LA GRANDE COLLINE, Haiti – With mist drifting across the treetops and thousands of frogs singing, it was hard to believe this cloud forest in the mountains was less than 120 miles from the squalor of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
It was here on a muddy hillside, long after dark, that Penn State evolutionary biologist Blair Hedges saw something in a tree. It stood so still it could have been a leaf or a twig, but it was a tiny green lizard. He grabbed it and put it in a plastic bag. But before he could close it in, the creature leapt free and disappeared.
He searched on the ground and in the bushes, but the animal was lost – not just to him but possibly to all humanity. Like other species here, it could go extinct before anyone knew it had existed.
Conservationists agree that Haiti is undergoing a mass extinction. It’s the only substantially sized country to have destroyed 99 percent of its forest, which is why Hedges is on a mission to study its last animal inhabitants before they disappear forever. In late July, he and a team of six, accompanied by an Inquirer reporter, took a four-day trip through some of the country’s last bits of preserved forest.
The finds they made – rare animals and some species never seen before – may help to rouse the Haitian government, which has done little to protect these fragile places.
In the long run, scientists think deforestation could prove more deadly than even the 2010 earthquake. The capital remains crammed with tents for the displaced. Streets are still lined with collapsed houses. But things could get worse. Millions of people depend on the remaining forests for clean water and cooking fuel.
Ecologist Joel Timyan, who came on the expedition, said the situation recalled an analogy he heard from Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich: You’re on an airplane, and it loses some rivets, and then a few more, and it’s still flying, but eventually the loss of one last rivet causes it to crash.
When the last patches are gone, along with them will go dozens of species of frogs, lizards, and other animals. Scientists have many reasons to save them – ethical, aesthetic, and even medical – since these creatures contain a “living library” of biological compounds that may someday be used to cure disease.
Some have called Haiti “an unthinkable experiment” – a harbinger of what could occur in other parts of the world.
Into ‘terra incognita’
Hedges picked this place in the western region of La Grande Colline because it had never been explored by biologists – one of four unexplored forest patches he had scoped out on a reconnaissance helicopter trip earlier this year. All, he thought, may hold patches of original forest. “These are terra incognita,” he said.
He can no longer count the number of expeditions he’s taken to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico – places where he has studied the evolution of some unique species of snakes, lizards, and frogs.
Previous trips also led to the capture of a number of critically endangered frogs now part of a breeding colony at the Philadelphia Zoo. So far, 10 species are breeding in captivity – but are not yet on public display.
On these trips, Hedges has met discoveries and misadventures in equal measure.
He was once tossed out of Cuba, falsely accused of being a CIA agent and spreading a coffee-plant parasite to destroy the Cuban economy (Cuba has since apologized for the mistake). In Jamaica, after being dropped by helicopter, he had to swim for hours at night in a cold, raging river with large eels, seeking a long-lost archaeological and ecological site.
In Haiti, previously, a voodoo priest threatened to cast a spell on him that his driver said would have turned him into a cow. Today, he always travels there with at least one Creole speaker. Haitians in the mountains tend to use machetes, so it’s important to avoid misunderstandings.
A slim, energetic man, Hedges, 54, keeps himself fit by walking to work and always taking the stairs to his sixth-floor laboratory. He encourages others in his lab to do the same. This is regarded with a mix of annoyance and amusement by others, including his graduate student Tiffany Cloud, who came on the expedition. He often works until midnight, she said, and scoffs at people who claim to need eight hours of sleep.
So it was no surprise on this trip that they would have no camp stove or icebox, since they had to minimize weight on the helicopter. The plan was to subsist for four days on nothing but granola bars, trail mix, and caffeine pills.
The expedition members convened at the Karibe Hotel in Port-au-Prince. Besides Hedges, Cloud, and Timyan, there was a Haitian biologist as well as a videographer and a photographer/naturalist, both from the Dominican Republic, and an Inquirer reporter.
The plan was for five of them to fly by helicopter to the island of Ile a Vache on the western edge of Haiti. Two people would ride in a jeep with the gear, and reach the island by boat. From a hotel there, the helicopter would take everyone in two groups to each of four mountaintops.
The pilot was a 32-year-old Dominican, Jesus Mendez Cuervo. The night before the expedition, he’d crossed the border and landed, improbably, in an unused part of the hotel’s parking lot.
Those riding the helicopter got across Haiti in 40 minutes. The jeep took five hours to reach the island, most of which was spent navigating out of Port-au-Prince’s blocked roads, often rutted with three-foot-deep trenches and littered with rubble.
Along with a reporter on the jeep ride was Haitian biologist Anderson Jean, 30, who was born in western Haiti and studied agriculture and forestry. Neither of his parents were scientists, but his father had been an engineer before he disappeared in the 1986 coup. He had almost died in the earthquake, escaping from a friend’s house seconds before it collapsed.
The cloud forest
The first site was a plateau a mile high where clouds rolled around above and below. By dusk the tents were quickly pitched, three for seven people to save weight. Everyone grabbed a package of trail mix – dinner – and began hiking.
Within minutes the team entered a storybook forest, thick with shrubs and vines and the palm-tree-shaped tree ferns that seemed of another era. As twilight deepened, the air came alive with sounds – all manner of peeps, chirps, trills, ribbits, and even something that sounded like a duck.
The frogs were tiny, most no bigger than crickets. There were green ones, reddish ones, spotted ones. Some were pudgy and others leggy.
Hedges explained how to collect them by making a swift grab and dropping them into plastic bags, sealed off with a pocket of air. He carried them by securing the ends of his bags through his belt loops.
All these frogs, said Hedges, are descendants of a founder group that somehow arrived 30 million years ago from South America.
