by William Allen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, January 28, 2001

TUBURUS, Nicaragua - The roaring rapids were just too much for the outboard motor. Paule pushed with the pole, then jumped out to pull the boat upstream. Ellyn did the same. When the woman with the infant in one arm jumped out to help, I realized I should, too. But I slipped. Suddenly I was up to my neck in the crocodile-laden river heading downstream.

It isn't easy keeping up with Paule Gros. The St. Louis Zoo biologist treks the rivers and rainforests of northern Nicaragua, assisting native people in a study of the region's wildlife.

She sets a fast pace while charging through a wide range of obstacles: blood-sucking insects, Niagara-like downpours, disease-ridden jungles crawling with venomous snakes and the risk of being kidnapped by armed bands of former guerrillas who ply nearby rivers and roads.

Gros (whose first name is pronounced like Paula and last name as if it was spelled Gross) faced these problems and more during a trip into the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve near the Nicaragua-Honduras border in late November.

But for the veteran field researcher, such risks and hardships are minor when stacked up against the magnitude of her goal: to help save the wildlife of "Central America's Amazon."

With support from the conservation group Alistar-Nicaragua, Gros is spearheading the Zoo's first field conservation project. The fate of the project -- and of the Zoo's direction in helping to save the world's endangered wildlife -- rests on her backpack-loaded shoulders.

The project is based in the Bosawas reserve, Nicaragua's biggest protected area and part of the largest area of rainforest north of South America's Amazon.

The Zoo's Bosawas project, begun last January, aims to help the Mayangna Indians native to the northern part of the reserve inventory their homeland's wildlife and continue their tradition of living in harmony with nature. Gros, also a research associate with the International Center for Tropical Ecology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, is leading and training several Mayangnan forest guards in the biological inventory.

Little is known about wildlife in the region. Biologists believe the reserve harbors many kinds of endangered species, but they just don't know.

"First, we want to establish whether that's true," Gros said one cloudy day as her long, wooden boat plied the Rio Coco on the way to the Zoo's field outpost. "Second, we want to give to the indigenous people the tools to manage their own wildlife, if they wish to do it."

The isolation of Bosawas from Nicaragua's population centers to the south and west helped preserve it from the destruction that felled huge tracts of forest since the 1950s in Costa Rica, Guatemala and other Central American nations. Combat, paradoxically, also protected it.

Until a few years ago, bullets and shrapnel flew between the trees of this vast, remote jungle as U.S.-supported Contras based in Honduras attacked the army of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Loggers who had been cutting the tropical hardwoods and farmers who had been slashing and burning the forest for cropland simply fled. Pieces of the forest cut before the war grew back.

Now that Nicaragua has returned to peace, the reserve has become a focal point of Central America's deforestation wars.

Land mines remain, but the native people have come back. Nonindigenous Nicaraguans are pushing in from the southwest, destroying the forest as they establish farms and ranches. The cash-strapped and distant Managua-based government is under pressure to allow commercial logging by foreign corporations.

Poaching of jaguars, scarlet macaws and other kinds of the Western Hemisphere's most endangered species is a major problem, as poor people hunt the forest to feed a market for exotic animal goods for wealthy foreigners. Jaguar pelts can be seen hanging in the central markets of villages around the Bosawas reserve.

At stake is the survival of these species, as well as the homelands of several vulnerable Indian cultures, including those of the 13,000 Miskitos and Mayangnas who live here.

"As researchers interested in both biodiversity conservation and cultural survival, our long-term goal is to integrate the interests and needs of the indigenous people of Bosawas with the conservation of wildlife," said Cheryl Asa, research director at the Zoo. Asa masterminded the wildlife project.

No roads lead here

The big worry tonight is about Solano and Kingston, two Nicaraguans with the Alistar project who left Wiwili an hour behind us this morning. They were in a fast boat and should have arrived here hours ago, but haven't. The fear is that they were kidnapped by one of the armed bands that work the river. Alistar plans to send search boats in the morning.

The journey from Managua to Alistar's field outpost in Tuburus, the hub of the Bosawas project, takes two full days -- one day by four-wheel-drive to the town of Wiwili and one by boat up the Rio Coco.

