Although Ecuador is the home of Latin America's
most famous nature reserve, the Galapagos Islands, dozens of the country's
smaller national parks are underfunded and largely unknown to citizens
Protected lands, making up 18% of Ecuador's territory, stretch from
the Pacific coast across the peaks of the Andes into the lush green
rainforest and are cherished for their pristine beauty and a biological
diversity nearly unrivalled on Earth. Reserves vary from the tiny
island sanctuary of Santa Clara to Yasuní National Park, with
nearly one million hectares of rainforest.
But the system controlling Ecuador's unique natural
treasures is a tenuous patchwork of government and private interests
supported by unsteady politics and unreliable foreign investment.
Ecuador's Ministry of Environment manages and operates
33 national parks and reserves, comprising a total of 4.7 million
hectares (12.7 million acres). In the massive duty of maintaining
so much protected land, smaller reserves can slip through the cracks.
Oswaldo Jácome and Miguel Guerra make their
living guiding tourists from the sleepy northern sierra town of El
Angel to the nearby national reserve of the same name.
"We are happy that they made this a reserve
because it brings tourists to our town and it protects the wildlife,"
said Jácome on an overcast September day as he surveyed the
stark páramo (high altitude grasslands) of his native town.
El Angel's chilly, peaceful plains, 3,700 meters
above sea level and twenty kilometres from the Colombian border in
Carchi province, used to be home to dozens of Andean condors, which
would swoop down on the landscape to hunt rabbits, foxes and rodents
among the two-meter-tall frailejón plants. However, farmers
have killed nearly all of the condors to protect their livestock.
The reserve, created 10 years ago, is drawing a small number of tourists
and beginning to protect the wildlife and terrain as locals learn
the importance of conservation.
El Angel is not one of Ecuador's more famous national
parks, like the areas surrounding Cotopaxi or Chimborazo volcanoes.
Locals in El Angel expect to see just a few tourists trickle into
town each day during the high season. Two park guards man the 15,000-hectare
reserve. "With more funding, managers could keep hunters and
farmers out of the park's borders, promote itself to tourists, build
more hiking trails, support scientific research and bring prosperity
to the town of El Angel," Jácome said.