Travelogue: Paraguay

In a disappearing forest: preserving wonders, passing on knowledge

SUN SETS over the Atlantic Forest.

Photos by Stephanie Heitmueller, Photographers Without Borders 2017, and Para la Tierra
SUN SETS over the Atlantic Forest.

We crouched in silence, the pitch-black Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest surrounding us. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness obscuring the forest floor, Becca, the primate project leader at Para La Tierra (PLT), pointed out the silhouettes of several hooded capuchin monkeys.

Backgrounder: Kyle Donahue

Kyle Donahue grew up in Parkdale and graduated from Hood River Valley High School in 2008 and Tufts University in 2012.

Donahue traveled to South America during the winter of 2017-2018 and spent time with Para La Tierra in April of 2018.

They work with the Peace Corps and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations to complete a wide range of projects, stretching across the geographically and environmentally diverse country.

Donahue worked in 2016 for a non-profit in South India and wrote a Travelogue about it in the Nov. 25, 2016, Kaleidoscope.

It didn’t take long for the sun to reach the lower parts of the canopy and the sleeping monkeys. They began to stir and the pre-dawn peace was forgotten in an instant. Becca hissed a warning to the group to watch for thrown objects from the territorial little primates just in time.

A barrage of sticks rained down on us. Threatening yips awakened birds, insects, reptiles and howler monkeys. Our small group crouched in awe at the transformation, the stillness displaced by a forest-consuming ruckus. The capuchins fearlessly leaped from one flimsy branch to another, always managing to stay glued to a part of the tree no matter how precarious or distant a particular hold might be. They hopped from branch to branch, eating fruits, insects, and anything else they could find and continuing to hurl objects in our direction.

Eventually, without warning, the 18 or so capuchins cackled their way off into the forest. Becca and a few interns hurriedly gathered their note-taking materials and followed, leaving Joe and me to enjoy the stillness of the forest as the crashing and howling faded into the distance.

The walk back to our camp, on the edge of San Rafael National Park, was easy compared to the pitch black scramble we had had to do a few hours earlier to get ourselves in position for the morning show. Joe, PLT’s deputy director, answered my numerous questions regarding the capuchins and the research Becca had been working on for the better part of five years. Our camp, surrounded by farmland, was located on the edge of a tiny piece of the Atlantic Forest that used to cover much of eastern Paraguay. Over the past fifty years, the forest has been cleared by investors and landowners to make space for lucrative soybean and cattle farms, reducing the forest to 7 percent of its original size.


Kyle Donahue, left, and PLT members help students decorate cloud-spotting tubes before heading outside to test them out.

PLT was founded in 2010 and is dedicated to preservation, research and environmental education in Paraguay. (See Backgrounder)

The particular project that Becca allowed us to tag along on aims to determine the exact habitats the hooded capuchin monkeys need to survive, using them as an umbrella species to protect their ever-shrinking Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest biome. An umbrella species is studied and used to make conservation decisions that affect an entire ecosystem. Protect the capuchins, and you will protect the numerous other species that thrive in the same environment.

Becca is working closely with a local organization Protección de la Cordillera San Rafael (PRO COSARA) that has been fighting the deforestation of the Atlantic Forest for over twenty years. Listening to Becca quietly record meticulous observations about the size, behavior and movement patterns of the capuchins only gave me a hint at the amount of data she had collected and the level of detail that was going into her project.

After a few more days of being awestruck by the countless critters in the area, mosquitos included, Joe, Karina, PLT’s executive director, and I said goodbye to Becca and headed to Encarnación.

In the Paragyuan border town, we chatted with taxonomist Paul Smith while the bright lights of Posadas, Argentina illuminated the Paraná River through the thick, soggy, evening air. Paul, the president of PLT, is the most prolific publisher on Paraguayan wildlife working today and is dedicated to documenting the biodiversity of Paraguay. Paul had recently been involved in the discovery of a new snake, as yet unnamed, and was going to head out to PLT headquarters with us to do a scientific write-up about the details of the new reptile.

A few days later, back at the PLT base in Pilar, Paraguay, I was awoken by scampering feet and excited chatter.

Saturdays were youth education days in Pilar and the base was already filling up with elementary-aged students who were choosing to spend their Saturday participating in the weekly PLT environmental education workshop.

Today, a local Peace Corps volunteer was giving a presentation on clouds. After a casual, interactive presentation with plenty of laughs, a handful of supervisors, myself and an army of excited children walked a few blocks to the banks of the Paraguay River, where we were met with beautiful blue skies from horizon to horizon.

The kids, in small teams, used form sheets to fill in various data about cloud coverage and ambient weather, scanning the sky many times over, using their active imaginations to place clouds in the clear skies. The morning wrapped up with a few cloud-themed, energy-intensive games in an open park before we headed back to base. The staff waved good-bye and the students eagerly parroted two hours of cloud knowledge to smiling parents.

That afternoon, we drove a pickup truck miles up the river and had a lazy kayak back to Pilar. The flora along the river was a spectacular verdant green, while exotic flowers and gigantic lily pads decorated the edges and eddies of the river.

Egrets and other wading birds scanned the current for frogs and fish while staying alert for the many caimans that populated the length of the river. We finished our kayak run just as the sun was setting and had a quiet last evening before my long journey back to Oregon the next morning.

I didn’t spend long with PLT, it was my last stop on an exhausting South America trip, but I hope to be going back soon. The diversity of projects in which they participate and the enthusiasm with which they tackle every goal of the organization really stood out to me, and I am certainly looking forward to the next opportunity I have to return and get more deeply involved in Para La Tierra.

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