PANAMA'S DARIEN NATIONAL PARK
by Hernan Arauz
It is a very special feeling to sit on the veranda of the top camp above the pristine Cana rainforest. From that vantage point in the Pirre mountain range a vast, primordial panorama unfolds before your eyes. The entire eastern section of Panama’s Darien National Park can be seen from here. From above it appears as a dark green canopy, stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions. Scratch the surface of this canopy, and you’ll find an exuberant neotropical drama involving an unparalleled variety of plant and animal life forms. And from here above the carpet of green, you can see how this area got its reputation as one of the greatest birding sites in the world.
Darien National Park is the largest national park in Central America and extends along virtually the entire border with Colombia. Contained within it is one of the most precious storehouses of life forms anywhere on planet Earth. It is no wonder that it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a biosphere reserve.
Nearly every place else in the world’s tropical belt, our rainforests are disappearing at the rate of an acre a second. The importance of saving these forests in their unspoiled state, and the importance of these plants, animals, and ecosystems to our own future, cannot be exaggerated. That’s why I dedicate my work and my words to all those tiny (and not so tiny) eyes that look at us from the trail without greed.
A Day in the Life of Nature
As Master Naturalist Guide of Ancon Expeditions of Panama, it is my privilege and joy to take you to the Darien wilderness, where Cana stands out as the crown jewel of all of Panama’s rainforests. How does this drama of rainforest life play out? To give you some idea, let me share with you the field report of my last tour:
“Antbirds were hissing and whistling on the slopes of Pirre Mountain just above the station. Like sweet music to the visiting nature-lovers at Cana, we followed the sound. Clad in cotton Khakis, loaded with bug repellent and sporting sharp optics, we suddenly froze as we noticed the first columns of thousands of army ants.
“In a predatory frenzy, they were probing every crevice, crack and hole on the forest floor looking for critters to overwhelm and eat. Taking advantage of this daily display were several bird species that follow the ants to catch whatever is flushed out by the tiny soldiers.
“Instantly, the group was treated to great views of many sought-after species like Bicolored, Spotted and Ocellated Antbirds. As they flew from twig to twig catching panicked roaches and katydids, the birds screeched in excitement.
“Noticing the huge size of the ant-swarm I positioned the group and waited for more. Barred and Ruddy Woodcreepers darted in from tree to tree followed by Immaculate and Bare-crowned Antbirds. From the top of the food chain a Barred Forest Falcon suddenly materialized in midair stopping abruptly the short flight of a Gray-headed Tanager.
“The intense nature show exhilarated everyone as birds were seen for the first time. I had everyone’s attention focused on a short, plump bird preening itself on top of a fallen log; the Black-crowned Antpitta was a lifetime first for many. A mid-canopy flock arrived and diverted attention to a Striped-cheeked Woodpecker, Blue Cotinga and Yellow-Green Grosbeaks.
“Within 5 minutes of this initial encounter, climax arrived as I tried to direct attention to a larger bird stalking the forest floor … eyes were confused and binoculars adjusted … Yes!! A Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo, one of the rarest (and most difficult-to-spot) birds in the world.
“Four hours later, after adding several new birds to their life lists, we had nothing but smiling faces down the trail, ready for a hearty meal and talking about the next day’s quest for the Tooth-billed Hummingbird.”
But birds are by no means the only proof of Cana’s magnificent natural heritage. It has long been observed by naturalists that, at each level of the food chain, there are more prey than predators, and that the top of the food chain consists of the smallest populations of all. This implies that there must be a significant number of prey to sustain one jaguar, or one puma.
When you walk the trails of Cana, you will notice an astounding variety of mammal tracks. The remote nature of the place translates into very low human impact and consequent abundance of species such as tapirs, peccaries, pacas, deer and monkeys, which in turn support considerable numbers of creatures at the top of the food chain — such as jaguars, pumas, ocelots, eagles, and hawks.
In more temperate (northern and southern) climates you will find many individuals of fewer species, whereas in the tropics we are endowed with fewer individuals of more species, therefore an extraordinary variety. When you walk the Cana trails you will find many kinds of eyes looking at you! That is why it is such a privilege to see whatever nature allows you.
I will never forget one morning on the airstrip near the Station, after a large herd of white-lipped peccaries had crossed it. As we were watching a flock of blue and yellow macaws feeding on a cecropia tree, my assistant, Viejo Fao, called my attention to an animal crossing the airstrip. When I filled my binoculars’ field of view with the shape of the creature, I suddenly realized it was a huge, hungry puma following the herd. It didn’t take long to see that this formidable predator was a lean, mean hunting machine: as it approached the end of the clearing, it started to crouch, ready to kill.
A Paradise of Biodiversity
Cana’s reputation for its tropical bounty has always attracted famous researchers and scientists. Edward Goldman, Ludlow Griscom, Alexander Wetmore, Ted Parker, and Robert Ridgely are among those who have been dazzled and puzzled by the biodiversity of this World Heritage Site.
Every year, the Smithsonian’s Donald Windsor leads a team of specialized researchers looking to discover species new to science. Unknown plants, frogs, lizards, beetles, and wasps — not to mention lower forms of life, such as fungi, lichens, and mosses — are all awaiting discovery and the possibility of regaling us with new chemical compounds and interactions that could very well benefit humankind.
More recently, the famous TV naturalist and conservationist Jeff Corwin has visited Cana twice and calls it one of his favorite places on Earth. As we descended from the Pirre cloudforest, he told me that he wants to return soon — not to do another TV show, but just to learn and discover and enjoy more. Jeff has been in just about every ecosystem in the world. Such reactions are common when you are exposed to Panama’s foremost theater of life.
As if nature weren’t enough to mesmerize you, there is also an alluring history. It is hard to imagine that 120 years ago, over 10,000 people lived in this valley. Gold mining was the central activity that brought here an impressive array of steam-operated, steel machinery that today lies scattered through the forest understory, overwhelmed by creeping jungle.
To watch hundreds of leaf-cutting ants use an old narrow-gauge rail to lead them back to their nests, is to witness the tremendous power of resilience of the tropical rainforest. Today, the machinist compartment of the old rusting Cituro locomotive is used by ocelots for mating; and the only “mining” that we are willing to responsibly pursue is ecotourism.
FOR MORE INFORMATION contact Ancon Expeditions of Panama for tours of Darien National Park and other locations in Panama of natural and cultural interest. See their website, www.anconexpeditions.com; e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org; or call +(507) 269-9415.
The author is a Master Naturalist Guide for Ancon Expeditions of Panama, Inc.
DARIEN NATIONAL PARK FACTS
• Darien National Park is one of the world’s newer nature preserves, not having been established until 1980. But then in short order, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1981) and a Biosphere reserve (1982).
• The tropical rainforest included in the park is some 1.4 million acres. The park covers the easternmost part of Panama, bordering on Colombia.
• Many species that are endangered or threatened in the rest of the Americas thrive here. These include the harpy eagle, the shy tapir, and 5 species of large cats: jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, and jaguarondi.
• In terms of quantity and quality of sightings, Darien National Park has been rated one of the world’s top 10 birdwatching sites.
• The park’s mountains are of volcanic origin, with many lava formations visible. The park’s highest mountain ranges reach some 7,000 feet above sea level.