Manaca Institute: The Atlantic Forest uncovered

The main question always was: how many animals are there at a given site? That is what led Mariana to lay the foundation for Manacá Institute.

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Leading the conservation process is not an easy task. Such a path is full of obstacles to be surpassed. Furthermore, it is constantly changing along with the people involved and local economic, social, and ecological contexts. Lastly, it requires qualified staff and knowledge assembled at a hard expense.

Mariana Landis has PhD in applied ecology from the Universidade de São Paulo, one of the most prestigious universities in Brazil and the world, and she is the executive director of Manacá Institute. Her career started with studying the largest primate in South America (Southern Muriqui − Brachyteles arachnoides) and ended up with one of the most distinctive creatures in the continent, the tapir (Tapirus terrestris). Despite the radical change in target species, her study subject never changed. “A question that has always captivated my research is: how many animals are there in a given site?” says Mariana. This inquiry guided Mariana’s steps across the Atlantic Forest.

The interest in population ecology wasn’t the only issue that led Mariana to her current position. “My career path is closely related to the Atlantic Forest. Since I graduated, all the opportunities that have arisen have been aimed at the conservation of endangered species of the biome.” The Atlantic Forest has been categorized as a biodiversity hotspot, which means that, in addition to a large number of endemisms (species whose distribution is restricted to a single geographic location), it is highly threatened by both habitat degradation and other human-driven activities, such as hunting. “After my master’s degree, I was hired by Elguero Farm, and the idea of founding Manacá Institute arose there in 2014”. It was founded with the purpose, together with professionals from the farm, of applied research;that is, the collection of data that can be used to directly support wildlife conservation.

“Manacá Institute is an institution that came to fill a biodiversity conservation gap in the region where it is based. We started from scratch, without resources and history, which provided a great learning experience”. Manacá’s first projects all took place within an area of about 500 hectare. Faunistic surveys (birds and mammals), carried out at great expense (few people, resources, and equipment), blazed new trails for research. This research revealed valuable information such as the surprisingly large size of the local tapir population and spurred the start of Mariana’s spurred the start of her doctoral research. Another very important discovery was the local population of the Black lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysopygus), an endangered species of primate endemic to the Atlantic Forest and the state of São Paulo. The encounter with this species allowed Manacá to raise funds to monitor this population for two years and to create the Trápaga Private Natural Heritage Reserve. As a result of this project and the creation of Trápaga, other projects began to emerge, surrounding touristic activities (e.g., birdwatching) and short-term courses.

In addition to monetary challenges of conducting research as a non-profit institution (their first project tracking local great mammals was completed with only three camera traps), Mariana and Manaca Institute still had to deal with two even more complex issues, such as motherhood and the COVID-19 pandemic. “Over these years, the most noticeable issue was the necessity of reinventing. I had to stop going to the field, which has always been my greatest source of inspiration and reflection, and focus on bureaucratic work”.

Unable to leave her house, Mariana split her time between three great tasks that have also been her greatest passions: being a mother, composing a doctoral thesis, and coordinating the institute. During this time, one of the most complex challenges for the team arose. A large number of individuals in the tapir population (Manacá’s main target of research, conservation projects, and tourism activities) were being attacked by domestic dogs that invaded the reserve located within the farm’s territory (Trápaga Private Natural Heritage Reserve). The dogs were causing great damage to the tapir population and needed to be controlled quickly. With the help of other non-governmental organizations, Núcleo da Floresta, the Wild Animal Study Group from Sorocaba University  five dogs were removed within just a week by three people roaming the entire farm on foot. Members of the Núcleo da Floresta provided all the veterinary assistance to the captured animals, which were forwarded to the nearest kennel to be adopted. The removal and control of dogs on this occasion in Trápaga and Elguero farm, carried out with so few resources and staff, demonstrates the strength of the association between entities linked by a common goal, the protection of wildlife. “For the labor to have solid and positive results, it is necessary to work in partnerships,” says Mariana.

Today, the Manacá Institute’s main research project is entitled  Large Mammals of the Serra do Mar Monitoring and Conservation Program), a collaborative initiative of researchers with the Manacá Institute and the Cananéia Research Institute (IPeC), whose objective is to monitor large mammals in an area of 17,000 km2 and to promote an integrated territorial agenda for protecting and managing these charismatic species. Also, while carrying out those goals, the program will work with the residents of this region, informing and building awareness among them about these animals and the importance of conservation of this last, largest remnant of the Atlantic Forest for the conservation of its wildlife.

Beyond all the work done aiming at conservation in the Atlantic Forest, Manacá has provided several services in the tourism and educational sectors. “When we defined the Manacá Institute’s guidelines, we decided that scientific research would be our main focus since the information generated would be essential for our strategies to be well established. However, we listed five other topics that are included in all the projects we have carried out: (1) the expansion of knowledge (training people through the provision of internships and short-term courses), (2) environmental education of the local population, (3) forest preservation, (4) local income generation and (5) ecological tourism.”

As mentioned before, the last topic of Manacá’s projects (ecological tourism) started with birdwatching, but the main and most innovative ecotourism activity implemented by Manacá was the observation of tapirs in the wild. Within the property of Elguero farm, there is a small crop of plums which once a year (during the summer) lure several tapirs that feast on them. Such an event makes it easy to observe these animals that, although large (about 250 kg), are extremely cryptic in nature. The team also invested effort in the construction of a structure in the middle of the forest (within the domains of the Trápaga reserve) that would allow the observation of fauna, without the observers being noticed by the animals.

“An example of an activity that encompassed all the components of our guidelines was the development of a rock-climbing activity at the Floresta Nacional de Ipanema protected area. Although the execution was carried out to attract the climbers, it was necessary to monitor the local population of the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) whose nesting site was located where the activities  would take place, before it could be implemented. This activity provided both the training of volunteers who monitored the area and generating local income. In addition, environmental education ended up happening naturally throughout these activities, since they aimed to immerse people in nature”. In recent years, Manacá has led several educational activities, targeting audiences of different ages and backgrounds.

There is still a lot of work to be done with regard to the touristic animal observation in the Atlantic Forest. “I believe that wildlife observation tourism is still very young in Brazil and ends up being even more challenging in the Atlantic Forest, where this activity is poorly implemented, contrary to what happens in the Pantanal, for example. This makes it difficult to argue about its impact on wildlife conservation. It may take some years of study and consolidation of this type of activity for more solid conclusions to be taken”. However, regardless of whether there are solid conclusions about the contribution of tourism to the conservation of the Atlantic Forest fauna, such activities need to be conducted with caution and responsibility. “It is necessary to avoid any situation that negatively affects the natural behavior of the animals. This is often something difficult to identify since each species      has its biological particularities. However, crossing certain boundaries, such as touching wild animals, is certainly harmful”.

The Manacá Institute will keep going, stronger than ever, in its fight for the conservation of the biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest through the implementation of research and the dissemination of knowledge. However, despite carrying out several activities focused on tourism, the Manacá Institute is a non-profit organization maintained exclusively by funds raised through donations. Contributing yourself is fairly easy and can be done by sharing the institutes’ work on social media or by donating field equipment. Find out more about how you can contribute here:


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