Program begins in Bocas del Toro, Panama
— 1 December 2003
— in Neotropical Environmental Education Program
Loa Tzu said that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. These words rang true, both literally and figuratively, for me and my co-worker Kathia Herrera, as we began our five-hour hike through the dense Neotropical forests of the Rio Teribe (Teribe River) area in Bocas del Toro Province, Panama. We were headed to a small community called Buena Selva, located at the top of a high mountain. This would be the first of four communities we would visit during the week. The others included Seiyic, Bonyic, and Solon. We were making this trip in order to begin an environmental education program in the area. Bocas del Toro Province, specifically the forests that surround the Rio Teribe, will be the site for releasing our captive-bred Harpy Eagles once they become independent of our care and are hunting on their own and no longer need to be monitored on a daily basis. Before these releases can occur, however, we need to ensure the support and acceptance of the people living in the area, thus, the purpose of our visit.
Rio Teribe River
To get to this beautiful, forested trail that would eventually lead us to Buena Selva, we were met by employees and volunteers from ANAM, Panama’s National Environmental Authority. We loaded bags full of our clothes, a lap top computer, generator, projector, binoculars, tents, and food onto a wooden canoe and slowly headed up river. The Rio Teribe is a wild, turbulent river that on more than one occasion brought logs that seemed larger than our canoe sweeping past us. Amidst the strength of the water, beauty was abundant and came in the form of secret waterfalls revealed through small breaks in the lush vegetation, sun bitterns bursting from the grass as we passed, and an Osprey lazily flapping overhead. We arrived the first evening at Wekso, a small field station run by ANAM, located inside La Amistad International Park which traverses the border of Panama and Costa Rica. We left most of our gear there.
The next day, we were on our way to Buena Selva after traveling a short while up the river. The going was tough, the trail was muddy and slippery and was all uphill, but it was enjoyable nonetheless as we had the chance to see poison dart frogs, animal tracks, and a wide variety of birds fluttering through the trees. We arrived, tired, sweaty, and hungry at around 4:30 p.m. that night and set up camp at the local school, a small building decorated with different pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh, representing each day of the week, a large map of Panama and a child’s rendition of Panama’s shield.
The following morning, we awoke early and were greeted with an amazing view of the valleys below. In the distance the lights of a small community blazed within an otherwise well forested area. By 9:00 a.m. approximately 35 people arrived for our presentation. Prior to that, we conducted short interviews with community members in order to measure their attitudes toward Harpy Eagles and learn about any previous Harpy sightings they may have had. At Buena Selva, as well as the other communities we visited, we were met with incredible interest and enthusiasm. Even though many people expressed a genuine fear of Harpy Eagles, recounting old folklore that talked of a Harpy Eagle lifting up houses and all their inhabitants in its talons and carrying them off to be eaten, everyone desired to learn more about this magnificent bird. Most individuals expressed pride in knowing that Bocas del Toro would be a site for future Harpy Eagle releases and through photos and descriptions were “introduced” to Flora, one of the first Harpies slated for release in the area.
After our presentation and a large lunch, we prepared for the long walk back to the river. Though the journey was much quicker on the way back, we hiked most of the way during a massive rain storm that lasted throughout the night. The trail became a stream and the Rio Teribe un-navigable. We were unable to cross it and so we spent the night on a beautiful ranch teeming with chickens, horses, geese, and pigs, watching the river swell along its banks and the lightning cut the sky in brilliant rays. The next morning, the sun shone clear and we were able to finish our work in the next three communities.
And so, after a long, but productive week, we boarded the small plane for home. Once we were in the air, Kathia and I began to discuss the next steps we needed to take in order to continue this important work in Bocas del Toro. As we talked, small towns, banana plantations, the deep aqua blue waters of the Caribbean, and the vast forests we are working so hard to protect passed by slowly beneath us, reminding us that even though the journey to conserve Harpy Eagles and the wild places in which they live will be long and difficult, we have already taken our single step.
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