It was last weekend, when I finally had the time and the right vehicle to take the bumpy drive up into the depths of the Parque Montecristo. This national reserve sits along the Northern border of El Salvador, where it famously meets two neighbours – Guatemala and Honduras. The mountain inside the park is called El Trifino, and in fact that is the only part which would be categorised as cloud forest. The rest is secondary pine forests, but beautiful just the same (for those non-scientists amongst you a secondary forest is one that has been cut down at least once and allowed to re-grow. The implications are that the biodiversity isn’t as high as a primary forest, which has escaped deforestation altogether). As we managed to scramble up the near vertical parts of the entry road, in a subaru forester, I wondered how three countries manage to club together to successfully manage a wildlife refuge. Well, the result seems to be a lot of strange rules. Firstly, you are not allowed into the park without a permit, applied for in advance. Secondly, you are not allowed to walk anywhere in the park, except on the specially designated footpaths. Thirdly you are not actually allowed in the cloud forest area at the moment, as it has been temporarily closed for ‘construction’ for two months. For construction? This forest has taken millions of years of evolution to be constructed, what can man possibly do to it in two months which will be of any benefit?
Having said all that, the park staff where enormously helpful and very professional, and as we were science educators we were allowed to wander a little ways into the cloud forest to have a look. This was a good cardiovascular workout, and as we saved our breath for respiration as we climbed, we fell instantly under the spell of the whispering quiet of the trees. I remembered taking a group of students from the ABC to Costa Rica for our first Environmental systems field trip there, and I was asked
“What is a cloud forest”, and “Do clouds grow up there?”
Well, a cloud forest is a tropical rainforest which grows at high altitude, basically at the altitude where clouds form. As clouds are basically floating water droplets, this means that a lot of the humidity which a rainforest requires comes in the form of misty water droplets, and not so much as falling rain. Cloud forests are a lot cooler than normal tropical rainforests, and are generally occur on the tops of mountains. What this means is that the staggering biodiversity of a rainforest in on display, but also for the casual walker or amateur biologist the climate is much fresher and more pleasant than a steamy lowland rainforest. Orchids abound, mammals tend to be a bit furrier in order to stay warm, and insects tend to be a little less murderous. And of course there are clouds, drifting through, bringing a certain mystical ambience – which combined with the spell-binding variety of nature cannot fail to delight those who seek out the quiet places of this Earth.
In other words, clouds forests are well recommended for rainforest beginners. Except the only one in El Salvador is closed right now, ‘under construction’. Now is that cloudy, or clear?
I recently had one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I spent the Saturday night patrolling the protected zone of San Diego beach with los tortugueros (the turtle-watchers). Between the months of May and October the most abundent sea turtle in the world ‘the olive ridley turtle’or golfina, comes ashore in El Salvador to nest and leave the next generation of turtles in the form of little ping-pong ball shaped eggs of surprising softness and density. As we lay on the sand close to the hard dome of young 20yr old golfino female, we watched in awe as she deposited 48 eggs in clusters of three into the vertical hole she had dug with her hind flippers. Using only red-light torches, which are thought not to disturb the turtles, we witnessed the ritual of of the female ‘whumping’ the sand flat and swishing sand over the nest to disguise it from predators. The mother turtle cried tears of deep emotions we could only wonder at, and I felt strangely blessed when this gentle creature slapped me on the arm with it’s flipper and then showered my face with sand. We followed her down to the sea and watched her disappear into the black night. Afterwards we dug up her 48 eggs, fired slingshots at marauding dogs who tried to steal a free meal and transported them to a safe hatchery.
Every night until the end of this month the 300m stretch of protected sand is protected by teams of 5 tortugeros, all night, every night. The population of golfinas worldwide has thought to have dropped to 50% of the numbers in the 1960s. These men and women of El Salvador are on the front lines of the battle to preserve the unique natural wonders that exist in El Salvador and those that we share with our neighbouring countries. I asked one of the tortugueros what he loved the most about doing this work.
“the baule, when they come are nearly 2m long. I have seen one only once, they are the most beautiful thing I have seen.” the man replied. The ‘baule’ or leatherback turtles are less frequent visitors to the shores of El Salvador, and I found myself envying this experience. Well I have seen one turtle. There are three more species to see. How many of you know their names?
The cougar, mountain lion, puma or panther. This mighty predator gets a lot of names, and the correct one is actually Puma or Puma concolor including the species name. And according to field biologists this awesome predator roams the entire range of the Americas, from the rocky mountains of Canada down to the eerie plains of Patagonia. Wait a minute, does that mean they must pass through El Salvador? Well, yes. In order to inhabit an area the Puma needs a large area devoid of human habitation, and a food source. Are there Puma living in El Salvador? My first guess would have been no, but in two recent ABC expeditions to the El Impossible National Park and to the area of Perquin – I asked professional game scouts and guides the very same question. They replied that a Puma was sighted 6 years ago on Serra Campana in El Impossible park, and a Puma with cubs was spotted three years ago in Perquin. Both sightings occurred to a lone human in the early morning, at around 6am. How many Puma are there in El Salvador? Are they resident here or are they passing through? These are questions I would like to find answers to. Well next time you go to these wild areas of El Salvador find the courage to get up early and go for a walk on your own…if you dare!