Sunday, May 24, 2015

Panamá Part 8: Animals of the isthmus

A tree frog dozes on its perch at Panamá's Nispero Zoo and Botanical Garden. Panamá has been described as a "fountain of biodiversity" and a "bridge of life". This tiny Central American country, about the size of Ireland, possesses more species of amphibians, birds, and other animals and insects than the United States and Canada combined. Just as Panamá's key geographical position has affected its trade and economic history, that geography has also impacted its ecology. The narrow isthmus is the land bridge between North and South America, allowing species to move in both directions. In addition, it forms a land barrier between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This alters wind patterns, water currents, and salinity, causing species to evolve in different directions depending on their geographic relationship to the coasts. During our visit to Panamá, Carole and I observed some of this fantastic diversity. I say "some" because, with all we saw, we still encountered only a tiny fraction of what is there. Of that which we did see, I can only display a few of the many different creatures I photographed. I tried to pick a representative sample of the most interesting and regret that space does not allow me to include many more.

Animals along the Rio Chagres

A tourist boat cruises along the shore of Rio Chagres looking for interesting critters. As a photographer, I have learned that it is helpful to maneuver your way into a seat in the front row so you don't have to shoot over the heads and shoulders of your fellow passengers. This is easier said than done if there is a large group, but still worth the attempt. The jungle comes right to the water's edge in most places and the overhanging trees are full of animal life.

A cocodrilo conceals itself while waiting for lunch to happen by. This one is young, probably only 1 m (3.28 ft) long. The little croc was partially concealed under the pier from which we embarked. It would probably not be a good idea to sit on the edge of the pier, cooling your bare toes in the water. Although this croc is not big enough to kill you, it could still give you a nasty bite. At the other end of the scale, the biggest croc every found in Panamá measures 5.5 m (18 ft) and weighs in at 998 kg (2,200 lbs). That privately-owned, 111-year-old reptile is named Cassie (short for Cassius Clay). Cassie would be about as big as the tourist boat seen in photo #2. Best to depart the river--rapidly--if you encounter one that size.

Crocodiles like to hang out in the shallows or sun themselves on the river bank. This one is lying curled so that the tip of its ridged tail is almost even with its snout. Because I took the shot with a telephoto zoom, it is difficult to accurately estimate the croc's length, but I would guess about 3-3.6 m (10-12 ft). There have been three fatal attacks by crocs along the Panamá canal during the last three years. Typically, the crocs go after fishermen along the bank or people wading or swimming close to shore. The attacks are sudden and the croc disappears underwater with its victim within seconds. None of the bodies of the three victims were ever recovered.

A white-headed capuchin monkey moves easily among the branches. Cebus capucinus is found throughout Panamá. The males average 3.7 kg (8.09 lbs) and the females about 7.7 kg (5.9 lbs). Because they are so widespread and plentiful, their conservation status is one of "least concern."

A capuchin approaches a tourist as our boat edges into the trees. The monkeys have learned that they will sometimes get a treat from a guide if they come down to a boat. Attempting to touch or pet them is not a good idea. They are wild animals and can deliver a serious bite if they feel threatened. Notice how the monkey curls its tail around the canopy support to ensure its balance.

A Black-headed spider monkey feeds on leaves and fruit it finds in the forest canopy. Unlike the capuchin, the Black-headed spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps) is considered "critically endangered." 80% of the species have been lost in the last 45 years due to predation and loss of habitat. In captivity, they have been known to live for 24 years.

The sloth's reputation for laziness gained it the nickname "nature's brother-in-law".  Above, a two-toed sloth (there is also a three-toed version) kicks back in the crook of a tree branch. I took numerous shots and, after examining the photos, I discovered that the creature had not moved an inch the whole time. The wild sloths are not as laid-back as those in captivity. The sloths in zoos sleep an average of 15 hours a day, while the wild ones only snooze for 9 1/2.  Wild or free, their metabolism is so slow that they only urinate or defecate once a week. Their toes are shaped in such a way that some have been found dead, still clinging to the tree branch from which they were hanging when they died. Too lazy to let go?

Mesoamerican slider/mud turtle climbs out of the water in a quiet inlet. Trachemys venusta panamensis is the Panamanian species of a turtle that ranges from Mexico to Colombia.

