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‘Ecological SWAT team’ documents treasures from a lost city

© Trond Larsen

In today’s world, it seems like a tale from a quaint storybook or the “Indiana Jones” movies.
 
But a sensational archaeological find in an unexplored jungle, and a subsequent expedition to see what wildlife roamed there, was real as it was surprising to the explorers who ventured there.
 
In 2017, a team of researchers traveled to the fabled “Lost City of the Monkey God” (also known as the “White City”) in Honduras, a recently discovered set of ancient ruins deep within the Central American country’s Mosquitia rainforest. The group, including Trond Larsen of Conservation International, braved parasites and predators to conduct a biological survey of the surrounding area, a previously unexplored tract of pristine tropical forest.
 
What they found: an overwhelming richness of wildlife, including several species thought extinct.
 
Larsen reported on his preliminary findings in this post from 2018. Now, the team has published its final report. (The team’s findings are spelled out in greater detail here, where you can also download the full report.)
 
As director of the Rapid Assessment Program at Conservation International, Larsen and his colleagues act as an “ecological SWAT team” to assess the health of an ecosystem in a fraction of the time it can typically take. While his work has taken him to far-flung forests around the world, the team’s survey of the White City — chronicled in this piece in The New Yorker in 2018 — was particularly special, with the extent of the biodiversity there leaving researchers “astounded.”
 
We recently sat down with Larsen, who talked about the trials of an expedition under armed guard, and the actions that he hopes come out of the report.
 
Question: If you had to condense your findings in just a sentence or three, what would that be?
 
Answer: What’s remarkable is that there’s this unique archeological discovery in the heart of this very remote, rugged wilderness in Honduras. So, we wondered what biological discoveries and treasures may also be there, if any — and what we found is extremely high biodiversity in the context of Central America, including many rare and threatened species as well as new country records. We rediscovered three species believed to be extinct in Honduras, and we found a thriving population of white-lipped peccaries, a pig-like species that is extremely sensitive to deforestation and degradation, and you don’t find many of them in Central America anymore. All of this indicates that the area is an intact wilderness that needs to be preserved to maintain the integrity of ecological corridors across Central America.
 
Q: Your team also found a species potentially new to science?
 
A: Yes, we found a fish species — it’s a type of molly that appears to be probably new to science. It will require further taxonomic study and probably genetic analysis. As research continues on many of the invertebrate species we collected, the number of species new to science is likely to increase.
 
 
Q: Talk about some of the threats that this ecosystem is facing.
 
A: Probably the primary threat right now is the encroachment of illegal deforestation for cattle ranching. Even though many of these places lie in official protected areas, it’s very difficult to enforce protection. And these are areas with no road networks, no logistics or infrastructure to let people get in or let guards in, so it’s very hard to stop what’s happening. In many cases, this illegal activity is being driven tangentially by drug trafficking, so it’s driven by powerful people with money. That’s the primary threat to the integrity of the forest of the area.
 
Q: Let’s talk about the broader implications of your findings. What do you expect or hope comes of your survey?
 
A: Conservation is all about setting priorities, right? So we have to understand what the ecological and social values of different places are in order to put them into a context. Where do more resources need to be put in order to increase protection and to maximize conservation effectiveness? Our survey indicates this is a unique place, so it really does merit a high priority for conservation, especially given these imminent threats.
 
Fortunately, in this case, this is a high priority for Honduras — all the way up to the president of Honduras, who was the one who initially wanted this work to be done. There’s a high level of commitment and desire to increase its protection. They’ve already now recently established a foundation to conduct further research in the area and to increase its protection. If we can put this place on the global stage and get a lot of attention, we hope it will get international support, which will really help Honduras to have the resources they need to make sure that the place is protected.
 
 
Q: You’ve done dozens of biological surveys around the world. What was different about this one?
 
A: It was the only time I’ve ever had to work in the field with armed soldiers accompanying me everywhere I went walking in the forest. So that was certainly unique.
 
Q: And that’s in case you run into people who aren’t supposed to be there, or wildlife?
 
A: Both. Overall safety, but the most likely danger would be drug traffickers that we might stumble upon.
 
Q: It sounds as though the team had to endure more than the usual hardships, then.
 
A: Well, typically, these kinds of expeditions go to remote places. For this trip, we had to take a helicopter; it’s very difficult to access, and because of that, we had a very small team. We were limited to scientists with few additional field assistants — typically we would have a cook and someone to coordinate logistics around the camp, but we didn’t have any of those. So, scientists trying to work 14 or more hours a day to survey as much as we can and process the samples and cook our own food on the side and keep the camp in order. That was very challenging. Meals and washing dishes often fell by the wayside!
 
Q: What kind of expectations did you have for what you would see at this site?
 
A: I have worked extensively in both Central America and South America. In Central America, there tends to be a lot more degradation as a whole across the broader landscape. There are fewer places left still intact where we could find high species richness and intact ecological processes that you might find in places in South America. It surpassed my expectations in the sense that I didn’t expect the full suite of species that we encountered. I did not expect to see large herds of white-lipped peccaries and things like jaguars and puma. We typically don’t find those things at most of the places that we study in Central America so that was certainly exciting.
 
Q: Last question: How does a rapid assessment actually happen? You head out somewhere, you set up camp, then what? One imagines scientists walking around with magnifying glasses, but surely it’s more than that.
 
A: There’s a lot of planning involved. I did a survey before the actual expedition; I went in when the president went in to visit the site. I wanted to explore the ecosystems around the base camp and get a sense of what was there. Typically we have information from remote sensing and maps, so I tried to get an idea of the diversity of the ecosystems in the area. Using that, we formulate a plan to try to cover as much land as we can. Based on that, we go in and cut some basic small trails that researchers can use to visit as many different habitat types as they can in a short time. We work with scientists who have decades of work studying their various taxonomic groups they’re experts in, so they know exactly where and how to find elusive species.
 
Trond Larsen is director of the Rapid Assessment Program at Conservation International. Bruno Vander Velde is senior communications director at Conservation International.  
 
Read the full report on the rapid assessment here.
 
The expedition was supported by Bill and Laurie Benenson, with additional support from Steve Elkins, leader of the Lost City project, and the government of Honduras.
 

 
Further reading