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River dancing: my quest to save the rainforest

Steve Backshall with birdslastattempt

A guest blog this month comes from BBC wildlife presenter and Strictly Come Dancing star, Steve Backshall.

Easter and its lure of chocolate hold nothing over me: Easter is a time for doing adventurous things. So when I got booted off Strictly, signing up to kayak the 125 miles from Devizes to the Houses of Parliament the following Easter was an obvious distraction!  I was spending all day of every day inside a dance studio and needed something to get my teeth into outside.  I trained hard from the Sunday morning after I got booted off and was kayaking almost every day, often doing marathon distances.

I teamed up with my pal George Barnicoat from the Canoe Club.  Was it as hard as Strictly?  There’s no comparison!  Well, other than my partner was shouting at me, my backside hurt and I was wearing Lycra.  One of the worst things about endurance racing is that you forget all the horrid bits; the chafing, the fatigue, the fierce lows, sitting in your own wee in a kayak with every muscle screaming at you and your brain trying to shut down.  All you remember are the good bits.  So I’ve said I’ll never do it again, but the reality is I’ll have changed my mind in a few weeks!

I’m an avid outdoorsman and explore the globe making programmes about our wonderful world and infinitely beautiful wildlife, so the environment is very special to me.  This kayak race was to raise funds to buy and protect a section of Colombian rainforest, saving it from logging, poaching and any other form of exploitation. I spend so much time in the rainforest I get to see first hand how wondrous it is, but also how fast it’s disappearing.  I desperately wanted to do something tangible, and the World Land Trust that was my nominated charity [the] allowed me to do that.

We were aiming to finish inside 24 hours and we did! We pulled it off: 125 miles paddled in 23 hours and 17 minutes. We finished outside the Houses of Parliament on Easter Sunday morning, after a hellish first day, and a strangely tranquil night of non-stop kayaking. Sore, chafed, muscles screaming and desperate for sleep, but very proud!

We were hampered by not one, but three rudder wire snaps. One of these happened in the middle of nowhere, meaning we had to run with the boat on our shoulders for maybe half an hour. George showed great fortitude, battling on despite neck and back pain, and some real low points in the night, where he kept falling asleep at the paddle!  But somehow we managed to make the tide at Teddington.

The banners, cheers and wishes along the route were hugely appreciated: they carried us through the darkest hours. We thank all those that sponsored us too and because of them we have raised enough money to buy around 500 acres of primary rainforest in Colombia.  I first started doing jungle expeditions in the late 90s and some of the places I go back to now are unrecognisable.  If we don’t do something very soon, we will alter the planet’s systems so fundamentally that there will be no going back.  Supporting the World Land Trust is my way of doing something tangible.

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Nikwax helps protect habitat for Jaguar, Spectacled Bear and Baird’s Tapir in Colombia

1,772 acres of Colombia’s threatened Chocó Rainforest has now been saved thanks in part to funding from World Land Trust, and Nikwax is delighted to have played its part in this purchase!

This year, Nikwax has donated £6,364.20 to the World Land Trust’s (WLT) Action Fund for the trust’s most urgent land purchase and protection projects. 2014 is WLT’s 25th Anniversary year and so far the trust has been able to purchase and protect over half a million acres of natural habitats and the wildlife that depend on them.  Nikwax is delighted to have been part of their success story for many years.

WLT chose to use Nikwax’s donation this year to save some critically threatened, hot tropical rainforest of the Chocó in Colombia. The coastal tropical rainforest of the Chocó, which extends from southern Colombia to northern Ecuador in a thin strip, is ranked as the fourth hotspot for biodiversity in the world.

The Chocó forests are home to an extraordinary diversity of species, including large mammals such as Jaguar, Spectacled Bear and Baird’s Tapir. With more than 200 mammal species, 600 bird species and 220 reptile and amphibian species recorded in this rainforest, it is estimated that around 25 per cent of all these species of animals and plants are only found in the Chocó.

But the Chocó is disappearing before our eyes! This is a result of logging by settlers and timber companies, and more recently a boom in the cultivation of oil palm and biofuel crops, agriculture, livestock production and general development.

