Lonely Conservationists

Elena (For the Shihuahuaco)

Written by Elena Chaboteaux 

Hi, my name is Elena Chaboteaux and I’m a 24 years old conservationist from Italy. As far as I remember I’ve always been obsessed with plants and wildlife. I grew up camping with my mum looking for “treasures” in the forest and I’m so grateful my passion has now developed into my dream job.

My current research involves the conservation of a giant sentinel of the Amazon rainforest: the Iron wood tree (Dipteryx micrantha), or Shihuahuaco, as locals use to call it. This species is fastly disappearing, being cut down at high rates due to intense illegal logging activities; a tree older than 1.000 years, destroyed in less than an hour to make furniture and parquet flooring.

I wanted to share with you the story of how I fell in love with this imposing yet very vulnerable tree and how it’s been able to change my life.

It all began back in 2016, I was watching a documentary regarding illegal deforestation in Brasil and Perù and I clearly remember how powerful it was. There was a particular scene in which we witness the growth of a Shihuahuaco seedling and, as time passes, you see the same individual was there when the Vikings reached France, it was there when Marco Polo travelled through Asia along the Silk Road, it was there when Colombo set foot on the American land, it was there when Copernico first proposed a heliocentric system, during World War I and II, there during Gandhi’s nonviolent independence movement, still there when Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface. It was there until 2012 when a couple of people saw it and cut it down in less than 45 minutes to sell it as a high-quality coffee table.

I already knew few things on the issue but that scene had me in tears and I spent the night documenting myself more and more until 2018, year in which I had finally managed to save enough money to go to Perù. I’ve always LOVED travelling and getting to know other traditions and cultures but the day I planned my first trip to the Amazon rainforest I was literally over the moon. I decided to intern in the Madre de Dios region of Perù, studying some Pteridophytes genera and taking notes and pictures of some plant pathogens I could study for my MSc thesis.

After having read a lot about illegal logging and the critically endangered Shihuahuaco, I was convinced this species would be so hard to find. Anyway, that was obviously one of the main goals!

I never would have thought my first encounter with a Shihuahuaco would actually occur on my way to the field-site, the day after I landed in Puerto Maldonado. I was in a car with three other volunteers and naturalists, following a dirt road in the forest when a massive truck, coming from the opposite direction, made us stop and pull the car over in order to let it pass. That truck was carrying huge tree logs. Shihuahuaco’s logs. The researchers working at the site told me they ran into dozens of trucks like that one, every day, carrying the trunks of logged Shihuahuacos. That’s when I realised everything I’d read was true.

Only few days later, during a walk, we found a gigantic Shihuahuaco in the forest. Before the forest ranger said anything I remember I held my breath and told myself: “here we are, Elena”. I knew I would remember that moment for the rest of my life.

In 2019, I went back to Perù to carry out my MSc thesis project: the conservation of Dipteryx micrantha (Shihuahuaco) through some molecular analyses of its rhizosphere.
I will spare you the details of this research, however, in order to compare samples, I needed to find both standing and cut down individuals.

Thanks to some GPS coordinates kindly offered to me for the purpose of this research, finding the standing ones wasn’t too hard. Once you are close enough to the point, just look around and you will easily find the tree. Every time I found one, I felt like the luckiest person alive. It’s crazy but even picking up a Shihuahuaco seed and handling it and thinking that seed, fitting on the palm of my hand, could become a thousand-years-old massive 70 m individual, is still something that gives me goosebumps.

Finding the cut down ones was way harder! I didn’t have any point on the GPS and thousands of hectares to explore. After days spent wandering around following old logging roads with no results, two forest rangers on patrol showed me and my boyfriend the location of the first stump, pretty much on the trail they used to walk every day.
Because the whole thing was a favour they did for us and therefore we were all in a bit of a rush – no time for feelings – or maybe because I wasn’t alone, the sight of my first “dead” Shihuahuaco wasn’t too shocking.

Five days later I found another old logging road, almost completely recolonised by vegetation and that would have been impossible to walk without having a machete. I followed it for a while and then went “off-trail”.. more or less 15 meters from where I was standing, I saw something. The closer I got, the thicker the vegetation became.
And there is was: a HUGE tree stump, covered in leaves, plants and shrubs. Small trees and bushes all around it had already replaced the empty spot in the forest canopy. It truly felt like I was standing in a place no longer existing, a place that used to be magnificent.. I was an uninvited guest attending a never-held funeral.
I got there by chance, however I wanted other people to be aware of the existence of this tree and the way it made me feel, so I sat there and wrote a bit about it, with tears in my eyes. Then I left.

The whole experience made me realise that being so passionate is exactly what makes us upset, frustrated, depressed and anxious but it’s also what makes us so lucky. The more you care, the more you will have moments in which you’ll feel this way. I struggle with anxiety almost everyday and only recently I started to understand it’s because I’m in love with my job and I want to be great at it.

I spent 2019 fighting 24/7 to go back to Perù with my research.. it has been the most difficult and stressful year of my life but I didn’t give up mostly thanks to a couple of trees I saw in 2018. Isn’t it weird? The best thing about passion is that it takes so very little of what you love to charge you up for so long!!

Those Shihuahuaco trees and so many others things I’ve seen and experienced in the rainforest are what I’m fighting to preserve right now, what give me anxiety and depression and sometimes make me think I’m not good enough. That’s because it’s my passion and yes, I’m sure it will be a challenging path the one ahead of us, passionate people, however I believe that is also what makes life so beautiful and worth living!

For more of Elena, visit @sciaboteaux on Instagram

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