Can This Lizard Save the Grand Canyon of the Andes?

The Río Marañon finds a pair of unlikely (and colorful) defenders

Marañon

Newly discovered lizard in the Marñon Canyon

Revered as the mainstem source of the Amazon, Peru’s unspoiled Río Marañon is in danger. Multinational firms have plans to build dam after dam, until the now free-flowing river is choked and tamed. As the threat of its damming looms near, the Marañon may have found its strongest defenders in two unlikely characters: newly discovered lizards.

An international research team lead by herpetologist Pablo Venegas from Peru’s Center of Ornithology and Biodiversity, and biologist Claudia Koch from the University of Bonn, Germany, had been researching the dry forests of the Marañon Canyon for two years when they happened upon their discoveries. The team named the lizards Ameiva nodam and Ameiva aggerecusans. The names mean “no dam” in English and Latin, respectively.

Venegas and Koch found these two lizards everywhere in the Marañon Canyon; they’re pretty easy to spot on warm sunny days. According to the research paper published last December in the scientific journal Zoo Taxa, the two lizards exist only in the Marañon Canyon. Proposed construction of several hydroelectric projects nearby will threaten the lizards’ habitats, and therefore, their very existence, says Koch.

Peru’s former president Alan García has declared that damming the Marañon would be “in the national interest” as it would provide thousands of megawatts of hydropower for export, and therefore, profit to the country. Powerful interests within the Peruvian government and the international business community are arrayed in support of the dam projects. Opposing them is a loose confederation of indigenous people living in the valley, the Amazon explorer Rocky Contos, and now the research team and their lizards.

At risk: looking downstream on the Río Marañon. Photo by Rocky Contos

At risk: looking downstream on the Río Marañon. Photo by Rocky Contos

“The Marañon is perhaps the most beautiful river in the world, passing through a bona fide Grand Canyon of the Andes,” says Contos, who has led two expeditions down the river. “Various studies were undertaken (and are still being done) to forward plans for 15-20 hydroelectric dams on the river, including several mega projects (>1000 MW) in the jungle.”

Contos first paddled the Marañon in 2012 as part of a six-month expedition to prove his finding that the most-distant source of the Amazon is in the Rio Mantaro basin, not the Rio Apurimac as previously supposed. He found that people living on the Marañon oppose the proposed dams. Despite local opposition to the project, however, government and corporate powers might prevail in damming the river.

“We learned that underhanded tactics are being implemented by the damming companies (and the government) to get approval of the communities and push through the hydro projects,” says Contos.

The discovery of the two lizards can bolster international opposition to the dams. Once a species is listed as endangered or threatened, the U.S. and other national governments work with organizations around the world to develop conservation efforts to protect the species. Contos and the research team hope these new discoveries will bring international attention to the threats damming poses to the Marañon and to the creatures and communities who rely on it.

Contos is also the director of SierraRios, a nonprofit corporation working to increase awareness about and protect the Latin America rivers from human-caused degradation and dam projects. Donations can be made to SierraRios, which would go toward education efforts in regions where people rely on rivers such as the Marañon to survive. You can also help by signing the petition to request to President Humala to halt the plants damming the Marañon.

Rocky Contos and a Peruvian friend on the Río Marañon. Photo by Barbara Conroy

Rocky Contos and a Peruvian friend on the Río Marañon. Photo by Barbara Conroy

Click here to learn more about Saving the Upper Amazon and other efforts by SierraRios.

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