Moving Slowly & Avoiding Breakage

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Panthera onca. The jaguar is the king of neotropical forests, where it is the largest of the cats. Its presence at the White City indicates an extensive, thriving ecosystem. © Washington State University, Panthera, Wildlife Conservation Society, Zamorano University, Honduran Forest Conservation Institute, Travis King, John Polisar, Manfredo Turcios

When the journalist Douglas Preston shared this story, I was in the process of closing up shop in India, where we had been in residence since 2010. Kipling-induced daydreaming notwithstanding, Amie and Milo (whose photos may be the most tangible representations of the dreaminess of those years) and I never had the illusion that there were lost civilizations or any such thing in India.

movefast (1)We did have the nonstop motivation of feline-fueled conservation initiatives, and some close encounters. Those provided us a perfect counterpoint to the seemingly irresistible catchphrase that described progress in the form of disruptive technology. Haste really does make waste when it comes to ecology, anthropology, and realms of life other than economic forward-marching.

When I read Mr. Preston’s story on the first day of last year I realized that our relocation to Central America, oddly enough since it is in the hemisphere called the New World, was full of potential for all kinds of discovery of “lost” things. And my own discoveries further sensitized me to the importance of moving slowly and avoiding breakage. My posts on this platform from February through July, 2017 are evidence of the richest ecological and anthropological observations of my lifetime (so far), and that makes Mr. Preston’s update post yesterday all the more wonderful to read:

Deep in the Honduran Rain Forest, an Ecological SWAT Team Explores a Lost World

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Sachatamia albomaculata. The inner organs of glass frogs are visible through their translucent bodies. Photograph by Trond Larsen / Conservation International

A little more than three years ago, I joined a team of archeologists on an expedition to La Mosquitia, a remote mountain wilderness in eastern Honduras. For centuries, the region had been rumored to contain a lost city, known as the City of the Monkey God or the White City, and now, thanks to a combination of luck and modern technology, an ancient settlement had been found. Although it was probably not the lost city of legend, it was a very real place, built by a mysterious civilization that flourished long before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Hidden in a densely forested valley, it had never been explored.We helicoptered in, set up a base camp, and spent the next nine days slowly uncovering the city’s remains—large plazas, geometric mounds, irrigation systems, extensive terracing. At the base of a small pyramid, we discovered a cache of ceremonial stone sculptures that, when excavated, in 2016 and 2017, amounted to almost five hundred pieces. Many of them are now on display at a newly opened museum and archeological laboratory, Centro de Investigación Ciudad Blanca, near Catacamas, the closest large city to the ruins.

The valley held other surprises. When we arrived, we found that the animals there appeared never to have seen people before. Spider monkeys gathered in the trees above us, hanging by their tails, screeching their displeasure, shaking branches and bombarding us with flowers. Large cats prowled through our camp at night, purring and cracking branches. A tapir and peccaries wandered about, seemingly unafraid, and the area was overrun with venomous snakes. Here was a pristine ecosystem, as obscure to human knowledge as the lost city itself.

When the discovery of this apparently forgotten world was first reported, Conservation International, one of the world’s leading environmental organizations, sent a team of twelve biologists into the valley to do a “rapid assessment” of its ecology. Most of the biologists were from Honduras or Nicaragua, and many had done research in the Mosquitia region before. The expedition’s leader, Trond Larsen, described it as an “ecological swat team.” The group’s goal, he explained, was “to quickly assess as much of the area’s biodiversity as we could in a ten-day blitz.”

Using the old base camp as a reference point, Larsen and his colleagues cut four miles of trail in each of the four cardinal directions. As they slashed their way through the jungle with machetes, wading rivers and climbing slippery mountains, they documented, photographed, and collected specimens of the local flora and fauna. Along streams and animal trails, they also set up twenty-two motion-activated camera traps, which took ten-second videos or series of pictures when creatures passed by.

“Our team was astounded,” Larsen told me. The ecology of the valley was indeed pristine, showing little evidence of human entry for a very long time, perhaps centuries. Species that are rare and even thought extinct outside the valley were found in abundance inside, including varieties of butterflies, birdsbats, snakes, and big mammals, as well as critically endangered plants. The spider monkeys showed an unusual color pattern, suggesting that they might belong to a new subspecies.

The biologists were particularly surprised by the density of cats in the valley—jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis, and margays. They saw signs of them everywhere. One night, Larsen decided to take a quick hike upstream from base camp to look for glass frogs. He reached a point where the river narrowed in a canyon and was joined by a stream. “I turned around to take a piss,” he recalled. “I looked up and saw these eyes crossing the stream. They paused when they saw me and slowly started moving toward me.” Because Larsen’s headlamp was running out of power, at first he could see only the glowing eyes. As the animal crept closer, the feeble circle of light illuminated the golden, muscled form of a puma. “It came forward very low on its haunches,” he said. “It was maybe about eight feet away when it stopped.” It crouched, as if ready to pounce. “It was obviously curious, but there may also have been some concept in its mind of, Is this something I could eat?” Larsen said…

Read the whole story here.

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