunteers or logistics members.

Which species have you studied so far?

I have studied primates, especially the yellow-tailed wooly monkey, endemic to Peru, from the Lagothrix genus. For my Bachelor’s thesis, I also studied the long-whiskered owlet (Xenoglaux loweryi), another endemic species. Nowadays I study giant otters.

Why did you choose to join the giant otter project? What aspect about it attracts you the most?

Several aspects of this project made it interesting for me. As I studied to be a biologist, one of my main goals was to be involved in conservation. I have always searched for such projects in Peru, despite the fact that such opportunities are few and I don’t know many colleagues that are able to do this kind of work. 

When I joined the project, I didn’t know much about mammals, because most of my background was studying birds. I needed to learn about how to work within a group, about research methods and about data management. The field conditions in the project do not offer much comfort and that takes getting used to. I think we did a good job adapting.

Another aspect that attracts me in the project is being in contact with nature. When you observe giant otter groups, you learn about their social dynamics and the complex interactions within families, and this is a part of the project I truly enjoy. 

I can now say that I have a good level of knowledge on giant otter behavior and I am able to discuss it with other people who study otters. The management and entry of data are also a significant aspect of the work, that each person related to the project needs to learn.

What is your relationship with Cocha Cashu Biological Station? What is the importance of such sites in an era of habitat destruction and climate change?

I didn’t know Cocha Cashu before I joined the project, except for the Wallace course, for which I considered applying at some point. There are not many similar stations in Peru. When I arrived there, I realized that this is a place where they welcome researchers and provide them several opportunities. 

I feel that the station’s staff works in great harmony, despite the occasional conflicts. It makes the station a welcoming place for researchers. The diversity of animals and plants is outstanding.

The station gives several Peruvians the opportunity to initiate themselves in the world of ecology. It allows them to experience true field research. I know several young people for which it provided such opportunity. Young students that arrive are exposed to a large variety of ideas and I feel that this gives them great motivation to do research in a protected area. The station also keeps relationships with local communities. It is a beautiful place that has high quality facilities. 

I believe that it is also important to understand the reality outside the Manu national park. It would be interesting to replicate the model in the other areas where we work, such as the lower Madre de Dios, where communities and social conditions are distinct. In this area full of ecological conflicts and mining activities, things are a bit more complicated. 

It is important to be present here (in the mining zone) and seek strategies to also conduct research in highly impacted places. In such areas, people are more difficult to access. However, it is vital to work with these people because they are the ones that will eventually bring change.

Tell us your favorite field work story.

The camp routine is not easy. An example is when in my first trip our boat banged against a rock, and this gave me a serious scare.

We all wake up at 4:30-5:00, and not everyone is in a good mood. Every person has their own personality and the morale gradually changes with time. When you live with these different personalities for a whole month some people need to adapt. The good thing about our group is that we have learned to coexist. 

I feel good within the project. During my studies I believed it would be hard to do the things we do at present. I think everything that I have done has helped me a bit to get to where I am. I miss home sometimes, but I am lucky to be here, in nature. People tell me that I travel too much. I tell them that this life enables you to see things that you cannot experience in the city. I want to go on with this career and I like that we are a cohesive group where we learn from each other.