The middle of the trip takes travelers through one of the few remaining dangerous parts of Nicaragua, northwestern Jinotega Province. It's dangerous because armed bands of former combatants from the Contra war rob and kidnap travelers along certain stretches of the road and river.

The trick to staying out of trouble is to travel with people who know what they're doing. That's one reason Gros sticks with Alistar, a group of Nicaraguans who know the area well. Many of them are former soldiers themselves.

The region gets more than 100 inches of rain a year. That's three times more than St. Louis gets.

No roads lead to Tuburus. The only way in is by river, strewn with rapids.

The Tuburus outpost is a long wooden building high on the south bank of the Rio Coco. A corrugated metal roof covers a big kitchen, several dorm rooms and a wide veranda.

The view from the veranda is relaxing and postcardlike, especially the jagged limestone cliffs set off against the pink sky to the west. Directly north across the river lies the Honduran jungle. No doubt this view was anything but relaxing during the war.

Rain runs off the roof into plastic cisterns for drinking water and makeshift cold-water showers. Electricity is available only when the generator fires up shortly before sunset and runs until 10 p.m.

There's no telephone here, although Alistar keeps a satellite phone in case of an emergency. A two-way radio is a center of activity as calls go back and forth between area villages.

From Tuburus, Gros sets out on trips deep into the jungle to survey the bird and mammal species. With her are Mayangnan research assistants Miguel Hernandez Castillo and Maximo Landero Cornejo, who use machetes to clear away vegetation and snakes. Lifelong residents of the jungle, they can find obscure animal tracks in the mud as if they were flashing red lights.

Gros, Hernandez and Landero walk for days on end, recording sightings of ocelots, monkeys and other animals. They set up camera traps in different areas of the jungle to take photographs of the more elusive mammals, like jaguars.

It is a maxim of conservation biology: learning the wildlife in a natural area is the first step toward protecting the area.

Protecting Bosawas is just what the Mayangna Indians intend to do. That's why they invited the Zoo into their homeland in the heart of the reserve, an area called Mayangna Sauni Bu.

The Mayangnans want the Zoo's help in learning the abundance and location of different animal species. They believe the region is home to many animals that are endangered or extinct in other parts of Central America, but they want scientific proof.

The Indians also want to know whether their current rate of hunting these animals for food can be sustained without driving the creatures to extinction.

Native leaders believe such knowledge will help them make the case for protecting their homeland as the so-called agricultural frontier -- the push of non-native settlers -- moves into their territory.

"The indigenous groups want to conserve the environment in order to continue traditional hunting, harvesting and religious practices," said another biologist involved in the project, Paul Garber, of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "They want to be in a position to make these decisions, based on scientific evidence, rather than have external groups -- like the government of Nicaragua or conservation agencies -- make these decisions for them."

Said Anuar Murrar Garay, Alistar's director: "The main strategy is to empower them. What we're doing is giving them the tools to manage their lands, if they so choose, in their traditional ways."

The rock climber

I got locked out of my bunkroom this afternoon, and the caretaker at the Alistar field outpost wasn't around. So Paule hoisted herself up the 10-foot-tall hallway wall and crawled with the grace of a spider monkey along a beam that ran between the roof and the bunkrooms, which had no ceilings. She dropped down into the locked room and voila, she opened the door with a smile.

Paule Gros doesn't like to waste time waiting for someone else to solve a problem she can solve herself.

Maybe it wasn't so unusual after all that Gros would scale that wall. One of her hobbies is rock climbing.

A tall, thin, spirited woman with reddish-brown hair, she's climbed Half Dome in Yosemite National Park but mainly takes small, recreational climbs. She often spends an entire day on a rock.

Partly, she likes being up high.

"It gives you a different perspective," she said. "You are above the trees. The birds fly underneath. The view is beautiful."

She calls it "a very complete sport," requiring physical stamina and coordination. As she got more and more into the sport, its psychological aspects hooked her.

"You get challenged by the fact that you have to really control yourself, because it's quite scary at times," she said. She likened the experience to conservation biology, which requires a vast amount of self-discipline, physical conditioning and emotional self-control in the face of obstacles.

