Activists are pushing for the first-ever UNESCO status for acoustics to be awarded to the calls of 400 bird species and rare frogs in the Mashpi cloud forest in Ecuador.
Three weeks ago, a new species of glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium mashpi) was named by the team at Mashpi Lodge, a remote eco-hotel on the western flanks of the Andean Mountains, three hours northwest of Quito. When the tiny, transparent-bellied amphibian was first found, researchers thought it was the Valerioi glass frog, another similar-looking species endemic to the area. But after listening to recordings of the animal’s distinct call - a chirping, cricket-like sound - scientists were able to distinguish the Mashpi frog from its relatives.
For Miguel Sevilla, a director of Grupo Futuro, Mashpi’s parent company, the discovery underscored the importance of sound to the reserve’s conservation and research efforts. Since the property’s founding 10 years ago, in-house biologists alongside Ecuadorian and international researchers have documented nine new species on the 6,177-acre reserve, a tropical cloud forest that’s among the planet’s most biodiverse places.
Now, Sevilla has partnered with some of Ecuador’s leading environmentalists and humanitarians on a conservation initiative with farther-reaching consequences. Together with the Sacha Warmi Foundation, which advocates for Indigenous people and organizations in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the team is pushing for the Mashpi reserve and the surrounding Chocó and Pastaza regions to be protected by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre on the basis of “acoustic value,” a category not currently covered by the organization’s mandate.
The parties began the process in 2019 and are currently working with government officials and ministers to, hopefully, get the category approved by this time next year.
While hundreds of natural heritage sites appear on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Sevilla believes the framework for eligibility is too narrow, and in some cases prioritizes visual impact over all else.
By contrast, the Mashpi cloud forest can’t be appreciated by sight alone, especially because of the thick fog that envelops the area. “It’s like the expression, ‘You can’t see the forest for the trees,’” he says. “You have to develop other senses in order to discern what’s there.”
By broadening UNESCO’s reach to include sites of extraordinary acoustic value, the team hopes to add a layer of protection to the Pastaza and Chocó regions, home to the majority of Ecuador’s primary forest.