Clues

I’ve always believed that any tropical biologist worth his salt is at heart a detective. The animals of the rainforest have perfected the art of hiding: millions of years of evolution, which includes hundreds of years of being hunted by bipedal primates, have given many jungle animals the ability to melt into the foliage: to disappear. While biologists in temperate climates can often wander through the savanna viewing their study subjects—we’ve all seen television shows portraying elephants and giraffes lounging lazily around the watering hole—the animals of the rainforest are ghosts. Large animals are seldom seen. (This is one reason animals like the Saola and striped rabbit were able to hide from the world until a mere two decades ago.) Walking through the rainforest is an odd sensation, difficult to describe to one who has never experienced it before. The best I can do is to say that it’s rather like being adrift on a lifeboat in the open ocean: only instead of being surrounded by a sea of blue it is an endless sea of green. Vegetation everywhere but no animals in sight. This biological hotspot, the most biodiverse region on the planet, can seem, surprisingly, as empty as a desert. But it’s not empty. The animals are there. You can’t see them, but the clues are there.

Climbing up steep terrain
Climbing up steep terrain

I stumbled up the last several feet of a vertical rock face and pulled myself over the top. I gave an enormous sigh of relief, pleased to be back on terra firma. Then I reached down and helped Kai over. We both looked around. This was a difficult place to get to and I wondered if it was worth the effort. At first glance it seemed an ordinary jungle-choked streambed: a scene I had seen thousands of times over the past few years. But I had a hunch that it was a good spot. A deep-down gut feeling that this streambed deserved further inspection. And so, assuming a Sherlock Holmes-like air of gravity, I crouched down, stooped like an old man, looking for clues. Within seconds I’d found what I was looking for: crisp, neatly-clipped bite marks on the stem of a succulent plant: evidence that one of the even-toed ungulates I was searching for had stopped at this very location. Indeed, given the amount of chewed-upon vegetation in the area, it must have stopped for quite a while. I looked closer. Hoofprints, pressed firm and deep into the rust-colored mud, told that the culprit was a serow, a large-bodied goat-like animal common in these mountainous jungles. And I pictured the scene in my mind: The shaggy, black, scimitar-horned animal meanders along the streambed, notices a fine patch of greens, pauses, quickly scans the area for danger, and then, seeing nothing to be alarmed at, select the juiciest plants and tears away at the diamond-shaped leaves. Munch munch munch.

Kai and I set a camera trap at this location. It was a dream setup. Because there were still many plants that hadn’t been fed upon, I gauged that the serow or one of its ungulate cousins would return, rather like a bored guest at a cocktail party who revisits a particularly tasty of plate of hors d’oeuvres that he had discovered earlier in the evening. Kai and I put the final touches on the setup, turned the camera on, and walked away. I looked back at the scene. At a glance there was nothing spectacular about it. It seemed as animal-less as, say, the plant-strewn aisles of an urban garden supply store. But it wasn’t. If one looked closely there were clues: bite marks and hoofprints that told a story. With a little imagination that story played through the mind as if it were on a movie-reel. And these clues made all the difference. If you listened closely they whispered jungle secrets.

Ungulate feeding sign
Ungulate feeding sign
Quiet jungle stream: but there are clues for those who look!
Jungle stream: but there are clues if you look!

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