Editor’s note: A team of researchers with Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program recently returned from the Lost City in Honduras, a newly discovered set of ruins deep within the Mosquitia rainforest. The group conducted a biological survey of the surrounding area, a previously unexplored tract of pristine forest. In this post, the expedition’s lead scientist, Trond Larsen, reflects on the team’s findings and recalls an unexpected encounter.
A warm drizzle beaded on my face as I scoured overhanging leaves with my headlamp in search of creatures heard but unseen. The varied calls of crickets, birds and frogs pulsed through the forest. As I returned down a narrow canyon to my camp, I looked up and froze with shock. A large pair of glowing orange eyes, set afire by my light, emerged from the inky blackness.
This is the rainforest surrounding the Lost City.
Twelve months earlier, I was on a helicopter to visit this remote patch of Honduran rainforest, traveling with unlikely company. The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, glowing with pride for his country’s archaeological finds at the Lost City, personally showed me this previously unexplored area. He explained to me that very little about the region’s flora and fauna was known, and he asked for assistance.
The Lost City is also known under various legends as the City of the Monkey God and the White City (“Ciudad Blanca” in Spanish and “Kaha Kamasa” in the local Miskito language). It represents a recently discovered and previously unknown civilization buried deep within a massive swath of unexplored forest. The archaeological findings at the site have received widespread coverage in various film and print outlets in the past few years.
To complement this wealth of archaeological knowledge, Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program conducted an expedition to document the area’s biological diversity. Our team consisted of 12 expert scientists specializing in plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, butterflies and dung beetles. All but two of the biologists were from Honduras, representing multiple institutions including Zamorano University and the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
After months of preparation and with support from two tireless U.S. colleagues, Steve Elkins and Bill Benenson, as well as the director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, Virgilio Paredes, and the Honduran Institute of Science and Technology, our scientific team was airdropped by the Honduran military into a remote and inaccessible corner of the Mosquitia rainforest. Following the rapid assessment model, we acted as an “ecological SWAT team” to quickly assess as much of the area’s biodiversity as we could in a 10-day blitz, using machetes, nets, pole cutters, ropes, baited traps and any other means at our disposal. Heavily armed soldiers, there to protect the extraordinary artifacts, accompanied us in the forest and assisted with the fieldwork.
Our study will help better understand how the natural history of Ciudad Blanca compares with its cultural heritage. Combining these two avenues of research is a critical step toward ensuring the long-term preservation of the broader landscape surrounding Ciudad Blanca in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. These life-sustaining forests and watersheds are threatened by rapidly spreading and unsustainable illegal encroachment by loggers and cattle ranchers. The president and government of Honduras are committed to protecting this outstanding Mesoamerican jewel — providing a rare opportunity to conserve one of the last large intact forested regions in Central America.
The Lost City has an extremely diverse insect fauna, including the Hercules beetle, Dynastes hercules. The longest beetle in the world, males use their long horns to battle other males over potential mates. (© Trond Larsen)
While our full survey is due to be published in the coming months, the initial findings have been remarkable. Our team documented a snake previously believed extinct in Honduras since a single individual was discovered in 1965, a worm salamander with an implausibly long tail, and several butterfly, amphibian and bat species that have never been found before in Honduras. The richness of species was overwhelming — indicative of the large area of unexplored, intact forest we found ourselves in.
Several of the species we found are endangered or extremely rare, underscoring the pristine but threatened nature of the local environment. These results will also include images from automated camera traps that remain in the forest today and continue to take photos. We expect that when we pick up these cameras later this month, they will piece together pictures of the extraordinary wildlife hidden within the rainforest, including possibly the puma that met my gaze that rainy night.
Up to three feet tall and weighing up to 220 pounds, pumas are known to kill humans. Standing only paces apart and with nowhere to turn on either side, we continued our stare down. The cat gradually stalked towards me, padding on massive paws and stooping even lower on its front haunches as if ready to pounce. Its silent, effortless approach flowed like liquid. My adrenaline began pumping. My hairs stood on end. As the distance closed by half, the large puma’s sleek golden coat became visible. Then, as quickly as its eyes had appeared, the puma spun around and disappeared once again into the blackness of the forest.
Big cat sightings like this are rare. In my 20 years of tropical forest exploration, this experience is unique in its intensity. With the further protection of this exceptional area, I hope future generations of explorers will have the opportunity to make the same haunting, improbable encounter.
Ongoing updates on the work in Ciudad Blanca will be posted at benensonproductions.com and on Human Nature.
Trond Larsen is the director of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program.
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