An overview: Tropical Ecology and Science Writing — Peru, June 2-30, 2018


Christian, Madeleine, Jonathan, Lillian, Allie, Lucy, Isabelle, Ashley and Nathan. Cocha Cashu.

It all started early on the morning on June 2, 2018, in the Pacific Coast city of Lima, where a third of Peru’s 33 million people live. The misty, cloudy air is deceiving. Lima receives virtually no annual rainfall, depending on glacier-melt rivers for its water supply. Our education about ecosystems began soon after the sun rose over Lima during our ride to the airport.

From there we flew from sea level to the Incan capital city of Cusco at 11,000 feet in the Andes where we spent a day, went horseback riding and adjusted to the oxygen-poor altitude. Coca leaves anyone? We left early on the morning of June 5 for the official start of the course, taking a long and winding bus ride through the Andes, beyond the desert and into the jungle — at 9,000 feet in a cloud forest in southern tip of Manu National Park. The change from arid to wet was abrupt and dramatic — just a few twists, turns and altitude on the dirt highway. We all know now what cloud shadows are, and the impact they have on Peru’s bipolar climate.

Over the next four weeks, through temperatures that ranged from freezing to blistering, we moved through one distinct ecosystem after another. Professor Miles Silman taught the group how to spot and identify the rich and abundant bird life. We identified scores of species by sight and sound, luring many feathered creatures into view with iPhone recordings of their songs. Silman showed students how to identify a range of tree species by analyzing their leaves and “breaking them down.” Our readings taught us that this green and verdant landscape has mostly poor soil as a result of regular rain constantly washing away the nutrients. Tree and plant species adapt with the help of extraordinary root systems, ants, termites, seed dispersal by bird, animal and wind, and a range of insects and microbes that eat leaves and turn what they have eaten into soil nutrients.

There was long, arduous hiking down the Troucha Union and at Pantiacolla — both hikes lasting eight hours and surpassing 12 miles in duration and distance. We got used to thick mud and slick rocks. Most of us fell. A lot. But we got up and kept moving. There was simply too much natural beauty to see and experience and learn about. Professor Justin Catanoso reminded the group to take it all in, move up the learning curve of so much biology and ecology, and start thinking about how to make their eco-experiences come to life in the stories they would tell in words and photos. “Keep this question in mind,” Catanoso implored. “Why should people care about places like this? They need to understand.”

We spent the longest part of our adventure in the middle of Peru’s largest national park in a biological station founded in 1972 — Cocha Cashu. There, this managed outpost, which is off limits to tourists, is as close to nature working in balance as you’re going to find in a relatively accessible place (it took us two days by boat to reach Cashu). What didn’t we see and experience there? Well, big cats like puma and jaguar. But primates? We saw acrobatic monkeys galore: howlers, spider, squirrel, emperor tamerin, saddleback tamerin, pygmy marmoset and more. The river otters in the lake there acted like an acquatic gang of thugs. The birds were exotic, loud and colorful. So were the snakes, spiders, frogs and lizards. And so many ants and termites, the ecosystems managers of rain forest soil.

And on it went, through more ecosystems at lower elevations. A 60-meter tower climb was as harrowing as it was breathtaking. There we reveled in a bird’s eye view of the jungle, 30 feet above the green and dense canopy. Parrots entered our view as if sent by stage managers. Squirrel monkeys scampered across the tree tops. The sun fell and rose in spectacular fashion. How many times could we all say the same word: Unbelievable.

But we weren’t done. Far from it. A long boat ride too us down the Manu to the the Madre de Dios. A magnificent tapir walked out of the forest for a drink, enabling a long look at this rare and exotic creature — a cross between a rhino and elephant. We camped out on an empty beach, but were comforted by Orlando’s riverside cooking, a huge bonfire and a striped worm in a strange bottle of thick liquid. We slept under a blanket of stars on a moonless night.

After experiencing nature at her most natural — albeit straining from the effects of steadily warming temperatures — we moved closer to Puerto Maldanado, a gold-rush town of 30,000 in one of Peru’s most biodiverse departments (states) — Madre de Dios. There, illegal gold mining is causing deforestation on an enormous scale mostly along waterways. A problem for the forest is made worse from the destruction of top soil and the dumping of tons and tons of mercury onto the ground and into the rivers. Fish are poisoned. So are people. A hundred acres of trees will fall for a few ounces of gold. It’s a crime, literally. But with no law enforcement, the mining continues unabated.

But there is hope. There is always hope. And we saw it first hand, embodied in a science and outreach initiative led by Professor Silman, among others, and directed on the ground by some of Peru’s finest foresters, fishery and mercury experts, bio-char and soil renourishment leaders and drone operators. This group of extraordinary scientists makes up CINCIA, and they are quickly learning the huge, complicated task of reforesting badly deforested land and mitigating the mercury damage. What they are putting into action should become a template for reforestation throughout Amazonia, if not in damaged rain forests around the globe.

It was a lot to observe, absorb and make sense of. But every day, with the help of incredible access to places wild and desecrated, and with the clear and thoughtful insights of brilliant scientists, nine intrepid Wake Forest students each grasped the stories they intend to tell on their own blogs, and later to a broader audience yet to be identified.

Experts argue — starting with Pope Francis — that no greater challenge faces the planet than climate change and environmental protection. The students in this course got to see up close and understand clearly the truth of that audacious assertion. They have important stories to tell.

Please see the individual blogs to the right for a look at the individual experiences each student had and the multimedia journalism he or she produced in one of Wake Forest’s most challenging and unique study abroad programs.

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