A new dispatch from biologist Lynn:Since the last time I wrote, I’ve left the fires of California for far greener pastures to the south. Once again, my mission was ornithological, although I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting involved in this time. Operation Wallacea aka OpWall, a British research and ecotourism organization, hired me to be part of their research staff at Cusuco National Park in Honduras based purely off of a resume that starts with the header Lynn Schofield: Mercenary Ornithologist without inquiring about the details of my activities or into the particulars of my character. In kind, I didn’t bother to ask too many questions about Operation Wallacea before I started my expedition. At the time, I was tired of traveling and a little bit ambivalent about going, so I hadn’t admitted to myself I was leaving or even purchased plane tickets until the last moment.
Three things were known to me: I was going to be doing point counts and banding for the bird crew, I would meet people from the project at 7:00 in the morning at the Gran Hotel Sula, and in the park featured a significant amount of primary cloud forest so there would be quetzals – resplendent quetzals. It is very probable that I would have declined the position if the specter of the quetzal didn’t hang in my head. In fact, the last three text messages on my American phone read:
“Well, I’m going to Honduras in two days.”
“What? Really? Why?”
“Quetzals, I guess.”
It is a bit ridiculous to travel thousands of miles into what might be a shit job in a Conradian wasteland for the single bird, but it is more what the quetzal represents. My fixation on birds has more to do with the forests, deserts grasslands, and jungles they live with and the fact that they are most conspicuous manifestations of their habitat. The cloud forests that the quetzal specialize in and symbolize are one of my great loves. For me, the quetzal was a pilgrimage to the heart of this ecosystem to see the worldly incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the wind god who occupies the frontier between earth and sky.
My first impression of Honduras was that of endless, verdant expanses as my plane started to approach the city of San Pedro Sula, alleged murder capital of the world. Those stretches of green were those of monoculture, vast tracts of palm, banana and cattle habitat, but the intensity of color was still stunning after so long amidst the muted sepias and ochre of a California summer. The Merendon mountain range, where Cusuco is located, only made itself visible as the plane banked, but with that glimpse I knew and I was ready for this other, damper wilderness although I was lamenting my departure from the dry slopes of Sierra Nevadas that I adore so much.
That next morning at 7:00 when I arrived at the abjectly un-grand Gran Hotel Sula and found myself amidst a hundred chattering people piled into a dingy conference room I was shocked. The visions of dripping tree ferns and towering pines deflated. The atmosphere in the room was alive with a naïve excitement, and I suddenly felt no more than tired. These people were deliriously excited to be going to the jungle. I was just going to the pine-oak forest, and I felt shockingly out of place. I distinctly remember feeling strange as I realized that my pants were the only ones in the entire room that did not zip off at the knee.
“We’re going to go out to the camps all riding in the back of pickups!”
“Do you think we’re going to see jaguars?”
“What kind of malaria medicine are you taking?”
In sameful self-superior style, I immediately judged these people at unprepared and unfit for the so-called jungle. To varying degrees, this was true, but I wasn’t prepared either. I’m never prepared, and I should know better than anyone that the only way to be ready for a situation is to be standing in front of it (ideally wearing a good pair of boots.) Still, how was I going to see a quetzal while surrounded by these multitudes? My impulse was to turn and run.
I’m glad I didn’t. Before the two-hour bus ride was over, I had already appointed myself official bird guide and I was loving it. It’s a good thing, too, since it was part of my job description, although I didn’t exactly know it at the time. The morning progressed and we packed out to our respective camps, the crowd dispersed into the forests, and I slowly came to understand what Cusuco National Park, Operation Wallacea, and the strange world of research tourism are all about.
The park is not large, only 90 square miles, but since its borders wrap around a costal mountain, several habitat types are crammed into the confines of the park. Within Cusuco OpWall has established seven camps featuring the major habitat types: humid lowland tropics, moist broadleaf forest, cloud forest, pine-oak, humid pine, semi-arid pine, and dwarf forests, that can each hold dozens of people. Some of the sites are what I expect of a field camp, an array of tents tucked between bromeliad covered trees, a camp fire, and a hole dug in the ground for you to poop in. (It should be noted that, although not terribly hygienic, latrines are apparently the best place in the world to spot ant pittas. Always bring binoculars.) At the other extreme is the base camp which features a generator that runs ten hours a day, a genetics lab, and satellite internet.
