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Into the Land of Dracula

filling in a biodiversity gap in the Ecuadorian Andes - text and images by Callie Broaddus
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Return of Flag No. 211

Since it was first carried into the field with marine archaeologist Simon Spooner on his 2014 expedition to explore the wreck of Le Casimir—an important French merchant ship that sank in 1829 off the north coast of the Dominican Republic with a cargo of porcelain, perfume, silks, and wine—Flag Nº211 has accompanied a suite of other underwater projects. These include the survey of a magnificent Byzantine ship that sank in the Fourni archipelago, a navigational crossroads that connected the Black Sea and the Aegean to Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt.


A Washington, DC-based conservationist and wildlife photographer, Callie Broaddus is the Founder and Executive Director of Reserva: The Youth Land Trust and a 2021 EC50 awardee. The author would like to thank expedition coleader Javier Robayo, a member of The Explorers Club since 2022; Fundación EcoMinga’s staff and park guards; Quito’s National Institute of Biodiversity (INABIO); Heinz Schneider of the University of Basel Botanical Gardens; and Lucy Houliston, who undertook the moth study. The Dracula Reserve ecological corridor is supported by the University of Basel Botanical Gardens network, the Orchid Conservation Alliance, the Rainforest Trust, and the Quito Orchid Society. For more information, visit: www.reservaylt.org.


The Ecuadorian Tropical Andes is one of the most biologically unique places in the world. The topography of the region forced the hand of evolution, as populations of flora and fauna grew isolated along the steep Andean slopes over time. So unique is the biodiversity that, hiking through the region’s cloud forests, a skilled botanist or herpetologist might discover a new species of orchid or frog and learn that its entire range can be found in a single canyon. Paradoxically, the region is also blanketed in mining concessions held by international companies that seek to extract the treasures lying below the surface—at the expense of the ones living above it.

On the western slopes of the Andes at the Colombian border, a private protected area known as the Dracula Reserve has been growing into an ecological corridor thanks to a decade-long, multi-organizational effort to purchase, explore, document, and protect the area’s remaining intact cloud forest before time runs out. The reserve, owned and managed by Fundación EcoMinga, is named for its unique population of Dracula orchids (no, not that Dracula; their name translates to “a little dragon” and refers to their elongated, pointy sepals). It is a fitting mascot for a reserve with an estimated 400 species of orchids under its protection. At about 2,200 hectares and counting, the reserve is still a patchwork, with large gaps in the corridor. Like many of the expeditions we undertake here, this foray is focused on one of these gaps.

With Explorers Club Flag Nº211 tucked in my pack, I alternate scanning the ground for solid places to step and scouring every mossy tree trunk for pops of deep maroon or yellow that might betray the presence of a micro-orchid—my favorite treasure hunt on hikes here. Expedition coleader Javier Robayo and I were on this trail just a year earlier, when we found ourselves hiking out after confronting a group of miners employed by a Canadian company about the illegal gold mining exploration that our team (Dracula Reserve Transect Expedition—Flag Nº44) had just discovered. Our emotions were still roiling from the sight of a 400-meter scar hacked through the pristine canyon on a 425-hectare plot that borders Dracula Reserve. But that is a different story.

This time, we are hiking in—further in—to conduct the first scientific baseline survey of the property’s flora and fauna along its central mountain ridge. A team of international young conservationists at Reserva: The Youth Land Trust—a nonprofit I founded in 2019—had already been fundraising for four months to support the purchase of this enormous property and stand a chance at protecting it from further damage. This expedition would help provide the scientific justification for these conservation efforts by beginning to confirm which endemic, threatened, and undescribed species call this plot home.

At an elevation spanning 800 to 2,400 meters above sea level (MSL), the ethereal Andean landscape is nearly always cloaked in clouds, and sunny hours are precious for solar charging and drying our persistently wet clothes. Hiking is slow; with the constant inclines, lower oxygen level, and frequently knee-deep mud sucking us mercilessly into the ground, we cover a kilometer every hour or two. I should note that when I say “we,” I am referring to the international and city-dwelling Ecuadorian team members. The local park guards and porters are able to cover the same distance in half the time, carrying twice the weight, a humbling sight for any explorer!

We spent 10 days between two camps, assessing the forest quality and surveying the site’s herps—reptiles and amphibians—orchids, moths, and birds, all of which was caught on camera by a student filmmaker whose documentary is now in the postproduction phase. In addition to visual encounter, mist net, and light trap surveys, we would conduct dozens of drone flights inside and above the forest for later expert review.

And, so far, the results have been encouraging. Our focused surveys were garnished with encounters with mammals, including a leaf full of Spix’s disk-winged bats; a family of howler monkeys directly over our second camp; and, perhaps most memorably, a baby western mountain coati, a near-threatened species, which came within centimeters of my boots before scampering off with a high-pitched squeak. In addition, we spotted puma tracks around both camps, catching the cats on our camera traps, and heard the distant calls of critically endangered brown-headed spider monkeys.

The site’s 425 hectares were deemed almost entirely primary cloud forest, with older secondary forests occurring at sites of natural landslides. The quality of the forest was evident by the orchid diversity present even in this relatively dry season. We recorded seven potential new species of orchids, including one spectacularly large Pleurothallis sp. nov. whose description is currently undergoing peer review. We documented 33 bird species in the mist nets and 67 morphospecies of moths—despite five blown light bulbs requiring the use of a “Plan C” set of string lights.

The herps team obtained 44 records, including 14 amphibian species and five reptiles. The team also recorded four potential new species of Pristimantis frogs and, perhaps most exciting, a new population of Osornophryne occidentalis—an Andean plump toad recently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Its presence at the site is significant in the context of Ecuador’s constitutional rights of nature clause, which prohibits activities that may cause the extinction of a species. Finding these endangered toads in the very place where we witnessed gold-mining exploration a year earlier has given us a concrete defense of its conservation value. The results of our expedition also confirm what we already understood: this plot and the Dracula Reserve corridor are worth infinitely more than anything that might be found beneath their muddy, mossy surface. 

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