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Punta San Juan: The Last Refuge by Patricia Majluf

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Punta San Juan, a natural refuge that deserves conservation.

Punta San Juan, refuge to a significant percentage of sea lions.

The easy access from Punta San Juan to the wildlife colonies gives it an excellent vantage for scientific investigation.

© Patricia Majluf

Although guano is no longer economically important, the guano islands are still protected.

From 1982 the WCS have been carrying out almost continuous investigations on the fauna of Punta San Juan.

Wildlife in Punta San Juan: a vision of beuty and freedom.

The presence of investigators does not disturb the peace of the many species in the area.

Natural beauty has no limits in Punta San Juan

© Patricia Majluf

Barely 54 hectares in size, Punta San Juan in the Department of Ica is a natural refuge for Humboldt penguins and sea lions. Since 1982, WCS investigators have tracked these animals almost continuously to determine how species can adapt to a climate where the El Niño could occur at any time.

The exploitation of guano in Peru dates back to Inca times. The millions of birds that inhabited the coastline left gigantic deposits of guano (bird droppings), covering the islands with layers up to 40 meters high. However, it was not until the middle of the past century that its great value as fertilizer was discovered, producing the great guano fever or "saturnalia."

Currency revenues from the sale of guano were sufficient to cover the State budget and foreign debt, so much so that Peruvians, fewer in number at that time, did not have to pay taxes. By 1900 however, since little foresight was used in guano exploitation, only a small amounts remained.

The solution for this problem until now stands out as one of the first and most effective examples of sustained exploitation of a fauna population, managed by the government. In 1909 the Peruvian government created the Compañía Administradora del Guano, responsible for managing guano, and sought advice from world experts on marine birds in order to recover the guano bird population. For this purpose, guard houses were erected on the islands and from then on care was taken not to disturb the birds in their reproductive cycle during campaigns to extract guano. Due to these measures, the bird population rose from 4 to 10 million in less than 20 years. Later in 1946, in order to increase bird population and reproduction rates, Carlos Llosa Belaunde, director of the guano company, had the ingenious idea of creating artificial islands by enclosing off coastal peninsulas with concrete walls. In this manner, land predators were kept out, and human invasion was limited. The results were spectacular: in the 50’s the average bird population rose to 18 million.

From then on, the guano bird population has decreased and then increased a number of times. Bird guano was replaced by artificial fertilizers on a world-wide basis, but fortunately, even when the economic importance of guano diminished, protection was still provided for the islands and peninsula points. These reserves not only provide refuge for guano birds but also sea lions and numerous marine bird species. At present, aside from the National Reserve at Paracas, the only areas that provide a minimal protection for these species on the Peruvian coastline are these guano points and islands. Among these, Punta San Juan is most prominent, located in the district of Marcona, province of Nazca, department of Ica.

With barely 54 hectares of space, Punta San Juan provides refuge for almost 75% of the Humboldt penguins, 50% of the pure-bred sea lions and 30% of the mongrel sea lions of Peru.

This situation has been favored by the following factors:

Firstly, the waters around Punta San Juan are exceptionally cold and productive. The continental slope is only 2 kilometers from the coast, permitting the rising movement of currents with high concentrations of nutrients and very cold waters from great depths. Secondly, in the majority of other guano reserves, protection is virtually only provided for guano birds. At Punta San Juan, the fortunate participation of guardians interested in general fauna and later the continuous presence of a group of investigators have provided sufficient protection for other resident species for these to settle and reproduce with relatively little disturbance.

The abundance of animals and easy access to their colonies at Punta San Juan provide the ideal situation for long term investigations. Starting in 1982, the populations of sea lions and penguins at Punta San Juan have been the object of almost uninterrupted study by the investigators at the Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly known as the Zoological Society of New York). The Punta San Juan Project provides a unique perspective on the lives of our marine species throughout its continued presence in this area. The tracking of individually tagged animals over the years has led to the observation of how certain species have adapted to an environment where the El Niño weather phenomenon could occur at any time.

As luck has it, under normal conditions, ocean water off the coast of Peru is very rich in nutrients, and animals are able to reproduce several times throughout the year, compensating for the losses during the 1997-’98 El Niño.

Likewise, in the case of sea lions, the mothers can vary the length of time that they nurse their young. Since they only give birth once a year, the loss of a young one is a significant loss for an animal with less than 10 reproductive years. It is common that during the phenomenon, sea lion pups die of starvation since their mothers are out at sea for various days searching for food. For this reason, it is better for mothers to continue nursing their pups born the previous year in order to assure that they can survive the scarcity of food during the El Niño.

On the other hand, in years of abundance, mothers wean their pups at six months and direct their energies towards the next reproductive cycle. In general, animals exposed to El Niño have flexible behavior patterns, permitting them to adapt to changing conditions. However, when the Phenomenon is very severe, no adaptation is sufficient. In the most recent El Niño, both young and mature sea lions perished in great numbers.

Between February and April of this year, only at Punta San Juan and its surrounding areas, at least 5 thousand mongrel sea lions, 1 thousand pure-bred sea lions, hundreds of penguins, and thousands of marine birds of various species perished. In May ‘98, towards the end of El Niño, Punta San Juan was almost empty. There were less than 50 penguins (before there had been 5 thousand), 70 pure-bred sea lions (before between 2 and 5 thousand) and 400 mongrel sea lions (before 9 to 15 thousand).

From this time on, the only population showing signs of recovery is the penguin. After mid June they began to arrive, and at present there are a little more than one thousand. Many have been digging nests, and a few are laying eggs. Unfortunately it is not known how many of each species perished. However, considering the duration and intensity of the phenomenon, it’s quite probable that significant portions of the populations (probably more than 50% of sea lions) were lost. What is very evident now, more than ever, is that it is most critical to provide the few survivors with protection while they recover.

At present, Punta San Juan is in a very critical situation. After being exposed to wind and sea for over 50 years, many sections of the protective concrete wall are at the point of collapse. The strong winds of winter have blown down four panels this year. If its not repaired soon, almost 30% of the wall could be lost.

At this time, an agreement is being negotiated between the Wildlife Conservation Society and Proabonos (a State company in charge of guano points and islands). By means of this agreement, WCS would take over the protection of Punta San Juan and channel its efforts for recovering populations, maintaining the guards and the wall and providing opportunities for young people to become conservationists in Peru.

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By Patricia Majluf
Volume IV/Issue 14, Page 60
Updated, 2003

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