Earthquest (Canada) for the Environment - Saving Panama's Wildlife on Islands in the Canal by Steve Rinder ~

10 de febrero de 2012

Earthquest (Canada) for the Environment - Saving Panama's Wildlife on Islands in the Canal by Steve Rinder

PANAMA -- I suspect that environmental ecology and ecotourism were not foremost on the minds of the Panama Canal builders. Nor did they probably realize the full impact of turning mountain tops into islands. History proves, however, that despite the efforts of the indigenous inhabitants (malaria-carrying mosquitoes included), the canal got built and progress was complete. Approaching a century later, on one of those islands in the middle of the Lake Gatun section of the Canal, exists (since 1981) a facility and a dream dedicated to the survival of one of the endangered species of monkey, the Panamanian tamarin.
This "halfway house" for poached, caged and habituated primates (rescued and returned from their collared concrete existence in the cities, and then reintroduced to their natural habitat), is the ongoing work of founder Dr. Dennis Rasmussen (Florida State University), and organizations such as Earthquest (Canada) for the Environment, with whom I am consulting. Volunteers are accepted to live on the Isla Tigre (Tiger Island) Primate Sanctuary for 2-4 week expeditions, and participate in scientific and environmental observation furthering the work of the research project.
The two week expedition I observed last February brought together 12 volunteer team members from across North America. Arrival was cross-country from Panama City by van and then by small launch to the cluster of small islands secluding the primate sanctuary. We were met by Rumuldo and Francisco, local native campesinos (farmers) who are the rangers for the island. Their jobs include feeding both human and tamarin populations, island security (poachers occasionally are met), maintenance and jack-of-all-trades.
We were guided up the "Buena Vista" path to the main "bohio" lodge (a palm-thatch roofed, two story structure) for orientation. We set up our tents on the second floor of the dormitory bohio, understanding and later discovering that the ground floor after dark becomes an action packed activity area for all things crawling, including leaf cutter ants, snakes, wolf spiders, iguanas, night monkeys, scorpions, and tarantulas. The trench latrine was up the hill and, outfitted with paper and shovel, became one of the most opportune places on the island to observe the many colorful and vocal species of birds indigenous to the area. Amazon parrots, toucans, hawks and vultures made any visit up the hill an adventure.
With no electricity or running water on Isla Tigre, life is spartan and rustic. Our days consisted of lectures, discussions, jungle observations and some off island touring. Meals, campesino cuisine, were delicious and "typico." Fresh fish, thanks to Francisco, hit our plates almost daily, along with coconut rice, fried plantain, beans and veggies. Papaya and chile peppers grown on the island added both sweetness and warmth to the meals. We were encouraged to help in the kitchen, and we did - practicing our Spanish (neither men spoke English) and learning the magic of the traditional flavors. Night fell around 6 o'clock and we enjoyed our candlelit dinners discussing the days' observations and sharing our experiences with each other. Rumuldo and Francisco joined us and we spoke of families, homelands and food..
Into the jungle to observe and document was our mandate. Daily treks along rough, though defined trails, took us in search of tamarin feeding ecology, behavior and antics. They travel in groups, headed by the dominant female. Their main predator (besides man) is the hawk which will fly off with one in a blink of an eye. Finding them at any given time is a challenge and many hours each day were spent in search of the elusive bands of these canopy acrobats. Sightings were exhilarating and most rewarding. All of the data collected was fed into the computer update and analysis of the island population. It was fun to observe the group dynamic of both the monkey primates and the human ones.
Each day of our visit allowed for personal interaction with the Panama Canal. We bathed in it, washed our clothes in it (biodegradable soap) and relaxed in its' welcoming clearness. Watching for Cayman was only necessary early in the morning or at dusk. Midnight stargazing sitting on the dock did bring sounds of thrashing in the surrounding flora, but we only could imagine the noisemaker. There is a 6 foot iguana on the island, but we didn't see it that time. Shooting stars and unobstructed views of the endless heavens made this traveler consider life's best possibilities. In sunlight we could see in the distance the huge tankers and cruise ships pass, oblivious to our situation and project. The migratory pattern of the birds established a daily time schedule for observation. For one who believes the ancient native saying that "a feather in your path is a gift", every day was a celebration.
Visiting the native Choice tribe (a long and rough boat trip up the Charges River), brought history, cultural diversity, and scientific exploration. We were invited into the home of one of the elders of the tribe to meet his family, observe carving and basket/necklace making, experience body tattooing, and hike into the jungle to learn of natural herbal and medicinal plants growing there. The shaman showed us countless remedies for everything from headaches to stomach malaise, all available at arms' reach. We were pleased to return to the island mindful that as we planted new fruit trees for the monkeys, we were planting them in the island pharmacy. Nature provides.
And so the cycle and recycle of life continues on the small island. We were there for scientific research and observation, but I believe that we were "gifted the ultimate feather" to any ecotourist - cultural, educational and adventure moments, no matter where in the world we travel or why. I found all of these in Panama. In the year 2000, mandated by momentous treaty, the Panama Canal zone will be given back to it's original inhabitants, the people of Panama. With the continued equally momentous commitment of people like Dennis Rasmussen and organizations such as Earthquest (Canada) for the Environment, Panama will be given back to its' original inhabitants.
Steve Rinder is an ecotourism consultant, formerly based in London, Canada

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