Words by Drew Bristow.
In July 2022, I was contacted by Trevor Hughes from CREA (Conservation through Research, Education, Action). Trev and his wife Lucy had a project to film and record the elusive margay (Leopardus wiedii) in the rain and cloud-forest of Cocobolo Nature reserve in Panama.
The first problem was that the margay is a small arboreal wild cat, weighing from 2.4 to 4kg, with a body length of 48 to 79cm and a tail length of 33 to 51cm. It's also solitary and nocturnal. The second problem was that whilst Trev and Lucy are very seasoned conservation researchers, having worked all over the globe, they had no tree climbing experience.
I was asked to help them with tree climbing techniques in the forest, far from civilization. After an initial phone conversation, a plan was formed about joining them on the expedition.
The expedition objective was to fix motion sensitive cameras in the rainforest canopy in places that looked likely for the cat to be using but also laying them out in a grid pattern. This would assist with collecting data on all the other species that live in the Cocobolo nature reserve. “No problems, we'll just climb up and put the camera on a branch and wait for it to capture the images.” That is what I thought…
Cocobolo Nature reserve with its primary cloud forests and secondary lowland rainforests is a vital yet fragile piece of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, harbouring endangered wildlife such as jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, crested curassows and harlequin toads, together with thousands of species of amazing invertebrates. It's an extension of the Narganá Wilderness Area and the Chagres National Park, that covers hundreds of thousands of hectares of pristine forests. A big area to be expecting to film a small cat that lives in the tree tops and only comes out at night.
It was necessary to compile an equipment list that would cover every eventuality, yet remain small and compact, as we’d be carrying-in all the equipment (plus food, sleeping & camping equipment etc). Essentially, the minimal climbing equipment to access the jungle canopy, move around it and descend, install portaledges and hunting stands (for observation, not hunting), as well as leave fixed lines in place so that camera batteries and memory cards could be periodically checked. All this in trees that no one had ever climbed before, that had never been measured before and with two novice tree climbers. What could possibly go wrong?
And with the need to keep an eye out for fer-de-lance snakes. Dubbed ‘the ultimate pit-viper' it has a fearsome reputation because of its defensive temperament, large size and venom yield. Bullet ants were a further potential hazard—'bullet' because of the extreme pain from a sting, similar to that of getting shot.
I had decided the best techniques would involve SRT (single rope technique) equipment for the initial ascent, canopy anchors if possible, and then change over to DRT (double rope technique) style to move around the canopy, using traverse hooks to move from tree to tree.
The initial upper canopy movements would be to find the ideal camera placements and selection of rigging equipment to place portaledges in open spaces for nighttime camera reconnaissance. DMM supplied the team with Locksafe carabiners, rigging hubs, Hitch Climber Eccentrics, Pinto pulleys, gear bags, Vaults and the team favourite, XSREs. “Why did you request so many of these silly small carabiners Drew?” Trev asked early on in the expedition. Two weeks into it, he commented: “Holy crap, these things are amazing, we need more of these silly small carabiners!”
Yale supplied the team with enough rope to outfit a small militia and Reecoil also supplied rope bags and hydration packs.
I met Trev, Lucy and the rest of the team in Panama City in December '22 and we travelled out in 4x4s. After a few river crossings we arrived at Cocobolo. My role was to quickly teach the basics of tree climbing techniques and assist with the objective of getting cameras into position.
The first stage of the training was familiarisation with all the equipment—”this is a Pinto pulley, this is a rigging hub etc.” Fortunately, Trev and Lucy are quick learners and so we proceeded onto the basic knots that we would be using—clove hitch, bowline, alpine butterfly, running bowline and the classic VT friction hitch. To cut down on knot tying, I spliced all the climbing lines and hitch cords.
Whilst it is standard practice to learn tree climbing by going low and slow, the luxury of time was something that we did not have. I was scheduled to be in the rainforest for four weeks and we knew that at any time the weather could change for the worse. We made a group decision to spend half-a-day placing cameras in lowland areas and use those trees (15m-ish) for training.
As the lead climber for the expedition, it was obvious the quickest route would be for me to install my climbing line, ascend and install two other climbing lines, descend and then climb up with Trev and Lucy to talk them through it as they ascended. I cannot describe the feeling of coming down and seeing eager eyes watching and realising that harnesses were being worn, ascending systems were setup, and they were ready to go, no trepidation.
The next stage was learning how to affix the cameras to the trees and to work out exactly where they should be pointing. Trev had manufactured brackets that would allow solid fixing to the trees (monkeys tend to destroy camera placements) but also allow a range of movement so that the camera could point in the right direction; not an easy task when working with emergent rain forest trees. It was at this time that it dawned on me how big an ask it was to place a small trail camera on a branch or jungle vine that a margay will choose to walk/climb across… in the middle of the jungle… at night time.
But this is where Trev and Lucy would work their magic, they have a heightened sense of animal movements from spending many years studying animal habits. All I had to do was to get them into position safely. This task was made easier by having a team that trusted that I'd lead them safely into the upper canopy.
