May 20, 2020
With non-stop news of Covid-19, we’ve all had some time to reflect on our birding, and travel and life generally–what we have done, and perhaps what we still hope to do. There are stories to tell from almost every birding trip. This is a story about a region and a friend that hold special memories for me. – Steve Hilty
BOLIVIA: A TIME AND A PLACE TO REMEMBER
By Steve Hilty
Bolivia has never been a destination that resonated with birders in the same way that destinations like Costa Rica, Panama, and perhaps Peru or Brazil have. During nearly forty years of guiding for VENT, and for several years prior to that, I’ve visited many exciting destinations and prided myself on pioneering some of VENT’s most exotic—maybe even daring—wilderness trips, among them Suriname, Colombia’s Amazon, the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru, and eastern Bolivia. In the 1980s and 1990s, all of these trips involved various amounts of camping, sleeping in hammocks, or other minimalist accommodations. Some can still be visited, but with a good deal more comfort today. So, among this group, why does eastern Bolivia stand apart? Some historical perspective may help.
Bolivia divides naturally into two parts, the Andean highlands in the west, and the lowlands to the east, the latter mostly flat but remarkably diverse and with an extremely small human population. It is in eastern Bolivia that the vast Amazonian rainforests grudgingly give way to more open habitats; low vine forests; seasonally-flooded savannas; cerrado or dry savanna; marshes, wetlands and gallery forests (think the Pantanal here); and various types of dry woodland, thorn scrub, and eventually arid chaco scrub that continues across western Paraguay and north-central Argentina. There’s a lot more wildlife here than you might suspect.
In 1991, Ted Parker helped me design a VENT tour to eastern Bolivia. At this point I had known Ted for almost twenty years—we met in the early 1970s at the University of Arizona when I was a graduate student having just returned from Colombia. Ted was a freshman. He was a gifted birder and naturalist even then and would soon gain widespread fame for his unrivaled field skills, pioneering ornithological discoveries, and sound recording in South America.
By the early 1990s, Ted was heavily involved with Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), undertaking quick biological surveys of remote areas throughout much of the Neotropics. He was particularly enthusiastic about a new park in Bolivia that his RAP team had visited—Noel Kempff Mercado National Park—but the park was so remote that few visitors had ever been there. Ted insisted that we should offer a birding trip there, and his stories and descriptions of the areas were persuasive. I was, of course, an easy sell. He described, in almost mystical terms, a long low mountain ridge running parallel to the Brazilian border for more than 75 miles—the remote Serranía de Huanchaca. This was the centerpiece of the park. It was a western outlier of the Brazilian shield that, to some extent, wraps around the southern end of the Amazon basin. The park was an enormous wilderness, as large as the state of Massachusetts. The northern end of the park could be accessed only by a small grass airstrip, or by boat from Brazil. Access to the far south was by a narrow dirt road, which also functioned as an airstrip. It was open in the dry season. The overland journey from Santa Cruz (the only logical starting point) to reach the park would have taken nearly a week—in the dry season and if all went well—in a 4x4 vehicle. For an area of some six million acres, there was little access. It just wasn’t easy to visit this park!
The park itself was born of tragedy. Created in 1979 and originally designated Parque Nacional Huanchaca, it remained virtually unknown and unexplored until Noel Kempff, a beloved Bolivian conservationist and head of the Santa Cruz Botanical Garden, began exploration of the park. On one trip in September 1986, using a small plane, Noel Kempff, with his pilot and four friends, including a Spanish biologist, overflew the Serranía. During the flight someone spotted a small airstrip in a flat, partially wooded area atop the vast Serranía. In a careless moment they decided to land—a decision that would quickly turn fatal. Within minutes they were surrounded by armed Brazilian gunmen guarding a clandestine cocaine-processing lab hidden in the nearby jungle. The pilot, Noel Kempff, and three others were executed almost immediately, and the plane burned and dragged away in pieces to be hidden. The Spanish biologist survived—but only because he had gone exploring along the runway and was far enough away from the plane that he was not noticed by the gunmen. Saved from certain execution, but with no food or water, and surrounded by an immense wilderness, he could only remain hidden.
When Noel Kempff’s plane did not return, a search plane was dispatched and, while retracing the flight path of Noel’s fateful plane, a piece of the burned plane was spotted near the runway. This prompted a closer look from the air, and a chance landing. At this point, the poor Spanish biologist, now weak from having spent nearly two days in hiding, recognized the plane as Bolivian by its markings. When it landed, he summoned his strength and made a desperate run to meet and stop it, breathlessly screaming for the plane to leave as he scrambled aboard. And leave they did—just barely. Gunfire crackled overhead, and a bullet struck the plane as they lifted off to safety even as errant seat belts were left hanging out the door.
