On the back nine in the jungle, the ocelot knows the score
by Sarah Fallon
Parts of Trinidad's rainforest look like the aftermath of a food fight.
Breadfruit, golden apples, cocoa pods, wild cherries, and papaya are smeared
across the muddy topsoil. Eerie fungi in glittering white and unruly orange
stand out against the muck, and blue emperor butterflies careen across the trail
like pinballs. In the swamps, the gnarls and pillars of mangrove roots would
close up behind you if they could, leaving you and your canoe stranded in an
ever-shrinking ring of brackish water. And it's always New Year's Eve down at the
beach, where the moonlit waves splash iridescent plankton over your feet.
To love Trinidad is to love chaos. On a hike through the jungle, Andy Whitwell,
director of an adventure travel company called Wildways, points out the strangler
fig-a grim cousin of the ficus-which conceals its hapless host tree in a twist of
woody roots creeping down from the canopy. He shows us the fine fungus hairs that
allow trees to reabsorb their fallen nutrients; the rainforest floor provides
little nourishment, so this sort of recycling is essential.
vegetation, in turn, is crucial to storing the rains and meting them out slowly
during dry months. Without the decomposing slop on the forest floor, or if the
trees and their absorbent roots are removed, water pours off the hillsides,
short-circuiting this endlessly looping biological tangle.
Not everybody in Trinidad is fond of chaos, however. Like strangler figs, a few
opportunists are taking a growing appreciation for the environment and squeezing
the life out of it. The Trinidad tourism authority has arranged for me to meet
with René Bermúdez-Negrón, the head of the regional development agency for the
Chaguaramas peninsula, who's working on what he calls "an eco-resort" that will
cater to cruise ships. The brochure, I notice, features an aerial photo of
sailboats in neat rows set against a larger shot of a golf course. I begin to
suspect that the well-manicured Bermúdez-Negrón doesn't get out into the jungle
He leads us up the steps to the restaurant, done in Caribbean-tourist style with
one lonely "ethnic" drummer in the corner. "It only took two years to build this
place," he tells me. "Amazing, isn't it? We had to drain the swamp and
everything." Bermúdez-Negrón proudly reveals his plan to
expand a 9-hole golf course to 27 holes "à la eco," which means the various huts
and structures will be made of bamboo. Eventually, his 14,500-acre empire will
boast 300 villas, a convention center, and a hotel, but he's annoyed at the
controversy over his intention to clear the undergrowth and dead stalks from a
bamboo thicket nearby. "People don't want to look at dirty bamboo," he sniffs.
"The advantage here is diversity," he says, eyes bright once again. "You can
walk, you can play golf, you can watch butterflies." Some tourists might like the
safety of Bermúdez-Negrón's tidy, mediated reminders of the disorderly jungle,
but I wonder if the island's 600 butterfly species will survive his special brand
A generation ago, ocelots roamed Trinidad's rainforest. Due largely to loss of
habitat and hunting, they are rare today, and I never saw a sign of one on my
hikes. On the final day of the trip, though, I did get to hold one in my arms at
the Emperor Valley Zoo.
The supposedly tame Claudia batted me gently with her paws, then latched on to my
nose and upper lip until the zookeeper came to my rescue. I later realized that
I'd been at the mercy of fangs that could easily shred less tender flesh, yet Claudia didn't
even break the skin. It was a playful but firm reminder of how sloppy, savage,
and wonderful wilderness really is. The eco-speculators of the world would do
well to take a hike through the jungle, or at least a walk to the zoo.
Sarah Fallon is associate editor/designer of The Planet, the Sierra Club's
monthly newsletter for activists. She lives in San Francisco.