"When you get mad, you fall," she said.

Gros, 37, was born in Montpellier, in the south of France.

She always has wanted to work with animals, a desire born out of a lifelong love for them. Her father didn't want animals in the home, so as a small child she ran around the neighborhood tending to the ones she could find.

"There were lots of cats in the basements, so I was always raising the kittens in there," she recalled. She took care of dogs when the owners went out of town.

She brought ants home and cultivated them in the plants her mother kept on the balcony. Her mother discovered a colony when the ants felled a potted plant. Gros' secret zoo also included lizards, turtles, frogs and snakes. At 13, she became an avid horseback rider.

In France, the only people who worked with animals at the time were veterinarians. So Gros studied vet medicine her first year in college. She switched to biology when she realized her interest was in wildlife conservation and saw that vet medicine mainly focused on domestic animals.

Colleagues warned her she wouldn't get a job. After a year in a doctorate program in ecology and evolution, she told her professor she wanted to do conservation.

"The professor began to laugh and said, 'Come on, you just got a grant to continue. You can't waste it. You can't do conservation. Be serious, do genetics.'"

A bird from Missouri?

Not worried so much about all these bug bites itching as much as about the disease they may bring. The malaria pills I'm taking should work, but I keeping thinking about the La Prensa photographer up here last month who's still in the hospital with dengue fever. No cure for that. Solano and Kingston turned up today at Tuburus. They had stopped to carouse in one of the river towns on the way.

In a dripping jungle about five miles up the Rio Coco and Rio Bocay from Tuburus, Gros carefully disentangled a small, yellow-breasted bird from the web of a mist net. It was a hour after dawn, and assistants Hernandez and Landero had just set up the black nylon net in a narrow aisle cut with machetes through the vegetation.

A blue morpho butterfly floated past, its iridescent wings flashing brightly despite the shadows cast by the tall canopy trees. Suddenly, Gros recognized that the bird was a magnolia warbler.

"All right!" she said, as if in victory. "Another species for Bosawas."

The bird had only recently fled the North American winter, flying through the Midwest -- possibly through Missouri or Illinois -- on its way to Nicaragua.

It was one of many species of so-called neotropical migrants whose numbers are declining precipitously as humans develop more and more of the habitat in the birds' summer territory, winter territory and the flyways in between. Several other birds that Gros has trapped in the mist nets, including the hooded warbler and ovenbird, breed in Missouri and Illinois.

Gros traps the birds but quickly releases them after weighing, measuring and photographing them and placing a small metal band around one leg that identifies the bird as part of the Zoo's Bosawas project.

"It's so small," she said a few minutes later as she fit a band on the warbler. "It's hard to believe a bird so small can fly from one continent to another."

The inventory has gone well in the project's first year, Gros said. Scores of birds have been identified, some recorded for the first time ever in Nicaragua. The animal census has revealed healthy numbers of many species.

At the end of a day of bird netting, Gros feels drained. She enjoys working with birds, but it's stressful.

She's always rushing to retrieve and release the birds as soon as possible. Trapped birds can go into shock and die.

"The life of the bird is No. 1," she said.

Despite taking extraordinary care, one morning a long-billed gnat-wren died while Gros weighed it. She grimaced, swore, sighed. She sat silently for a long time.

Hours later, in the boat back to the Alistar outpost at dusk, she was still shaking her head.

Not crying anymore

Despite a good poncho, the rain always seems to find a way in. No problem if you're hiking and already hot and sweaty, but it can be a cold trickle down the back if sitting in a boat. The paths from the river to the houses are slick mud now. On the way up to Pilawas today I slipped and fell halfway down the bank. Grabbed a clump of grass. It held.

Gros said no to her professor's demand that she study genetics instead of conservation. She gave up the grant and left to study in a wildlife conservation program at a forestry school in France.

Aside from her love of animals, two television documentaries helped shape her response to the professor. One showed famine in the western African nation of Mali.

About the Reporter

William Allen spent three months in Nicaragua on a fellowship awarded by the International Center for Journalists in Washington. The Ford Motor Co. Fund sponsored the fellowship.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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