Following this development, the illegal Brazilian drug lab operation was immediately abandoned. A few days later Bolivian police visited the site, but the drug gang had vanished into the wilderness across the Brazilian border. The park service, now determined to secure the region, initiated regular monitoring overflights, and in 1988 the park was renamed Noel Kempff Mercado National Park in his honor.
Parker’s RAP team visited the park a few years later, and in August of 1992, through VENT, Ted and I offered the first commercial birding trip to the area. We even ferried our group and gear up to the fabled drug lab site for an overnight camping expedition and found several birds in or near the site that we would not see anywhere else. I operated the trip again in 1993, this time without Ted, who was, at that time, preoccupied with RAP work in Ecuador and couldn’t accompany me.
Unfortunately, tragedy would strike again. While I was at Noel Kempff park with my group and co-leader Alan Gast, I received sad news that Ted had died in a plane accident in western Ecuador. Perhaps it was because of Ted’s help and involvement in making this trip possible, the park took on new meaning for me. By this time the park boasted a bird list of some 620 species. Ted had introduced me to this remarkable area, and I was now more determined than ever that people be made aware of it. The park ultimately proved so valuable, in fact, that in the year 2000 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So, I continued guiding trips into this fabled area, ten trips over the next fourteen years, but eventually government support and interest in the park waned. But, during that period of time, the park caught the interest of such renowned international guides and naturalists as Andrew Whittaker and Robert Ridgely, and I was fortunate to have them co-lead trips with me.
The park had always been a frontier, on the edge, a little beyond the thin veneer of civilization, and we had many adventures during our trips into this region. On occasions we spotted unmarked Brazilian planes overflying the park, and once even gave brief chase in a futile attempt to read any identifying number on the plane, but our little Cessna was no match for the speedier Brazilian plane as it fled back across the border. Another time, a Brazilian lumber operation simply moved across the Río Itenez and into a remote section of the park and began illegally harvesting timber. And there were dry season fires, mostly from the Rondonia area of Brazil. These fires darkened the skies over the park for weeks. But the wildlife was incredible. There were curassows, guans, Harpy Eagles, macaws, Giant Otters, tapirs, Jaguars, and Maned Wolves and, of course, a small but dedicated, if overwhelmed group of park and support personnel who did their best with limited resources. A few tourists came too, but never in any numbers. It was just too remote.
In 1993, I also expanded the Noel Kempff trip to include the Beni region of north central Bolivia. Visiting this region involved yet another small plane charter flight, but the region would prove almost as remarkable as the park. I also hoped it would provide us with an opportunity to search for the rare Blue-throated Macaw. The breeding area of this macaw had been unknown until just a year or two earlier. That was when a precocious young biologist, Charles Munn, began cleverly backtracking through a network of legal and illegal bird smugglers until he succeeded in making contact with the man supplying the Blue-throated Macaws to overseas markets. He was the only source for this macaw. Now, through Munn’s efforts, this same man had been hired to monitor the macaws and report attempted smuggling efforts. He also would guide birders and naturalists to some of the breeding areas that, at the time, only he knew.
In 1994, among a large VENT group to Noel Kempff National Park, were three young birders: Andrew Farnsworth, Ivan Samuels, and David Bohlen. Young and eager, they also brought great birding skills. That year the park had been exceptional, in part due to their efforts and willingness to share what they found. On that trip we saw four species of large cats in one 24-hour span, two Maned Wolves, a tapir, five kinds of primates, a Harpy Eagle, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Festive Coquette, Horned Sungem, nine species of caprimulgids, Tooth-billed Wren, Black-and-Tawny Seedeater, and much more. We didn’t think it could get better.
Then, after relocating by small planes to the city of Trinidad for the last leg of the trip, we struck out northward at dawn toward the vast and remote La Habana ranch some six hours to the north. The terrain was relatively open and dry—thorn scrub, dry forest, immense marshes, pasture land with cattle and gallery forest. It was a long dusty road. It seemed even longer because we were sitting on boards in the back of a large truck on a bumpy road, but there were lots of birds. During lunch at the ranch, we sensed it had been a great morning. A Swallow-tailed Hummingbird hovered at a flowering shrub just outside the porch as Andy was making a quick tally of our list. It had been a great morning. Everybody was ecstatic.
We spent the afternoon on foot birding riverine forest and an oxbow lake not far from the ranch house. We wouldn’t know until that evening just how good our day had been—213 species, of which all but three were seen. We thought it might be a single day record for a VENT group, at least in the New World. The ranch itself seemed a glimpse into an era long past. Accessible by road for barely half of the year, and during peak flooding not even by air, it was a self-contained community unto itself with its own school, church, tannery, brickyard, and general store. The next day, accompanied by the former macaw smuggler himself, who was proving to be an excellent bird spotter, we set out in search of the rare Blue-throated Macaw. And sure enough, we did see it.
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