Exploring remote and little known parts of the world makes being a botanist a very exciting and rewarding job. The camping that comes with explorationt is also rewarding but comes with its share of challenges, which make you appreciate how divorced from nature we have become. A lot of my fieldwork has been in the La Amistad world heritage site, where the absence of roads, settlements and steep terrain mean that most of the park’s 4,000 km2 remain totally unexplored.
The biggest challenges are establishing routes, finding water and maintaining a supply line for food and specimens. We need water for drinking, cooking, and occasionally, washing. Given the high rainfall in wet tropical forests such as these it is probably surprising to think of water as being hard to find. The steep terrain and well developed root-mat, however, mean that much of the rain is absorbed or runs off very quickly and so we are often limited to where we can set up camp.
Although we have a GPS, maps for the area are not of sufficient resolution for us to orientate ourselves accurately beneath the canopy. We therefore rely on line-of-sight observations of sometimes quite distant landmarks, such as a hilltops or large rivers. We then have to guesstimate the best way to locate a ridge that will take us to where we need to go. It is much easier to follow ridges up and down, going from one to another where they intersect, than to hike into and then out of a series of treacherously steep valleys. Where we do need to cross a valley and river then it is important to choose the right place to cross. The dense forest and very slopes mean that you cannot see the river until very close. Choose the wrong place and you can find yourself at the top of a 20 m cliff overlooking an unpassable gorge. Our guide, Elio Altamirano, had an ingenious way for doing this. He would descend a ridge at an oblique angle until we could hear the river below, at this point he would guage that we were above a very steep gorge that was amplifying the sound upwards and so we would continue on until we could no longer hear the river, at this point we would head down at another oblique angle and continue like this until we were close enough to identify a good crossing point.
Collecting is a productive business. We average about 50 collections a day, each comprising five duplicates meaning we quickly accumulate bundles of specimens. Far more than we could carry out ourselves. Camping for two to three weeks also makes it impossible to bring in enough food for the duration. For both these reasons we need to establish a supply line between us and the outside world. To do so we hire local people as porters so that they can bring in food and newspaper and leave with bags of specimens.
Costa Rican botanist Daniel Santamaría, guide Elio Altamirano, some very valiant porters and myself have just completed our latest exploration of the La Amistad binational park, the bulk of the Talamanca mountain range in Costa Rica and Panama. We made 529 collections of almost 300 species, several of which are new to science. Given that we collected between 2 and 7 duplicates of each collection that is over 2,000 sheets that we will need to dry, label, identify and distribute. After almost three weeks hiking and camping in wet, muddy and cold conditions we had all lost a lot of weight, I lost 8 kg, and were exhausted. The justification for this trip is that together with the Darien in Panama, La Amistad remains one of the biggest tracts of largely unexplored forest in Central America. It is also home to some of the most beautiful forests in the World and dozens of undiscovered plant species remain.Despite being a world heritage site in recognition of its outstanding species-richness La Amistad has been largely abandoned by the Costa Rican and Panamanian authorities, and UNESCO’s World Heritage Commission. This has left it vulnerable to hydroelectric dams and mining. We therefore hope that our collections and discoveries will help raise the Park’s profile within the scientific community and respective national authorities.
We had been planning this expedition for over two years with the Universidad Estatal a Distancia of Costa Rica (UNED), and were lucky enough to get financial support from UNED, the Bentham Moxon Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society. The main challenges were getting to our chosen locality given that maps of the area are based on aerial images and so of limited value for locating ridges and streams. Second we had to establish supply lines so that we could get food to our camps and our specimens out for drying. This meant that our valiant porters spent several hours a day hiking steep muddy paths or cutting trails through dense vegetation under the guidance of our guide Elio Altamirano. Very steep slopes, high rainfall and frequent tree-falls made our trails obstacle courses rather than paths, requiring a degree of acrobatics when hauling a heavily packed rucksack and long-arm pruners.
