Serra das Lontras Atlantic Forest Project, Bahia, Brazil
The coastal mountains of Serra das Lontras and Serra do Javí form part of the coastal massif of southern Bahia, north eastern Brazil. They have received little attention from conservationists or biologists. However, levels of biological endemism (uniqueness) are high in the mountains' Atlantic forests, with many bird species new to science being described over the last 20 years. There is a very real prospect that more birds, and indeed other taxa remain to be discovered.
The Atlantic tropical forests which cover the mountains have suffered centuries of exploitation resulting in a landscape comprising a mosaic of plantations, pastures, second-growth, 'cabrucas' and well preserved forests. Cocoa was traditionally one of the major crops in this area and has long been cultivated under the cabruca system, whereby canopy trees are maintained and cocoa trees are planted in the shaded understorey. However, due to a recent cocoa crisis (caused by a combination of disease and fluctuating market values), many cabrucas have been abandoned or turned over to less environmentally-friendly agricultural practices.
The bird life of the mountain ranges along the coast of Bahia were virtually unknown until a series of surveys during the 1990s revealed that this area is exceptionally important for Atlantic forest birds and holds two bird species new to science, Bahia Spinetail Synallaxis whitneyi and Bahia Tyrannulet Phylloscartes beckeri.
The surveys initially focused on an area called Boa Nova, to the north-west of Serra das Lontras, which has now been destroyed. However more recent surveys have looked at the Serras das Lontras and Serras do Javí mountains.
The Serra das Lontras-Javi complex supports populations of both the Bahia Spinetail and the Bahia Tyrannulet, and nine other globally threatened species, but most excitingly, they hold two more bird species new to science which are currently being described. With so many significant recent discoveries, the mountains in this area are clearly of very high biodiversity conservation importance. The threats that the forests currently face, and the recent destruction of the forest at Boa Nova, make it imperative that we act now to save these very special places and their birds.
The landscape within the Serra das Lontras and Serra do Javí is undergoing a dramatic change, with large canopy trees being felled as the cabrucas are being abandoned or converted to coffee plantations and pastures. Clearings for subsistence agriculture are constantly being opened up within the forest remnants, thus reducing the integrity of what little forest remains.
In a relatively small area of forest, Serra das Lontras supports populations of 11 globally threatened bird species. Four of these species are new to science and a fifth, described several years ago, represents is a new genus and is dependent on the canopy trees within the cabrucas, demonstrating the importance of this plantation system for conservation.
The Instituto de Estudos Sócio-Ambientais do Sul da Bahia (IESB) has undertaken a socio-economic and environmental assessment of the area, interviewing most of the landowners, assessing the land-use and extent of forest on each property, and determining the possibilities for land purchase. BirdLife International, in conjunction with IESB undertook field surveys earlier this year to assess the quality of each forest area, and the distribution of the globally threatened bird species. The best condition forests cover the eastern and western portions of Serra das Lontras. Two other areas of forest are also in relatively good condition.
Our work shows that an integrated system of protection seems most appropriate to maintain the integrity of the forests in this region. We are now looking for support to enable us to take immediate action to protect these unique forests by establishing a Private Reserve encompassing a core area of forest, establishing a state level conservation unit, ensuring the maintenance of the cabruca system of farming that surrounds the forested area, and sustainably managing the remnant forest areas within the Serra das Lontras/Javí complex.