Spectacled Bear, Colombia

How do WLT protect the reserve?

Once a property is purchased and a reserve created, the ownership and protection is vested in the trust’s local conservation partner. These organisations belong to WLT’s Partner Alliance and all speak regularly about their particular projects and associated challenges. Recognising that the security of a reserve rests with the local organisation, the organisation’s wildlife rangers work on the ground to keep the forests and their wildlife safe.  Often by keeping a presence on the reserve it acts to deter would-be poachers of trees and animals. For this reason, WLT has a fund specifically designed to support the employment of rangers called Keepers of the Wild, and since its launch in 2011 has supported more than 30 rangers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Not only do rangers deter poachers and traffickers, but they also carry out important monitoring work using trail cameras, recording species and assisting scientific expeditions.

WLT has been working with local conservation partner Fundación ProAves (ProAves) in Colombia since 2008 and has contributed to several land purchases. This new purchase is on the banks of the Atrato river and close to national public lands and indigenous reserves. Rising to 400 metres above sea level, this typical Chocó rainforest has very high rainfall and humidity. It is close to Las Tangaras Reserve, which WLT has been supporting for some years.

Colombia, Chocó forest habitat

Colourful Puffleg Hummingbird found in the Choco © Luis Mazariegos

Spectacled Bear © Paul Salaman

Choco forest of Colombia © ProAves

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World Land Trust – true to its word: Saving Real acres in Real places

WorldLand Trust (WLT) celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year and believes it has something to shout about. Its strapline ‘Saving Real acres in Real places’ is as true today as it was when they established its first project, Programme for Belize, in 1989.  In those days it was possible for the charity to buy threatened forest for £25 an acre but unfortunately that is no longer the case. However, WLT hasn’t strayed from its mission and still funds land purchase as a direct route to land conservation. Through its overseas project partners, WLT funds the purchase of acres for £100 each in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Mexico, as well as launching major appeals to save strategically important parcels of land where the cost is much higher.

Over its quarter of a century, WLT has helped purchase and save more than 500,000 acres (202,342 hectares) across the globe. These acres protect tropical forests, coastal steppe, grasslands and savannah, and would have been lost had WLT and its generous supporters not been able to step in with fire brigade funding. Be assured though, WLT does not own one centimetre of land outside the UK, the ownership of all the forest and threatened habitats that WLT has successfully funded is now safely vested in its overseas project partners who manage the land as strictly protected nature reserves.

In 2013 Nikwax contributed to two WLT Buy an Acre projects: in Bolivia and Colombia.

Saving the Beni savanna in Bolivia

Bolivia has only recently come onto the travel radar but it’s a country with immense biodiversity, with snow-capped mountains, cloud forest, rainforest and flooded savannas. WLT is working with partner, Armonía, to save as much as possible of the Beni savanna in the south west corner of the Amazon basin. This region is facing a battery of threats – logging and cattle ranching, plus regular burning, and agribusiness has introduced non-native grassland species. On top of this, the increasing threat of industrial farming for biofuel looms. The Beni savanna is the only breeding ground of the critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw and provides habitat for Jaguar, Maned Wolves, Giant Anteater and a host of engaging and endangered wildlife. Nikwax has supported the creation of the Barba Azul Nature Reserve that protects 26,382 acres (10,521 hectares).

More land saved in the Chocó rainforest of Colombia

The Chocó rainforest of Colombia claims to holds the record for being the wettest place on Earth, it is also one of the most endangered. This coastal tropical forest is listed in the world’s 34 global biodiversity hotspots. Together these hotspots contain more than half the planet’s plant species and 77 per cent of all terrestrial vertebrate species, in just 2.3 per cent of the Earth’s surface. Nikwax has supported land purchase in Colombia through WLT and its partner, ProAves, and helped extend the land under protection by 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares).

WorldLand Trust also helps fund reserve rangers through their Keepers of the Wild programme.

Keepers of the Wild | World Land Trust

WorldLand Trust is a registered charity: 1001291

Patrons:  Sir David Attenborough, David Gower & Chris Packham