What harm can a simple road do in a pristine place such as Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, home to peccaries, tapirs, monkeys and myriad other wildlife species? A great deal, it seems, because it can turn subsistence communities into commercial hunting camps that empty rainforests of their animals.

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the IDEAS-Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador found that a single road running through Yasuni fundamentally changed how the local communities used their resources. The road provides access to deeper parts of the forest as well as a cheap means of getting meat to nearby wildlife markets. Their study appears in a recent issue of Animal Conservation.

WCS scientists measured the levels of wild meat sold in a market in Pompeya, located about 3 miles outside Yasuni National Park, between the years 2005–2007. They also studied the effects of a road constructed in 1992 by oil company Maxus Ecuador Inc. that traverses more than 92 miles into the protected area.

The company hired members of the Waorani and Kichwa indigenous groups at relatively high wages, and compensated the communities for use of their lands inside and outside the park. The hunters soon abandoned their blowguns and other traditional weapons in favor of firearms, now more widely available.

The wild meat market emerged shortly after the construction of the road. Although road access is strictly controlled, the oil companies operating this concession provided free travel along the road for local Waorani hunters. The easier it became for the Waorani to transport wild meat to market, the more white-lipped peccaries, collared peccaries, woolly monkeys, and pacas (mid-size Amazonian rodents) they took from the forest. Many Waorani people moved closer to the road, abandoning their semi-nomadic lifestyle in the process.

From 2005 to 2007, the researchers recorded 24,000 pounds of wild meat moving through the Pompeya market each year. While this figure is small with respect to other markets, researchers observed a steady increase over their study period. In 2005, approximately 330 pounds of wild meat were sold each market day. By 2007, that number rose to more than 661 pounds per day.

More than two-thirds of the wild meat purchased in Pompeya was bound for restaurants and other markets in surrounding towns, including one located 145 miles away. Middlemen consistently increased the prices by up to 60 percent of what they paid to hunters. Secondary markets sell wild meat at prices up to two times the average prices of domestic animal meat.

The study’s lead author, WCS and USFQ researcher Esteban Suárez, and his co-authors warn that industries operating in protected areas and wild lands require new governance systems. The researchers say these systems must emphasize local participation and become more sensitive to how development affects the social dynamics of indigenous groups.

“A road in a forest can bring huge social changes to local groups and the ways in which they utilize wildlife resources,” said Suárez. “Communities inside and around the park are changing their customs to a lifestyle of commercial hunting, the first stage in a potential over-exploitation of wildlife.”

Read the press release: Oil and Wildlife Don’t Mix, Especially in Ecuador’s Eden