An impenetrable wall of jungle vine cloaked the forest trail as we descended over a small stream and into even darker afternoon light ahead. The acrid scent of a large animal wafted toward us and I stopped. If this was a Jaguar I didn’t want to risk cornering it. Jaguars are not known to be aggressive toward humans but I was taking no chances, so with a soft footfall we retreated and made our way back up to our cabin in the mountains.
Belize in 1982 was not the tourist mecca it is today. The country had just won independence from Britain a year earlier and its abundant wildlife was known only to scientists, a handful of birders, and dedicated reef divers. A friend of mine in the Foreign Service was stationed there and at her urging my husband Ed and I paid a visit.
The portal through which all pass is Belize City. We walked through the rough and tumble town, birthed in the 1600s for the lumber trade at the confluence of rivers and streams spilling into the Caribbean. Haulover Creek split the town in two and was a disgusting body of water into which everything was thrown, including carcasses from the outdoor market. Bloated fish, coconuts, shoes, dead dogs, and yesterday’s newspapers floated by as if consecrating them to the river and the sea meant an end to the horror. But the detritus never stopped. Mosquitos, rife with malaria were active day and night while flies sunk into luncheon plates quicker than a fork. A woman sitting in a concrete alcove begged me to buy her baby. We didn’t linger here.
A bush pilot we met in a bar flew us to a Mayan ruin called Lamanai, largely unexcavated then. The little seaplane put down in the “river of crocodiles” and was secured to the wooden dock. Tripping over extensive vines we began to explore the ancient site. No one was around. Only the incessant cicadas and tree frogs, the occasional whoop of an Oropendula above its nest or the buzz of insects broke the silence of centuries. The great pyramid called the Temple of the Jaguar was unrecognizable since the jungle had reclaimed it as her own. We made our way down crumbling steps and entered a narrow dark corridor, ducking to avoid bats as they flitted into open air. The beam of our flashlight revealed a huge stone head looming in the dark, its blue and red paint as bold as the day it was applied a thousand years ago. This great Mayan civilization was gone. It disappeared as the Olmec had disappeared before it. Both as extinct as the Dodo bird half a world away. By the time the Spanish arrived the Maya were replaced by the Aztecs and then the Aztecs by the Spanish. Survivors of these great civilizations were subsumed into a new culture, like Darwin’s finches, adapting to the environment in which they found themselves.
Ed and I traveled deeper into the interior of Belize, to the high pine forests, staying in a government “rest house” courtesy of our Foreign Service friend. We awoke each morning to the roar of Howler Monkeys, the sound penetrating the forest like an approaching freight train. Once I glimpsed a big male on a dirt road a 100 yards ahead, walking on two feet like a dark furry human being. Sasquatch lives!
The sheer abundance of industry around us was unlike anything I’d encountered in the forests of the northeastern USA, from leaf cutter ants chopping up leaves and carrying them in long soldierly lines to their farms, to myriad colorful birds zipping by in pursuit of food or nest material. Belize is a birder’s paradise but it is also home to thousands of species of insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals including the king of the forest, the Jaguar.
I went home and began writing a screenplay about a female biologist who tracks Jaguars in Belize. I contrived a story which involved the modern day Maya, drug trafficking, and our intrepid heroine. What a great adventure I thought and what a great part for me! In the course of research on the cats I called the Bronx Zoo and was told I might want to talk to their field biologist in Belize who actually was tracking Jaguars there. He had just been grounded because of head injuries in a single engine plane crash, which had nosedived into the jungle floor, and he might be amenable to conversation.
The next day I hopped on a plane and by evening was having a drink in the Fort George Hotel with 30-year-old Alan Rabinowitz. He was bruised and battered but intrigued enough by my presence to invite me back to his study site in the Coxcomb Basin. We spent five days together, tracking Jaguars against the orders of his doctor, dissecting scat, measuring pugmarks and talking extensively about wildlife. His shack was deep in the rainforest next to a few Mayan families and surrounded by a cacophony of birdsong.
