"I’m very excited that we’re engaging with one of the brightest spots on our planet, illustrating the tremendous value of the Missouri Chapter’s international work.”
-Steve McMillan, Missouri Trustee
Conservation Across Borders
Here in Missouri, it's not too often that we get to see toucans and howler monkeys! On February 22nd, Conservancy members from Missouri journeyed to Panama to experience the country's diverse wildlife and see how we're working to conserve its resources. Share in their adventures as Trustee Steve McMillan describes the trip.
Traveler and Trustee Steve McMillan relates his adventures in Panama.
It seems fitting that the first stop on our trip was the feature Panama is perhaps most famous for: the Panama Canal. This monumental structure was an enormous achievement, cutting travel time between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in half. Fifty-two million gallons of water are needed for each ship that passes through the canal. This water is supplied by freshwater rivers, which are recharged by the tropical rainforest through which they run. The rainforest acts like a sponge, soaking up water in the rainy season and slowly releasing it back into the watershed throughout the year. Without a healthy watershed, the canal would be unable to operate.
After exploring the canal we headed to Soberania National Park. It was the dry season and some trees had lost their leaves, but overall the landscape was a lush green. Our guide, Hernan, observed with notable concern that “it is really dry right now, too dry, it is not usually like this for another month.” Climate change is happening here, he tells us, even with the moderating effects of the oceans bordering Panama’s northern and southern coasts.
Still it looked incredibly rich with life everywhere I looked. We climbed the spiral stair of the park’s observation tower about 80-100 feet up to the top of the canopy. It was hot and not much was moving at this time of day, but the view was still amazing. The canopy stretched to the horizon in every direction. Several species of trees were blooming white and yellow and orchids bloomed at the treetops.
Hernan told us there is a healthy jaguar population here, and the very rare Harpy eagle makes a home here as well. The Nature Conservancy and partner organization ANCON (the largest indigenous NGO working on conservation in Panama) engineered debt-for-nature swaps that have protected large tracts of undeveloped rainforest landscape. The richness of life here is evidence of the success of these programs.
If nothing else, Panama is about birds. There are some 974 species here and Hernan has spent much of his lifetime assiduously collecting sightings of them and constantly adding to his formidable count of nearly 800 birds observed in the country. Today we spotted 38 species.
In the afternoon we toured the canal by boat in search of wildlife. We found capuchin monkeys, mantled howler monkeys, termite nests, and more birds. The aquatic environment was rich with water plants and the forest comes down to water’s edge. The combination of wildlife, the greenery, and the enormous passing ships was overwhelming.
This morning we left for Lago Alajuela, located in Chagres National Park not quite an hour outside of downtown Panama City. The lake was created artificially by the building of a dam intended to provide an additional reservoir for the canal. There was a fisherman on the shore nearby processing a catch of about 60 tilapia, preparing them in the bottom of a small dugout for sale at market. As we headed across the lake to visit an indigenous village, we saw homes dotted along the shoreline.
People lived on the land that is now Chagres National Park before it was established. Today there are about 30 villages within the park's boundaries. The Conservancy helped to establish a local foundation which reaches out to promote good stewardship and land use practices while respecting the native culture.
Day 3 began at the Bambitos Hotel in the mountains near La Amistad International Park. The vast rain and cloud forest reserve is one of the world’s few bi-national parks, shared by Costa Rica and Panama. The road to the park’s entrance is on the flanks of Volcan Baru, Panama's tallest mountain. We traveled through parched lowlands, the temperate forest, the rain forest, and finally up into the cloud forest that blankets the summit. As we crossed over the Talamanca highlands to the city of Almirante on the Caribbean coast, we passed through productive ranches and farms, with fields climbing improbably up from the valley floor on inclines so steep that only hand work can be performed here.
Inside the park, the dense forest arching over the road was permeated with clouds and rain poured down through the primeval landscape. A mist hung in the air and everything was wet from the clouds constantly moving through the thick forest. We embarked up the loop trail on foot, where small rivulets and streams crisscrossed the trail like huge spider webs. Spectacularly colored birds fluttered all around us and above us. The vegetation was unimaginably dense and diverse; even the tree branches were covered in mosses and other plants. The giant of the cloud forest here is the Kapok tree, which can grow to heights of nearly 200 feet.