The next two weeks were spent walking through the jungle with full packs of climbing and camera equipment. We installed 2-4 cameras per day and then checked the previously installed cameras memory cards. For this, we had initially left ropes installed but changed the plan to throw lines in place instead. We had chatted and laughed nervously about the possibility of monkeys and parrots chewing through the climbing lines, this was a risk we decided we could ill afford as any injury this far away from civilisation could be catastrophic. I am thoroughly glad we made this decision.
Once we had placed cameras in the lowland forest and rainforests the time had come to start playing around with the portaledge setup, so that Trev and Lucy could spend nights aloft, trying to spot movement through the UV, infra-red and thermal cameras. My setup was a base anchored high line with a Pinto attached to a rigging hub, onto the hub were two base anchored lines that could be used to move the portaledge along the highline. Attached to the hub was the portaledge and two SRT lines for Trev and Lucy to ascend/descend on.
It’s a slightly eerie feeling placing a portaledge high up in the canopy, knowing that two relatively inexperienced climbers would be spending nights up there left completely to their own devices, and I personally was none too excited to spend the night on the forest floor waiting for them. The forest floor becomes alive at night with all manner of creepy crawlies just waiting to bite and sting you, so I went back to camp and slept in my hammock. With a sigh of relief, I woke to Trev and Lucy talking about what they had seen over the night.
After a couple of days rest over Christmas, it was time to start trekking up into the cloud forest. The cloud forest is wet, very wet. Coupled with full climbing and camera gear, it was a hard three hour slog every day up the steep slopes into the clouds. But it is a mesmerising experience to see the forest change from lowland, to untouched rainforest with gigantic trees, to the wet and dank enclosing cloud forest.
Everything is slimy and all the trees, palm and vines are covered in spikes so you make careful steps to avoid grabbing onto anything when you slip. This was also the area where the fer-de-lance snakes were most commonly found—a mission to find a lost throw ball was rapidly stopped when we came upon a two metre plus snake casually coiled up on a log. That throw ball was deemed a gift to the snake gods at that moment.
Cameras were placed on the way up to the cloud forest and two cameras were placed at the very peak of the cloud forest. From the tops of the trees on a clear day (there were not many), you could look out over the untouched Narganá Wilderness Area and the Chagres National Park and see the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.
Once we had finished our aim of installing all the cameras, it was time to explore the jungle further, looking for other ideal camera placements and grasping through the canopy of the rainforest. This is the territory of the Captain hook. It is a very cool feeling to watch a nature researcher who three weeks before had zero tree climbing experience, start throwing the hook and traversing through the trees. Like a proud dad moment.
This time also allowed us to hone the basic climbing skills and to make sure the team would be able to carry on the arboreal studies when I left them (they were to stay on for two more months). And the best way to practice these skills? Go climb.
It was during this final week that using a drone we spotted a tree, in full flower, bright yellow, glowing above the rest of the rainforest canopy. So, we had to find it. This is a much harder task than it appears as you cannot see the upper canopies from the ground.
In this instance, however nature showed us the way. Leaf cutter ants climb up the trees and defoliate them, and take the cut-up leaves back to their underground chambers. It was then that we spotted a trail of yellow flowers snaking its way through the jungle floor—evidently the yellow tree was nearby.
I have climbed many different trees in many countries but climbing the Pterocarpus Indicus was an experience like no other. Lines were installed in the tree and I started my ascent. At about 30m the buzzing noise was getting louder and the aroma was almost stifling—every single leaflet of this jungle giant was in full flower and covered in foraging bees. The sweet nectar filled air was impossible to describe, the buzzing of the bees as they stocked up on nectar was just incredible. It was as if the whole forest knew this spectacle would not last long. Even though I was in Panama for the margay project, this was the highlight for me and something I'll never be able to describe fully.
Soon after it was time for me to make the journey back home to Fiji. Trev and Lucy stayed on in the rainforest, monitoring and adjusting the camera traps, checking batteries and memory cards and scouting new sites for the next expedition.
The cameras that we installed will stay up for a couple of years, the batteries and memory cards are good for over six months—this is why the monitoring was essential, you don’t want an errant leaf setting off the camera every time the wind blows. The amount of data that is extracted from the cameras is mind boggling, the grid pattern that the cameras are set in can give an indication of the number of different species that live in a set area and this can then be extrapolated outwards to give an idea of what is living in the Cocobolo Nature Reserve.
And did we get the elusive arboreal cat, the Margay, on film in front of the camera traps? Yes, we did. It is worth noting that this is a multi-year project and so final tallies of animal species and margay movement won’t be known for a while, but it’s is safe to say that the forest is indeed alive.
This project would not have been possible without the assistance of the amazing sponsors, Yale Cordage, DMM Wales, Atn Corp, The Petzl foundation, Arbsession and Reecoil. But for now, it's time to start planning the next one.
Drew Bristow is an arborist and professional tree care trainer based in Fiji. You can find him on Instagram.
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