Surrounded by tropical houseplants and sitting under the warm light of the Texas winter, Pablo Venegas, Rainforest Partnership's herpetologist laughs as he explains how his childhood fascination for lizards and frogs led to a lifelong passion and a successful career in herpetology and biodiversity conservation.
“When I was a child, I used to search for lizards and toads in my backyard, and I’d breed tadpoles until they transformed into frogs and toads. Now I’m a professional herpetologist working on research to conserve amphibians and reptiles and their habitats.”
Although Texas is Pablo’s second home, he is most usually found in his native Peru, outside, in the midst of Tropical Andes forests, with heavy equipment securely attached to his back, his boots wet, and his eyes fixed to the ground on low-hanging branches that could be hiding the next new species of frog or lizard.
About the Cordillera de Colán
In fact, for the past year, Pablo has been doing exactly that in the Cordillera de Colán National Sanctuary and elsewhere in Peru. Located in northern Peru, in the Amazonas Region, the Cordillera de Colán is a mountainous area of the Tropical Andes rich in cloud forests and other highland ecosystems found only in this part of the world.
This sanctuary is home to many endemic species—or species found nowhere else on Earth—as its unique location, topography, and climate have created the perfect conditions for life to thrive and diversify. However, despite its undeniable value, the Cordillera de Colán is a highly unexplored area, housing many species yet to be discovered.
Why Biodiversity Conservation is Important
This is why Pablo and Rainforest Partnership, with the support of the Hollomon Price Foundation and other local partners, have led a series of expeditions to investigate and understand the true breadth of biodiversity of this pristine and unexplored region.
“I study these animals to generate knowledge about them so that this information can be used to conserve these species and their habitat. This is particularly important in countries like Peru because we don’t know the extent of the biodiversity that we have, and we need this biodiversity for human survival.”
The challenge with places like the Cordillera de Colán, which are so diverse and unknown, is that they’re also severely threatened by encroaching human activities.
“I decided to study the amphibians and reptiles of the Cordillera de Colán because it is an isolated area in the Tropical Andes that is threatened by agriculture and cattle ranching. So the forests in this place are disappearing. I am very interested in documenting all the amphibians and reptiles in these mountains so that it can urgently support the conservation of this area.”
A Race Against Time
Pablo’s work is a race against time to describe, document, and study the Cordillera de Colán’s amphibian and reptile populations; most importantly, however, it is a way to establish the scientific foundations that will help create conservation measures to ensure that this incredible biodiversity remains undisturbed.
“I work to describe, discover, and conserve these species, which are for the most part very threatened. I go to the field, find them, figure out where they are, and help start conservation programs to preserve them. This is the best job in the world.”
Pablo describes his work as a herpetologist as an adventure. When he is in the field, usually for stretches of up to 20 days, he sleeps in a tent, cold and generally wet from the constant rain, surrounded by pastures and the montane cloud forests of the Andean highlands.
It takes Pablo and his team a few days to hike all the way to the top of the Cordillera. It is a strenuous journey that involves transporting lots of heavy equipment through steep terrain and inclement weather. After setting up camp, they finally get to venture out, generally until 3:00 - 4:00 a.m. each night, to look for Pablo’s beloved creatures, down the forested slopes below them.
“We take recordings of the frogs’ calls, which are very important for identification, and we also take swabs of the frog’s skin to check for diseases. We want to know the health of these frog populations. But, especially, we search for new species. This place was not studied before, and humanity doesn’t know about the biodiversity in this place.”
Pablo’s work is far from done once his nights searching for frogs and lizards in the Cordillera de Colán are over. Each morning, the previous night’s work is meticulously documented and organized. In fact, this is just the beginning. Once he’s back in the city, Pablo works in the lab and researches in the museums and their collections, documenting his findings and writing scientific papers describing species new to science. With a smile, he says, “it’s a lot of work, but we are very excited about it.”
Pablo and his team have carried out three expeditions to the Cordillera de Colán. During these expeditions, they discovered three new species of lizards in the unique cloud forests of the Yungas Ecoregion, one of the most threatened ecoregions in the world. In surrounding areas, they discovered new species of frogs.
During last year’s expedition, Pablo and his team reached higher altitudes, discovering yet another new species of Pristimantis (rain frogs, largest genus of vertebrate animals in the world) and collecting natural history data about several rare amphibian species.
This project brings scientific knowledge for previously unexplored and unstudied areas. Pablo’s work is an important part of the long-term strategies that support the sustained conservation of this incredibly biodiverse, important and threatened landscape. Once a child’s dream, Pablo’s passion and work are now creating tangible changes that translate into hope for the future of our planet.
In the past two years, Pablo carried out expeditions beyond Cordillera de Colán. With your support of Pablo’s expeditions and other biodiversity conservation projects, you support the conservation of new and existing species and biodiversity in one of the most threatened ecoregions in the world.
We thank the incredible generosity of the Hollomon Price Foundation for supporting Rainforest Partnership and the critical work that Pablo has been doing.
Ready to explore in more detail the importance of Pablo's conservation work of these remarkable species and the science behind his discoveries?
Visit our Biodiversity Conservation in the Cordillera de Colán project page with links to Pablo's scientific articles.