Can oil save the rainforest?
American biologist Kelly Swing thwacks a bush with his butterfly net and a dozen or so bugs and insects drop in. One is a harvester, or daddy-long-legs, another a jumping spider which leaps on to a leaf where two beetles are mating.
This is the Tiputini research station, on the edge of the Yasuni national park in Ecuador, where the foothills of the Andes meet the Amazonian rainforest right on the equator. Swing and I are searching for unidentified creatures and within a minute or two of looking we may well have found several. The daddy-long-legs, the spider, possibly the beetles on the leaf, even the bee that, disturbed, flies out of the undergrowth to bite Kelly on the neck, may well be unnamed by science, says Swing. Yasuni is terra incognita, one of the beastliest, lushest, most fecund, abundant but unknown places on earth. Up to 100 people from two tribes of warlike Huaorani Indians live there in voluntary isolation and, within a kilometre of where we are standing, it has been estimated, live 150 frog, 120 reptile, 600 bird and 200 mammal species, including nearly 100 species of bat. To give a sense of scale, there are only 18 bat and six reptile species in the whole of Britain.
Yasuni has astonished biologists, who say it could have the greatest concentration of species on the planet, having been a refuge during the last ice age. So far, nearly 1,500 species of plants and 400 fish species have been found in the 1.2m sq km national park. More species of frogs and toads have been recorded than are native to the US and Canada combined; more birds than in all of Europe. But when it comes to insects, says Swing, Yasuni is world class. "There are perhaps 10 million insect species in the world, of which one in 10 could be living here. It would take a team of scientists possibly 400 years just to identify them all, and a book of 10,000 pages to record them in," he says.