It takes a whole day to travel from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, to the heart of the Unesco Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, some 100km to the southeast. The journey entails three hours by car to the edge of the forest, and then anywhere from seven to 15 hours by boat, mule and foot, mostly uphill and on a muddy road, to reach the interior. But the effort is worth it, considering you wind up in the middle of a pristine forest that houses a rather unusual find: walking palm trees.
Some spots of the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve host nearly 500 species of birds, 51 species of large mammals, 64 species of reptiles, 61 species of amphibians, 6,000 plant species, more than 600 species of butterflies and several very old fern trees, some hundreds of years old.
Like the Ents from JRR Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings saga (only a bit slower), these trees actually move across the forest as the growth of new roots gradually relocates them, sometimes two or three centimetres per day. While some scientists debate whether these trees walk, Peter Vrsansky, a palaeobiologist from the Earth Science Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences Bratisla, claims to have seen this phenomenon first hand.
“As the soil erodes, the tree grows new, long roots that find new and more solid ground, sometimes up to 20m,” said Vrsansky. “Then, slowly, as the roots settle in the new soil and the tree bends patiently toward the new roots, the old roots slowly lift into the air. The whole process for the tree to relocate to a new place with better sunlight and more solid ground can take a couple of years.”
Vrsansky, a local guide and conservationist Thierry García have spent the last few months living in the forest while documenting the threats that jeopardize some of its biological wonders.
“During our investigations, we discovered some undocumented 30m waterfalls, two new vertebrate species (a lizard and a frog) and we were attacked by a big herd of really big woolly monkeys,” Vrsansky said. “They were throwing everything at us, including 6m-long dry branches, even their faeces and urine.”
The experience has been daunting as they forage from the forest and survive arduous conditions; Vrsansky recalls losing about 10kg of weight within a week. But despite the hardships, Vrsansky said he was exhilarated when he found, in a single spot, more than 150 cockroach species – more than those currently living in all of Europe. These cockroaches were nothing like the hideous critters lurking around your house; they were all different colours, many either luminescent, shining in the dark, or impossible to discriminate from their backgrounds due to their ability camouflage themselves by mimicking leafs.
Surprisingly, this fairy-tale forest is currently for sale through the “agricultural reform”, which supports locals cutting down trees in order to gain living rights to a piece of land. “What is happening is that people come, cut down a bunch of trees and gain ownership of their piece of land. Then, after five years, as stipulated by this new law, they are able to sell the land. And they do,” Vrsansky said.
Until now, few locals have technically lived inside the forest. A local shaman claims there is a “bad spirit” inside some parts of the reserve, and the forest is rich in disease-bearing insects and other potential threats.
Still, buying the reserve piece by piece is one of the strategies conservationists are using to save it from deforestation. One hectare goes for less than $500, and so far, García has bought more than 300. “He is not rich,” Vrsansky said of the conservationist, “But now he owns and protects his own harpy eagle, his own jaguar and more than 10,000 arthropod species. And sorry, I forgot, his own waterfall.”
Other potential conservation strategies include selling the land to a university or institute so it becomes a protected research area, or using the forest to promote tourism.
“For [visitors], walking by condors and raging volcanoes, combined with the pristine forest, is a window to an existential past,” Vrsansky said. “The forest itself? This is a full display of the life on Earth. You literally feel [like you’re] diving inside an ocean full of life.”
Since 2010, about 200 hectares of forest have been cleared near the Bigal River Biological Reserve, a French-supported research station within the Sumaco reserve. Elsewhere in the reserve, many thousands of hectares have been affected since the building of an access road in 1986.
“This [cutting] is a shame, as Ecuador is one of the world countries with the highest partition of protected areas. But the trees can’t walk fast enough to escape the chainsaw and the machetes backed by current legislation,” Vrsansky said.
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story did not state that some scientists dispute the claim of walking trees. The story has been updated.