Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Cloud Nine

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Cloud Nine

Article excerpt

Conservation biologist Neil Reid is fulfilling a childhood dream and working in a cloud forest, where the natural wonders and the need to defend them can push the region's dangers out of mind

As a child, I was captivated by the About Animals volume of the Childcraft encyclopedia, which had a two-page spread on cloud forests. These, I learned, are a special subset of rainforests covering the summits of remote mountain ranges, so high that they are perpetually drenched in cloud. Their isolation makes them some of the most biodiverse places on the planet, with most of their plants and animals found nowhere else. The book contained a photograph of a dark, mysterious jungle of seemingly endless potential discoveries, and I imagined swashbuckling adventures on a quest to see the resplendent quetzal: a breathtakingly iridescent bird depicted on one of the pages, which would beat the socks off any New Guinean bird of paradise in a fashion show.

I now find myself working for one or two months each year in a remote area of the Cusuco National Park in northwest Honduras as one of two senior scientists on site and chief mammalogist for an expedition run by Operation Wallacea, an organisation that brings together networks of academics to monitor biodiversity for the purposes of conservation management.

The popularity of television shows such as I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! is based on the Schadenfreude of seeing others exposed to what most people regard as the horrors of the jungle. And certainly there is some unpleasantness. The area where I work has an average slope of about 30 degrees, and torrential rain ensures that every surface is slippery, making traversing the forest exhausting. The region is home to some of the most venomous snakes on earth - fers-de-lance, pit vipers and coral snakes - as well as abundant invertebrates that make even the most jungle-hardened ecologist recoil, including tarantulas, scorpions and, my least favourite, vinegaroons. Last year we had a short spate of tarantula bites when students failed to zip their tents shut.

One of the greatest threats, however, is microscopic. Shigellosis is bacterial diarrhoea accompanied by stomach cramps, fever and vomiting that can last up to seven days. In 2012, on my first visit to Honduras, I was apocalyptically ill one night during an electrical storm. Clambering out of a tent every 10 minutes to trudge through ankle-deep mud in thunder, lightning and torrential rain to evacuate from both ends while running a fever and being so weak that I could barely walk was not pleasant, especially when I failed to zip up the tent and awoke in a near hallucinogenic state to find myself covered in termites. Ever since then, Rule No 1 of the jungle has been: if I start to feel ill, I go straight to the expedition medic for a course of antibiotics.

Medical incidents are not rare, but fortunately most are not life-threatening. Falls, scrapes, bumps and bruises are the most common afflictions. In 2013, I led an excursion to a spectacular waterfall deep within a ravine, where the father of one of the students slipped on a wet rock and broke his leg. My radio was not working, either because we were in such a deep valley that the signal could not be relayed to our base camp or because it had got wet. In temperatures in excess of 30ºC, our local guide was sent to scale the valley wall and bring back a medical team with intravenous morphine and a stretcher. It took more than four hours to evacuate the casualty to the nearest jungle track, from where he was taken to the hospital in San Pedro Sula several hours away. He made a full recovery, but the experience was very stressful for everyone, and I now triple-check every radio before leaving camp.

Natural hazards are not the only perils we face. San Pedro Sula, our base before entering the forest, is listed by the United Nations as one of the most dangerous cities on earth, with 187 murders per 100,000 people each year, mostly associated with street gangs involved in drug trafficking. …

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