The cloud forest in the Talamanca highlands is the water source for reservoirs that are used to generate hydroelectric power and clean water for the people living in the surrounding highlands. This virgin rainforest and surrounding buffer zones represent the largest intact tropical forest in Central America; it still has the full array of plants and animals that make Panama the most diverse country in Central America.
The Nature Conservancy has worked in the country for a long time and on many fronts to strengthen protection and management of this incredible place.
Today we traveled by boat to the village of Salt Creek on 20-square mile Bastimentos Island. Our boat captain, Livingston, and his son navigated us through a maze of canals in the thick mangrove forest to reach the 600-person village, which spread out through the surrounding rainforest. Upon arriving, Hernan introduced us to the local guide, who is also a village elder here. He led us into the forest to explore the interior rainforest, where saw and heard a wonderful variety of birds along with three-toed sloths, leafcutter ants, lizards, and a lone poison dart frog. We returned to the village for a lunch prepared from a local harvest of barracuda, rice, taro, and fern salad at a restaurant built specifically to cater to eco-tourists. Hernan has been instrumental here consulting with the residents and helping to promote the budding eco-tourism business.
After lunch we headed out into the gulf to snorkel on one of the vast coral reefs within the park. Soft corals dominated and the warm waters provided the perfect environment for the riot of multi-colored species that blanketed the sea floor. The reef appeared to be quite healthy with little evidence of the bleaching afflicting other parts of the Caribbean.
We then headed to a small protected bay on one of the countless small islands dotting the gulf. All of these islands were built upon vast mangrove root systems. Here in this semi-circular bay, the tangle of limbs and roots arched out over the water and created a nearly impenetrable wall of green at the water’s edge. We slipped into the water and swam slowly among the delicate vertical hanging roots that were suspended in the water. They were completely covered with oysters, barnacles, sponges, crabs, and brittle starfish. The sheer complexity and diversity of organisms living here was staggering. Small barracuda and other tiny fish moved through the tangle as well. It’s amazing to learn about the beautifully complex relationships that occur at this interface between the sea and land.
We again board eour boat to head out for another morning of snorkeling. From the boat we can see the nearly unbroken mangrove forest and the thick rainforest rising up from the center of the island. Under the water’s surface we spot fish, including spotted eagle rays, blue tangs, puffer fish, wrasses, and blennies, moving through the coral bed. After snorkeling we head to Bird Island, which was really more a collection of large rock formations that rise dramatically out of the ocean. Bird Island represents the only nesting site of red-billed tropicbird in Central America. The sky opened up and began pouring rain as we approached the island, but we were still able to view the sleek white birds milling all around the island, landing on and taking off from crevices everywhere on the precipitous cliff faces. There were also brown boobies perched on the steep rock face. Even here on this sea- and wind-swept island, a rich mix of trees and plants clung to every available bit of terrain just out of reach of the roiling surf.
Our trip at an end, we returned to Bocas town to pack and headed to the airport for our return trip. There we enjoyed a farewell dinner and said goodbye to our gracious hosts before heading back to the U.S.
Facts about Panama:
- Size: 30,193, smaller than South Carolina
- Population: 3.4 million
- Economy: With one of the strongest economies in Central America, Panama has undergone rapid infrastructure development
- Landscape: Panama has ten eco-regions, including dry desert, dry forest, alpine, tropical rainforest, montaine rainforest, cloud forest, and coastal mangrove forests.
- Diversity: Panama is the most biologically diverse country in Central America, with 972 bird species (more than Costa Rica), 231 mammal species (about half of these are bats!), 205 amphibian species, 225 reptile species, and 12,000 vascular plant species
- Conservation challenges: Tree cover in Panama has been reduced by 40% since 1940, and its mangrove forests are threatened on both the Pacific and the Atlantic coasts. Native species are threatened by extinction due to deforestation, rapid urbanization, clearing for the coastal tourism industry, agriculture, cattle ranching, and landscape fragmentation