Animals of the Nispero Zoo and Botanical Garden

Clouds and mist cloak the wooded ridges overlooking  the Nispera Zoo and Botanical Garden. Nispera is located in El Valle de Anton, a village in Coclé Province about two hours by bus from Panamá City. The village is located at the bottom of the caldera of an ancient volcano. The ridges surrounding El Valle rise 1000 m (3280 ft) above the valley floor, forming the caldera's lip The altitude gives the area a cool, moist climate, very welcome after the warm, humid lowlands. The town and surrounding area are popular tourist attractions. Admission to the Nispera Zoo and Botanical Garden is $3.00. For a Google map showing the location of El Valle de Anton, click here.


A large green Climbing Toad posed on a stump. Incilius coniferus can be found from Nicaragua to Ecuador in lowlands and mountain forests. The toad breeds in ponds, rivers, and streams. The population status is "lesser concern" with some threats coming from habitat loss and pollution.  This guy was about the size of the hardball used in a baseball game.

This Smokey jungle frog blends in well with his habitat. The habitat of the Leptodactylus savagei stretches from the lowland jungles of Honduras to the mountains of Colombia. The population status is also "lesser concern". It faces the same threats as the Climbing Toad. The Smokey Jungle Frog is a bit bigger than the Climbing Toad. This one looked about the size of a softball.

In contrast to the previous two amphibians, the Green and Black Poison Dart Frogs are tiny. The bigger frog above was about the size of a glass marble. In spite of their size, these little guys are dangerous, as you might guess from their name. The Dendrobates auratus can be found from Central America to northwestern South America and its conservation status is "least concern." As to its name, the frog exudes a poison that is strong enough to stop a human heart. However, it only releases the poison if it feels threatened. Some people even keep these guys as pets. Talk about living dangerously! On the other hand, you could also be the proud owner of Cassie.


A White Cockatoo climbs the fence to commune with a visitor. This one appears to be molting. Cockatoos are not native to Panamá and their normal habitat is Indonesia. However, all the animals in Nispera are rescues, so this guy can be considered a naturalized citizen. When excited, they raise their plumes, as you can see above.  Cockatoos can't speak quite as well as parrots, but they nevertheless tend to be quite friendly and chatty. They love cuddling with people. One got separated from its owner and sat in a tree plaintively calling "Daddy! Daddy1". A concerned woman came looking for the small child she assumed was in distress and was dumbfounded when she realized it was a White Cockatoo.

A large green parrot was taking a snooze but woke up when I approached. There are many types of parrots in Panamá, but I couldn't seem to locate any that look like this one. There was no identification on the cage. If anyone can help on this, please let me know in the Comments section below.

A Silver Pheasant struts elegantly around his cage. As my father used to say, this one is wearing his "Sunday Go-to-Meetin' clothes." This Silver Pheasant (Lophura nycthemera) is another rescued resident of Nispera. His normal habitat is Southeast Asia and eastern and southern China.

A Toucan displays his magnificent multi-colored beak. Toucans like to hang out in the tops of forest trees. They range from Honduras to Western Ecuador. Their various populations in Panamá have declined drastically because of deforestation and human predation.

A pair of stately ostriches are also among the rescues. The one in the foreground was quite curious about my camera. He walked very close to me and attempted to look right in the lens. Unfortunately, this ended up blurring the photo, so I couldn't use it. He was quite entertaining. Ostriches are flightless and are native to Africa. They are often found in desert areas quite different from the cool cloudy highlands of Panamá.


Baird's Tapir is one of four species of the mammal found in Latin America. It was named for American naturalist Spencer Fullerton Bairds who observed the animals during a trip to Mexico in 1843. With a length of 2 m (6.6 ft) and a body that can weigh up to 440 kg (880 lbs), the tapir is the largest land mammal in Central America. It is a solitary animal that likes to forage at night on leaves and fruit and soak in cool ponds with just its snout above water. While it is herbivorous, it can be dangerous and has been known to charge and gore humans when threatened.

The Lowland Paca (Cuniculus paca) is a large tropical rodent. It ranges from Mexico to Argentina and is about the size of a small dog. A large paca can weigh as much as 12 kg (26 lbs). The paca has been given many names by the people in the wide area it inhabits. In Panamá it is called conejo pintado (painted rabbit). When threatened, a paca will swim out into a river or climb a tall tree. In addition, its burrows usually contain more than one exit. Pacas are related to agoutis.

The common agouti has a wide range, from Mexico to South America and the Lesser Antilles. There are several species of agouti under the genus Dasyprocta. In addition to pacas, the agouti are related to guinea pigs. They tend to be smaller than pacas, weighing up to about 6 kg (13.2 lbs). In the wild, they flee humans, but become trusting in captivity. Agouti can run very fast and will keep a pack of dogs occupied for hours.

