A laser pointer punches a lime green needle into the night sky, catching the attention of every gazer as the tired class unravels the identity of each constellation.
“It’s always important to remember, that although the ecliptic changes, the constellations stay together. Their stories are separate, but they come together in the night’s sky to guide us.”
Scattered along our path, green and white bromeliads catch the midday sunlight as muddy boots and sandals slowly climb the riverbank. The jungle here is secondary growth — cattle pastures, once-wavy fields of grass, reclaimed by young kapok trees. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear a cow could never have survived here at all. It’d seem so out of place.
Three-foot roots create rain ponds as they cut into the hillside. “Frogs live in these ponds,” Henrik says, pointing to a wood-walled pool, right in the middle of our path.
“They come here to sing their beautiful songs. They mate, lay their eggs here, and their offspring grow amongst these same roots. When they’re given time to grow, they sing and repeat the cycle again.”
Our path runs directly past Ramon’s swimming hole, crossing the Pacora river fourteen times, up cliffs and through ravines, for 6 kilometers, before opening into an immense green valley. The slopes on all side are dense with young jungle trees and spiked vines. What little cleared slopes that remain offer no sure footing. As we cut through the thicket, Henrik stops suddenly and turns to face the weary traveling party. His hat, slouching under the weight of his sweat, and flecked with green burrs the shape of snow peas barely hides the excitement in his piercing blue eyes. As he points his long-bladed machete towards a grassy knoll rising directly above our path, he says,
“Here … right here, we will build our tiny house.”
We walk on, eventually making camp amongst the trees. Crawling root over root, up the steep gradient, our dirty hands and feet string tents and dig trenches into the hillside for a fire pit. “Home, sweet home” some one thinks out loud. I smile, looking around at our motley crew of weathered warriors, and realize it couldn’t be more true. Henrik, a 50-year-old eco-investor and former United Nations Conservational Project leader, bought this 1,200 hectare land with the sole intent of protecting it. “This land is so special because it acts as a borderland between colonized portions of Panama and the Chagres National park, the premiere area for Jaguar sightings in the central America.”
In the 1960s and 70s, the international Jaguar and big cat trade was booming. For decades, more than 50,000 jaguars were killed every year. Their pelts and bodies were sold to markets all across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Today, there are roughly 15,000 jaguars left worldwide. “Every time I hear a story about a new kill, it makes me want to work twice as hard to protect this forest,” Henrik says, half recoiling at the thought. Jaguars have been celebrated by local cultures for millennia. They are solitary, powerful, and highly intelligent predators. “If there is a healthy population of jaguars in the jungle, it is a clear indicator that that area is considered very healthy.” Henrik’s lands makes up a large part of the area bordering Kalu Yala’s farm and the surrounding forest. To the north of it lies Chagres National Park, ground zero for Jaguar sightings — and conservation efforts — in the region. Located between the provinces of Panama and Colon, the 320,000 acre park was originally created to ensure normal function of the panama canal, which needs around 52 million non-recoverable gallons of fresh water for every boat that crosses the lochs.
The surrounding population lives in what most Americans would deem poverty, relying on agriculture and small community business to sustain humble comforts.
Slash and burn has been the go-to strategy for entrepreneurial spirits in this neighborhood. Whether it’s cattle, goats, chickens, or banana palms, the charred earth quickly produces green grass perfect for pasture. Each year, roughly 50,000 hectares (around 124,000 acres) are cleared for new cattle pastures and arable land in Panama alone. The presence of cows — seen as large, clumsy, and rather dumb mountains of flesh by the older and sicklier jaguars who can’t hunt for difficult prey — create a constant temptation for an easy meal, even at the risk of interacting with humans.
When undisturbed and with a great deal of territory, Jaguars tend to avoid people, but like any predator that has been forced into exceptional hunger it will explore new land for sources of food, even if that land is populated by people. As the burning forests turn to green fields, and those fields slowly turn to mud, the very culture of big cats in Panama brushes against the culture of the Panamanians, eventually becoming part of local legend and story. With human expansion, the Jaguar population is naturally forced into smaller, narrower stretches of jungle to range as their territory. When the few that remain interact with people, they are the prize targets of hunters and the menace of ranchers. Killing a jaguar in Panama is a crime punishable by years in jail under some circumstances, but this is little discouragement for the hunters seeking riches in the ever-rising price of pelts, or the farmers just trying to protect their homes and livestock. “What we need to do is stimulate a new culture of business and conservation around the jaguars,” says Henrik. “Right now, young boys and girls in school here in Panama are weighing their options. Deciding what they might want to be when they grow up. For now, they are more likely to follow in their parent’s line of work, ranching or farming, which will only further chip away at the Jaguar’s habitat. But if we can educate them about the rich opportunities in Eco-tourism, forest protection, and sustainable business practices, the cycle is broken. The jaguars can begin to recover.”
With big cat and jungle tourism at an all-time high, it’s no wonder Henrik is so energetic around this new project.
As hopping, dancing feet press down on the reddish earth of the platform that will be the house’s foundation, he stops and gestures towards the wide expanses of the valley below. “From here, we can best protect the area from illegal loggers and anyone attempting to turn the area into cattle pasture. I can sit on the porch, hear the sound of chainsaws over the mountain, and send up my drone to take some video.” Henrik’s mission in this stretch of rainforest is just beginning. “Eventually, we will have a road here, and many tiny homes, where people can come live with the Jaguars by the waterfall. But, for now, we are very happy with our new flat earth.” As Henrik begins to hop around, the crew is suddenly overcome by the dance music flowing from someone’s speaker. The primitive stamping circle quickly turns into a sunset rave party, and the wild things on that small bit of flat earth on the side of that jungle pit seemed to glisten; yellow like the sun, with spots of shadow. Free to carve a path through the green mountainside.