This network of impromptu villages is designed so that a cadre of researchers, working with nearly all taxa of the park, could collect data in a controlled, yet mostly natural environment. Predesigned plots and transects snake through the park, growing out of the camps and winding through the mountains. Insect traps, survey stakes, mist nets, and other equipment litter the paths, and at any moment you might find yourself striking up a conversation about pocket mice with a fellow biologist in the middle of the forest. The researchers are always accompanied by local guides to keep them out of trouble, and much of the time we are also followed by a couple (or when we’re looking for the moon-waking red-capped manakins there is a positive covey) of the hundreds of high-school students, tourists, and so-called research assistants that visit the park each season.
The tourists and research assistants come to aid the projects and learn about what we are doing, but they are free to be as helpful or as unhelpful as they wish. So, in a way, they are not so much to work on the project directly but to facilitate the research financially. They pay what is to me, an absurd amount of money in exchange for a glimpse of what the tropics and the fieldwork is all about, and it isn’t always glamorous. Biting insects, sucking mud, crushing heat, lingering humidity, exhausting hikes, awful weather, terrible food, and a lot of boredom are key parts of fieldwork. The high point of my day was often my late-morning nap after a point count.
In fact, the staff would sometimes do their best to make their work sound as boring unpleasant as possible in order to dissuade a large group of spectators milling around as they worked. The large mammal crew make it quite clear that they spend their days looking for poop, the entomologists dig through that dung in search of victims to drown in alcohol and scrutinize under a microscope, and me, I wake up at three forty five in the morning in order to hike up a mountain and just sit and listen to birds that you will never see.
I know you want to see Quetzals, but how about some solid brown birds that don't have a place in any mythology, but are kinda cool anyway? Juvenile and Adult Tawny-winged Wood Creepers (photo by Lynn Schofield)
Usually you knew who were the good research assistants, because they would come with you anyway. They were the ones who really cared and understood that the unpleasant conditions are all part of what being in the tropics is about. The fact that these places are abjectly unwelcoming to humans is what has allowed them to remain, albeit precariously, for as long as they have. Now that even their forbidding conditions are not enough to protect these habitats, it’s good we have people who are willing to give them value beyond that of so much lumber.
An enormous amount research is being financed through this model. Some of the projects include investigation into occurrence and spread of chytrid fungus which is decimating amphibian populations throughout the tropics, habitat fragmentation’s effects of the viability of Baird’s tapir, the particulars of orchid bee taxonomy, distribution and behavior, epiphyte diversity and their use as indicators of habitat quality, arachnid and insect taxonomy, bat behavior and communication, and carbon and habitat assessments. My own projects are to establish a full registry of birds in the park, to identify which species can be used as management indicator species, to determine what factors effect bird diversity, to look for changes in bird species composition in areas with anthropogenic activity, and using banding data to further understand the breeding cycles of birds in the tropics.
Although I do see a lot of flaws with this model of ecotourism, I see the education and research possibilities. I also see the financial leverage to at least make attempts to protect the park from clear cuts and clandestine coffee plantations, which are very real threats. The open stretches of cut trees are spreading across the park and the deforestation gets worse every year. Thanks to OpWall, meetings are actively being held in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, and in San Pedro Sula to address the protection of the park. The government has not had the money to pay park rangers for years, but the military will hopefully be brought in now to serve as protectors of the area. The lost habitat itself is a symptom of a poor country with too few job opportunities, and Operation Wallacea has the money and political influence to actually do something to change the situation. This is conservation at it’s most capitalistic, but it’s conservation.
I hope the strategy works, because it would be a grave loss if the park were converted to agriculture. I never did get a chance to see the quetzal, but I heard them nearly every day that I spent in the cloud forests. I watched the mist come and go, and I got to live amongst trees that held so much life in them. It is entirely worth the wet, the mud, the insects, and if I lived another kind of life style, it would certainly be worth the money to spend my time in Cusuco. I am grateful that they motivated me to go, and there remains that tantalizing image of iridescent green to lure me back and to keep in the tropics a little bit longer. Without the quixotic impetus they gave me I would have missed a lot.
I am hoping Lynn will be able to drop by this blog sometime today. She's currently in Mexico, and I'm not sure what her connections are like. If you have a question for her, keep checking back because she may not be able to answer for a day or two...