The frogs are all members of a single family, the eleutherodactylids, also called land frogs. Their eggs, which are the size of pearls, hatch directly into tiny frogs. No tadpole stage needed. These frogs diversified as sea level rises isolated different parts of the island, giving rise to the great diversity of mating songs that filled the nights.
Frogs and lizards are indicators of the health of the environment here, and unlike birds, they have nowhere to go if their forest is cut. Frogs are in precipitous decline around the world, many succumbing to a fungus called chytrid.
In Haiti, the more immediate threat is deforestation. On the island of Hispaniola, which holds both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, most of the 70 endemic frog species are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss.
It wasn’t an easy landscape to navigate. Most of the searching happened off the trail, on muddy hillsides and the edges of “sink holes” with no visible bottom. The team had headlamps, but it was hard to see where to step while simultaneously looking for animals.
Nobody even thought about returning to the tents until after midnight, by which time the team was mud-caked and nettle-scratched, and burdened with dozens of bagged animals.
The next morning, there was no sleeping in. The sun rose early, and hit full tropical brightness in minutes. There was no formal breakfast – just more trail mix or granola bars. Coffee was out of the question. Hedges didn’t want to weigh down the helicopter with a camp stove.
The ecologist/Creole translator Timyan, 53, brought beef jerky that he made, marinated in garlic, curry, equal parts soy sauce and sugar, and a dash of bourbon.
Hedges, who never appeared to eat or sleep, was busy sorting the animals, putting the bagged frogs, still hopping, into coolers. Everything must be packed, since the pilot was expected to come at 9 a.m. The team called him Jesus – instead of the Spanish pronunciation “Hey-zeus” – which seemed fitting since they had put their complete faith in him. He was the only person who knew exactly where we were.
The second site was just a few miles to the south. But with a higher elevation of 5,900 feet, it promised a different ecosystem. We landed in a meadow of wildflowers.
We were isolated, but not alone. Mingled with the solitude was always the faint smell of fire and the curl of distant smoke. Haitians burn trees for slash-and-burn agriculture, or to make charcoal for cooking.
By dusk, the next animal-hunting venture began. The added elevation made this forest not just cool but downright cold. The plants were thicker and stranger; here the tree ferns are as tall as coconut palms.
Charles Darwin noted that on islands, “herbaceous” plants often grow to enormous sizes, taking the place of trees. That effect was at work here, giving it the look of a forest in Jurassic Park.
It was a moonless, cloudless night. The clearings revealed a riot of stars – a visual parallel to the chorus of frogs. This time, Hedges put us all on the lookout for a lizard – a black-and-white striped creature called Anolis darlingtoni, or the La Hotte Twig Anole, named after naturalist Philip Darlington, who found one in the 1930s. Hedges found a few on a previous Haiti trip, in 1984, and no one has seen one since.
A Harvard team went a few years ago to find them and came home empty-handed, raising concerns that this quirkily beautiful animal was extinct.
Mixed with the sound of frog calls were the cries of team members identifying rare frogs by their Latin names – glandulifer, brevirostris, ventrilineatus. It was a mixed choir of seven science nerds and 100,000 frogs.
Within an hour or so, Dominican naturalist Miguel Landestoy, 27, pointed to a tree fern, where, up about six feet, was a striped lizard.
He let everyone look for several minutes before grabbing it. Hedges said it was either Anolis darlingtoni or something closely related. The find led to a two-hour search through the same area for more, but this seemed to be a very lonely lizard.
Over the next two days, the team visited two more sites, both lower and hotter, and both with undisturbed forest and new finds, including a frog the size of a fly that peeped like a baby chick.
The last day was spent in Port-au-Prince, though now Hedges was sharing a hotel room with 307 live animals packed into coolers. To get them home, he needed permits and for that he enlisted the aid of Haitian environmentalist Philippe Bayard.
Bayard, a businessman, said he’s had a passion for Haiti’s forests since childhood. He now heads a local conservation group, Societe Audubon Haiti, which funded the $50,000 trip along with the National Science Foundation, Conservation International, Birdlife International, and other nonprofits.
Haiti’s Ministry of the Environment has had little effect on reversing deforestation, Timyan said. Despite efforts by the MacArthur Foundation and other groups to educate the public and push the Haitians to adopt conservation policies, the trees continue to disappear, even in the country’s two national parks.
Safe passage for all
Today, the parks together contain just 15,000 acres of original forest. How much remains outside the parks is not clear, Hedges said. Assessing the situation is a goal of this expedition, which took place entirely outside the park boundaries.
On this last day, Bayard was driving the team through the capital’s chaotic streets to the Ministry of Agriculture, where Hedges obtained the necessary permits. There, he also gave a slide presentation about the expedition to a group of Haitian officials.
With assistance from some enterprising teens, we got the animals, now in suitcases, through the long line outside the Port-au-Prince airport. After showing documents to quizzical U.S. customs officials, the suitcases were opened back in State College that evening to confirm that all 307 animals had made it.
In the coming months, the animals will be studied to determine how many species are new to science, and to name the new species. Cells will be carefully prepared and stored in liquid nitrogen, at minus 321 F, for future cloning, thus keeping the animals’ genes intact, in case Haiti’s forests improve and the animals can be reintroduced.
And while a few have to die, said Hedges, “the small number collected by scientists has no obvious effect on species survival and pales next to the number that are killed when a farmer clears an acre of forested land.”
Besides some new species, the team also rediscovered several presumably extinct ones, including a frog, the striped lizard, and a type of magnolia tree.
“This shows that Haiti has even more to lose than we thought,” Hedges said. It took millions of years for the animals and plants in these forests to evolve, but they could all be gone in a few decades.