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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Of Forests and Fires
Marta Curti — in West Indies Project    Share

Lush. Green. Verdant. Vibrant. This is what the forest in Los Haitises National Park (Dominican Republic)should look like. This is what it did look like once upon a time – before fires and machetes felled much of it to the ground.I have been brought to this small patch of uncut forest by my friend and co-worker, Nohine, who has been a part of the Ridgway’s Hawk Project for years and who knows the layout of the hills and trails of this park like most people know the layout of their own back yards. When we first enter the shaded landscape, I can feel the temperature drop 10 degrees - if not more. Nohine shows me an endemic palm tree and a large Ceiba tree – the first one I have seen since my arrival in the Dominican Republic in early March. I can hear songbirds singing in the trees and butterflies of all colors and sizes abound. For a few moments, I can pretend that this is all there is – just flowers and trees and winged creatures. I can forget the tragic loss of land that we witnessed today. But alas, we can’t spend much time here – maybe ten minutes or so. It is getting late. We have been walking for more than 5 hours and still have a ways to go before we get back to the cabin, so we grab our packs and head back onto the trail – back into the blazing hot sun and the now even-more-noticeable lack of trees to shade us.

Untouched forest. Photo by M. Curti

As we make our way toward home - the town of Los Limones, where our co-workers Thomas, Christine, Julio, Samuel, and Chivero await our report on the day’s findings - we can see the smoke from at least three fires burning in the distance. We stand for a moment to watch them and I see the sadness and the worry in Nohine’s face as the forest he loves slowly (or not-so-slowly) burns. We had just come from checking on a Ridgway’s Hawk nest that is more than a three hour trek from our cabin. Only the week before a huge fire, set deliberately, burned through much of the landscape, destroying fields and forest without prejudice. Today, as we hiked through the area, it felt as if we had stepped onto the set of an “end of days” movie— we saw nothing but the darkened remnants of trees all around us; our feet kicked up smoky ashes as we walked, turning our boots and pant legs black; and the burnt remains of frogs, snakes, and lizards littered the ground. Though it was a relief to discover that the Ridgway’s Hawk nest (and its two chicks)had survived, and the area around the nest wasunscathed,there was little else to console us in the face of so much loss. There was nothing we could say – no words to make it better.

A victim of the fire. Photo by Marta Curti

I ran the scenes from the day over and over in my head as we walked home. I was left with more questions than answers – and, dare I admit it, more despair than hope. If things continue in this way, what will become of the Ridgway’s Hawk – a species whose only known population exists in this very park? What will become of the other birds? The mammals? The plants? What will become of the people who live here – some of the kindest and most welcoming I have ever met? How – as conservationists, as citizens of this planet, as human beings – can we find a way to live sustainably? To treat ourselves, each other, and all living things with respect, humility and care?

Images from the fire. Photos by Marta Curti

Back at the cabin later that evening, we all sat around, planning our work for the next few days. We discussed strategies for repairing nests, ideas for more educational programs, we planned upcoming releases of young Ridgway’s Hawks. There was so much still to be done and the people I am privileged to work with on this project are smart, dedicated and passionate about what they do. I started to feel better. Hope slowly returned.

But, a few days later, I heard word that the military, in response to this fire, swept through the town of Los Limones –taking people away and confiscating food grown in fields within the park boundaries. I was not there that day and only know the rumors.SoI was left with more questions still… Who was taken? Where are they now? When will they be allowed to come home? The only thing of which I am certain is that this military “solution” is no solution at all. Education, reforestation, projects that bring money to the communities, local involvement – this is what will work, what must work for the sake of the hawks, for the sake of the forest and the local people and, really, for all our sakes…

As I sat down to write these notes I had no choice but to reflect on the past few days. Despite the sometimes tough moments, I know - with the utmost clarity- how lucky I am to be here, now, working on this amazing project. But still… as much as I love my job, I fantasize about the day when this type of work will no longer be necessary - when conservation won’t be a battle, when wild things and wild places will be allowed to thrive, and when nothing and no one will be in need of saving.

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