TBS Founding Director Kelly Swing

Kelly Swing canoeing in Yasuni

When USFQ administrators approached Kelly Swing in 1993 with the idea of establishing a biological field station in the Ecuadorian Amazon, “el Oriente”, he was fascinated by the possibility but immediately concerned about all the potential challenges. In the broadest sense, western Amazonia, particularly along the equator, is the most biodiverse region of the planet, so the primordial question was more specifically how to choose the exact spot that would have special appeal for scientists, science students, conservationists and even ecotourists – a place sufficiently untouched so as to still have all the wilderness icons of Amazon rainforest, a place isolated enough to have some real probability of surviving well into the future and a place that was adequately attractive to compensate any challenges for getting there – and in the most brutally pragmatic sense, a place logistically compatible with sustainable economic feasibility. Luckily, a canoe trip with Mayer Rodríguez a couple of years earlier through the ancestral territory of the Waorani along the Tiputini River, a southern tributary of the Napo River, had so impressed Dr. Swing with abundant sightings of fauna that this area was immediately at the top of the list of choices. As with most big dreams, there were many complications to overcome, but Carlos Montúfar and Santiago Gangotena were convinced by Professor Tom Kunz of Boston University (BU) that the benefits and prestige from such an operation would far outweigh any sacrifices necessary. By the end of 1994, USFQ’s attorney, José Ignacio Albuja, had worked through the legal aspects of acquiring a piece of land in stewardship and by mid-1995, our installations were ready to receive the first visitors. Although teaching classes full time, Kelly readily absorbed the responsibilities of director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS). At precisely the same time, he also established with Dr. Kunz the BU Tropical Ecology Program (BUTEP), a full-semester practical undergraduate field biology experience that visited all the major ecosystems of Ecuador - from páramo to cloud forest, from coast to Galapagos, and strategically including an entire month at TBS. Packing >50 days of direct contact with the megadiverse nature of Ecuador into a semester was always challenging, for the students and the professor, but these opportunities, according to alumni, made the TEP an extremely effective learning experience. During 25 years (and 47 cycles of the program), Kelly masterfully managed the combined demands of TBS and TEP, but this was only possible due to tremendous collaboration within USFQ, especially from certain key individuals like David Romo, Consuelo Barriga, Joyce Wakefield, Carol Walton, Jaime Guerra and later, Diego Mosquera as well as unparalleled support and sacrifice from all their families, especially Kelly’s wife, Luisa Sempértegui, and son, Daniel, back at home in Quito. During that first quarter century with Kelly at the helm, essentially ending with the Covid-19 pandemic, the TBS team compiled an important list of achievements including the replacement and improvement of all original buildings as well as key infrastructure and equipment expansions. Research efforts at our site produced hundreds of publications and have documented, not only the world’s greatest concentration of species, plant and animal, but also some of the densest populations of large predators anywhere. TBS has educated thousands of visitors in situ about the natural wonders of the region as well as local conservation concerns. Our outreach programs have positively impacted local indigenous communities, Yasuní National Park administration and even oil company policies. These accomplishments and many more served to justify the renewal of our stewardship agreement beyond the original 25-year pact for an additional 40 years.