A pair of jaguars nap in the warm afternoon sun. Jaguars are the largest of the cats that live in Panamá, or the whole Western Hemisphere for that matter. They are exceeded in size only by the African lion and the Asian tiger. They hunt by stealth, not speed, and will ambush unwary prey. Unlike other cats, who strangle their prey with their jaws, jaguars pierce the skull and brain with their fangs.

Kind of makes you want to reach out and tickle him on the whiskers, doesn't it? Jaguars average about 100 kg (220 lbs).  Prehispanic people as early as the Olmecs (1500 BC) viewed jaguars as a link with the underworld because of their preference for hunting in the dark.

This completes Part 8 of my Panamá series. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment and leave your thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Panamá Part 7: The Emberá people of the Rio Chagres

An Emberá village leader gives a demonstration of palm weaving. He wears an impressive crown fashioned from hammered silver coins and topped with the profile of a hawk. Although there were older men in the village when we visited, this man took the lead with a quiet authority. For me, the high point of our Panamá adventure was a visit to this remote village located along the banks of the Rio Gatun (Gatun River) near where it empties into Lago de Gatun (Lake Gatun). The huge lake was created during the construction of the Panamá Canal as a transportation link, water supply, and source of hydroelectric power. In order to reach the Emberá village, we had to travel by small boat across the lake and up the river. This area of central Panamá is part of a national park. Monkeys frolic in the trees and crocodiles doze on the sunny river banks. The remoteness and inaccessibility of the village enables the people to carry on their traditions with a minimum of outside interference. These gentle, indigenous people conduct their lives in a manner not too different from the moment when the first European set foot in Panamá in 1500 AD.

The village

A family lines up to greet us in a large, open-sided, communal structure. The building is made from tree trunks and large branches while the roof is thatched with palm fronds. The people live in smaller but similarly constructed houses scattered along the river bank. There is a rustic wooden bench that stretches around the perimeter of the communal building. This is where community members (and visitors like ourselves) sit facing each other in a broad circle. The open, central area is used by speakers during village meetings, and for religious ceremonies and dancing. During our visit, the dirt floor was swept immaculately clean.

A middle-aged couple stands in front of a display of Emberá crafts. In spite of the rather stern pose they assumed for the camera, they were actually quite warm and friendly. The woman's hair is adorned with hibiscus blossoms and she wears a locally crafted silver necklace and earrings. The silver coins, some of them from the 19th Century, are used for personal decoration and jewelry rather than currency. The coins are traditionally passed down from mother to daughter. Her skirt, called a paruma, wraps around her like a sarong. In the more remote villages, the women and girls go topless. However, this village gets fairly regular visits from tourists, so the women have learned to cover their breasts with various garments or ornaments so the foreigners won't be embarrassed. The men and boys wear loin cloths called guayucos. They were bare-chested except for the long strands of beads that crossed over their chests like bandoliers. Both men and women decorate their faces and bodies with painted-on tattoo designs called jagua. The tattoos are made from the juice of a local fruit and last about two weeks.

A young girl wears a head band and a top made from beads. The beads come from the outside world, but are assembled into garments here. While these villagers are sedentary, elsewhere in Panamá the Emberá are semi-nomadic. This group is somewhat of an outlier from the main population. The villagers won permission to occupy this site within a national park by promising not to hunt the animals. They grow plantains, bananas, yams, manioc and rice. In addition, they are allowed to supplement their diet with fish they catch in the Rio Gatun.  The main population of Emberá lives in the wild jungle of the Darien Gap that straddles the border between Panamá and Colombia. The Emberá occupy areas on both sides of the border, with 20,000 living in Panamá and another 40,000 in Colombia. To them, the international boundary between the two nations is just an imaginary line politicians drew across their almost impenetrably dense jungle.

A rustic ladder, hand-carved from a log, leads up into a hut raised on stilts. The colorful plastic sandals are evidence of outside influence, but no one in any of my photos is wearing them. The houses were all raised on stilts. This helps keep them dry in this damp climate, and also keeps the forest animals out. At night, the log ladder will be turned over so that no unwanted critters can climb in while the family sleeps. Even though it is an outlier, this community is, in many ways, typical of those found throughout the Emberá world. The villages are usually scattered along the banks of a river, with about a half day's walk between them. They are also generally small, each containing only 5-20 houses. Usually there are no more than three villages along any given tributary.