I never saw a Jaguar but one night as I lay in my cot fixated on five Scorpions clinging to the inside screen near my head, I heard a deep guttural cough outside which thrilled me to the core. This was it. This was the wild elusive cat of Central and South America, revered by the Olmec, Aztec, and Maya, stalked by trophy hunters and fashionistas for its singularly gorgeous coat. This was the animal so rarely seen or heard that it existed in the realm of myth and divinity. The shack wall was all that separated us as I listened to the Jaguar in the forest of the night. I was hooked.
I abandoned my screenplay and turned instead to encouraging Alan to write his story—reality is always more interesting than any fiction— and Alan’s life in the jungle of Belize was exciting and different. As a stutterer who talked only to animals he had a lot to say.
My life has been immersed in the world of make believe ever since I began acting. It is a magical world I love and which summons the most imaginative parts of me. But the natural world holds more mystery and beauty than could ever be contained in one life, or vista, or creature. As Hamlet says to his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Alan and I became close friends and we traveled to many places together. With his wife Salisa and my husband Ed, we trekked the Annapurna range in Nepal’s Himalayas, we visited his study site in Thailand hoping to glimpse the rare Clouded Leopard, we spied Tigers perfectly camouflaged in the grasses of India, we rafted a great trout river in Idaho, we stayed with the Lacandon Indians, never conquered by the conquistadors, in the depths of the Chiapas rainforest, and we finally saw numerous Jaguars lazing on cool riverbanks in Brazil’s searing Pantanal.
My thirst for wild encounters and my passion for birds have taken me to unique places in the world in the company of remarkable field biologists. One cannot spend time with these heroes of conservation and not understand the crisis we are facing today with wild things and wild places.
The changes that are occurring to our planet Earth, as a result of human incursion, are happening with such rapidity that by all estimates we barely have a generation, maybe twenty years, to slow carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Many bird and animal species are threatened with imminent extinction. The concurrent events of global warming and rising sea levels which mean the end for birds will force mass migrations of people to viable climates and away from coastal flooding. Birds really are the canaries in the mine, portending what’s to come for all species. Where birds flourish, people thrive. Where they struggle to survive, people also struggle.
We have not begun to explore the wealth that biodiversity offers human beings. Our interconnectedness with other species directly impacts our own well being physically, and spiritually. We depend on the benefits from nature to sustain our bodies and the solace of wild places to soothe our souls, but somewhere along the way we lost respect for nature. We lost wonder. We no longer consider the unique and living creatures of the planet as sacred beings like ourselves.
The killing of animals for body parts, or out of irrational fear or irresponsible hunting, and the collecting of rare species for private gain has become rampant and threatens populations of the most magnificent mammals on earth such as elephants and tigers as well as the less celebrated amphibians, reptiles and fish.
We are desecrating our lands, ripping out the heart of precious sites through reprehensible drilling, logging, and monoculture. We are polluting our waters with chemical spills, plastics, sewage and dredging. Nature is resilient; she can repair herself if given the chance and the time.
Climate change is the overriding issue of our generation, dwarfing all others. Can human ingenuity pull the rabbit out of the hat with this one? I have great faith in technology saving us or at least leading the way but I have less faith in our leaders in politics, media and education making the case for our citizens, or teaching our young the importance and wonder of the natural world. How do you learn to love or protect the marvels of this planet if you have not been taught about them? How do you stand up for those things that have no voice of their own if you are not shown the way?
Scientists know what is happening but their science is often repudiated and they cannot make their voices heard. They are like prophets in the wilderness. They have written thousands of books and papers. I have read only a fraction but I have traveled with them and I have listened as they recount the wonders and horrors of their journeys, as do the wildlife photographers who are documenting this precipitous time in our planet’s history through their artistry. These men and women are my heroes. This book is for the protectors of our home the Earth and for all the miraculous living things in it.