This combined with our limited budget meant that whilst we were able to inventory two unexplored valleys and an un-named mountain range, over an elevation range of 2,200 to 2,800 m. We were not, however, able to get to our target locality which would have required many more porters than we could afford or source. This is one of the risks of doing fieldwork in very remote areas on a relatively small budget and I would not consider this trip to have been a failure, not only did we make over 500 collections, almost certainly including some new to science, but we also undertook inventories in an hitherto unexplored area and documented some new records of threatened habitats for Costa Rica.
Since 2003 I have been working with colleagues in Costa Rica and Panama to document the diversity of one of the most species-rich and beautiful places in Central America, the La Amistad Binational Park. During this time I have lead ten expeditions, the last of which was in 2012 and that have resulted in the disovery of over 50 species of plant and amphibian and the collection of several thousand plant collections and a Checklist to the vascular plants of La Amistad. After a six year gap in which I have changed jobs, got married and had a son, we are about to go back. This time to explore an area whose biological diversity remains totally unexplored. It will be a big challenge for me. For a start it is a four day hike to get to our target area, there are no proper maps and we have had to clear a trail and locate a camp. The main challenge will be to not get lost in this very mountainous area. Also it will be very difficult to be away from my family for four weeks. We are prepared though and have local guides, a satellite phone and lots of food.
The route starts at about 1200 m above sea-level on the Pacific slopes, goes up to 2400 m and through the majestic oak forests, then past the Cerros Tararia, three inselbergs that rise out of the forest, and down through a trail that we will cut, that drops down to about 1500 m and the confluence of two medium-sized rivers. Here we plan to set up a makeshift camp. Our team comprises Frank Gonzalez, by far the most effective expedition planner that I have worked with, and lecturer at the Costa Rican equivalent of the Open University, UNED, Costa Rican botanist, Daniel Santamaria who is the most gifted field botanist that I know, myself, and a team of porters, who will spend the whole time supplying our camp and taking specimens back to the park entrance. We hope to get 10 days solid collecting done. This will involve two techniques new to me, the use of a catapult to launch a rope and chainsaw chain across the branches of trees that we want to collect, and of a drone to capture footage of the surrounding area to get an idea of the surrounding vegetation and capture images of the forest.
Whilst we hope to discover several new species to science, our real aim is to collect new locality records for 200 or more species. These records will help us to better predict these species ranges and support their conservation. We were very lucky to get financial support from the Bentham Moxon Trust and the RHS.
I first came these majestic and mysterious forests in 2003 whilst collecting on the summit of Cerro Fabrega in Panama. We had hiked through montane tropical forest and cloud forest and suddenly we came into a forest consisting almost only of massive oak trees, covered in dark maroon liverworts and bright red bromeliads. It was a magical and unexpected experience. I had no idea that there were oak forests in the wet tropics and whilst I had seen small oak trees growing in semideciduous forests in Belize and El Salvador they could not be said to constitute a forest. Later on subsequent expeditions we came across these forests at between 1,900 and 3,100 m in Costa Rica and Panama, always characterised by tall trees festooned with epiphytes and very quiet. Indeed an oak forested portion of the La Amistad World Heritage site is known as the ‘Valley of Silence’.
What surprised me about these forests was their stature growing at such high altitudes, well above the stunted and gnarled cloud forests below them. Secondly, they have a rich diversity of plants associated with them, we documented over 500 species. Thirdly, in Latin America, they are restricted to mountains in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. They are also relatively unknown, both amongst botanists, ecologists and conservationists. Having done some more work analysing the patterns of species in these forests with Nadia Bystriakova and discussions with Dutch ecologist Maarten Kappelle we are planning a research programme on these high elevation oak forests. One which will seek to document and establish their importance as a source of plant diversity, both for conservation and science but also to evaluate the threats they experience across their range.
Alex Monro's blog about the documenting and conservation of biodiversity