A young boy, wearing only a guayaco, sprints for shelter from the rain. Just as I took this shot, the heavens opened for one of those sudden downpours that are so typical of the tropics. Behind the boy, you can see the stout posts on which the house sits. Like the communal hall, the walls are open and the roofs are thatched with palm fronds. Hammocks, baskets, pots, bows and arrows, and clothing hang from the supporting posts. Each house possesses a square, clay platform for cooking fires. Pots are suspended over the fire from tripods made with sturdy sticks.

The dancing

"You should have seen the fish that got away, he was this big!" The young village leader jokes with the tourists as he explains various aspects of their culture. Under his red guayaco, he wears another garment made of colorful beads, called a taparabo. The Emberá govern themselves according to their own unwritten rules and do not participate in, or rely upon, the Panamanian or Colombian governments. The land is communally owned and tilled. In the areas where Emberá are allowed to hunt, if a large animal caught, it is shared with other members of the community. For their health care, they use their own shamans.

Kickin' back and takin' in some tunes. A boy relaxes on the communal hall's bench while a quartet of village musicians plays a flute, two drums, and a set of rattles. They were tuning up for the impending dance performance. All the instruments were hand-made from forest materials. Both men and boys wear "bowl-cut" hair styles.

Puttin' down some steps. These two girls gave a vigorous performance of Emberá dances. The whole community joined in dances that circled the center post of the communal hall. Women and girls wear their hair long, sometimes hanging free as seen above and sometimes pulled back in pony-tails.

Showing the foreigners how it's done. At the finale of the performance, the villagers each took the hand of a tourist of the opposite sex and led them around the center post in a somewhat more sedate version of the dances performed previously.

Grooving' on the music. His eyes closed, the boy slaps his legs in time with the drums. The Emberá culture is under threat from resource extraction industries like logging, as well as drug smuggling and clashes between guerrillas and the Colombian government. In the face of this, they organized themselves and persuaded the Panamanian government to set aside about 300,000 hectares in the Darien as the Emberá reserve. Even so, illegal logging and other negative activities continue. In addition, pharmaceutical companies want to exploit their knowledge of medicinal plants, and this may mean more problems in the future.

The crafts

A woman smiles from behind a display of the Emberá's exquisite handicrafts. Her jagua tattoos are clearly visible. To make geometric patterns, the ink is sometimes applied with carved wooden blocks. Part of the village's income is based on sales of crafts to visiting tourists. The Emberá are famed for their finely woven basketry. The designs include both abstract shapes and animal representations, as can be seen on the baskets that frame the woman's head.

These cords were braided and colored from natural materials obtained locally. The villagers passed them around for the tourists to examine, along with a variety of other crafts.

The young leader displays the vivid cloth used to make the women's parumasWhile the parumas were originally made from palm fibers, they are now more commonly made from commercial cotton purchased in nearby towns. The Emberá use the wildly colorful flowers of their world as the inspiration for the designs.

This little cat mask demonstrates Emberá skill with weaving natural materials. Carole and I collect indigenous masks and we couldn't resist this one. It is about the size a small child would wear and cost about $10 (USD). It was beautifully made and fairly inexpensive and we were glad to contribute to the village's economy.

The kids

Two of the young dancers enjoy posing for a photo. I get my best "people shots" with kids. Although some are shy, most love the attention, particularly if I show them the immediate result of a digital photo. Given a little encouragement, their natural openness and beauty shine through.

Taking a break from the music. I found this young fellow especially photogenic. What appears to be dirt on his arms and legs is actually the smudged remains of his temporary jagua tattoos. There is a smaller sub-group within this culture called the Wounaan that speaks a separate dialect. Both of the names Emberá and Wounaan can be translated to mean "the People." The two groups were once collectively known as the Chocó. However, the term Chocó actually refers to their language group. The people themselves prefer to be called Emberá or Wounaan.

A little shy, but still amenable to a photo. The cloth hanging behind her is of the same general design as the paruma she is wearing. Pieces of this cloth were available for purchase at the craft tables.

Hardly more than a toddler, this little boy stared boldly at my camera. There appears to be no age differentiation for attire among the Emberá. From the oldest adults to the youngest children, all wear the same traditional clothing and adornments.

This young woman shows the same gentle but proud demeanor of her fellow villagers. She was among a large group who accompanied us to the dock. Just before we descended the ramp, small children appeared and grasped the hands of each tourist, acting as our personal escorts to the boat. It was a charming sendoff. The Emberá are struggling hard to maintain their culture and traditions in the face of intrusions from the outside world. I hoped that our intrusion was at least neutral and possibly contributed resources to support their effort.

This completes Part 7 of my Panamá series. I hope you enjoyed it and that you will leave your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below. If you do leave a question PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim