On a Wing and a Prayer: A Journey of Self-discovery on the Trail of Central American Wildlife

On a Wing and a Prayer: A Journey of Self-discovery on the Trail of Central American Wildlife

Sarah Woods

Language: English

Pages: 234

ISBN: 2:00313820

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

When writer and intrepid traveler Sarah Woods set about discovering the jungles of Central and South America, her quest took her into some of the most remote tangles of vine-knotted jungles on the planet. In Panama's rain-soaked Chiriquí highlands, she navigated seemingly impassable trails with a machete to reach quetzals with resplendent jewel-tone plumage.

Sarah sought the native wisdom of the indigenous Embera, deep in the Darien Jungle, in order to encounter the world's largest and most powerful birds of prey-the elusive harpy eagle. Using razor-sharp talons to hunt and kill sloths and monkeys with deadly precision, these mammoth, winged dinosaurs hide a lesser-known, softer side: devoting great care to raising their young for the first two years of their lives. Seldom seen in the wild, Sarah struggled to demystify the fear-riddled legends and superstitions that earned the harpy eagle its name from early explorers.

Her voyage taught her much about the rich glories and mesmerizing spectacle of the natural world and also its challenges and dangers. She met the albino “moon children” of Kuna Yala, swam in the Panama Canal, encountered left-wing guerrillas at the heart of Colombia's five-decade conflict, and witnessed Amazonian beliefs and customs surrounding shape-shifting and the jungle afterlife. Sarah survived landslides, crash landings, mammoth floods, and culture clashes in mysterious untrodden lands, learning much about aspects of herself from the incredible wildlife and tribal peoples she encountered-arguably her biggest journey.

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hummingbird, stripe-cheeked woodpecker and black-crowned antpitta. Rough trails skate round where the ore carriages once rumbled, fresh tracks in the mud indicating a rich variety of mammal species, including tapirs, peccaries, pacas, deer, anteaters and monkeys. These, of course, mean that there are also considerable numbers of jaguar, puma, ocelot, fox, eagle and hawk. Bugs crawl between every rusty crevice, attracting large numbers of birds. Flapping wings and excitable flutters fill the air

swim, moving through the river-ridded Darién region as solitary, opportunistic, stalk-and-ambush predators. Due to the destruction of their natural habitat, many jaguar populations have become separated from one another and they cannot move about over large areas or mix with other jaguars. This makes them vulnerable. They sometimes attack livestock, so they are often hunted by farmers protecting their cattle and pigs. Jaguars feed on practically anything they can, from caiman and sloth to

shoulder-length hair, cups his hands and scoops up some of the gloop gathered in small reservoirs beside the deep, cool pools. He smears it on his wrist, slathering it on and massaging it in plentiful dollops. Puzzled, I shoot him a questioning look and he tells me to try it. ‘It’s an elixir for health, wealth, youth and longevity,’ he laughs, cackling like a rooster. According to local legend, this nutrient-laden clay is a deeply penetrating therapeutic cure for all manner of ills. It’s rich in

graze in the shallows of the San-San river basin. Tongo tells me that the water was once contaminated by a toxic spill – probably by a farmer – which killed a number of these shy, peaceful giants. Today, Panama’s manatees are protected by law but are still often pursued by rifle- and harpoon-toting poachers. Local indigenous tribes believe that the manatee is a form of mermaid, with the Ngöbe-Buglé now a part of a sea-cow conservation drive. Gordito is a young male, Tongo tells me, and may grow

fertile mudflats, fiddler crabs dig their cylindrical burrows to escape harsh sun, high tides and predators. They live in large colonies; find one fiddler crab and you’re not far from several hundred. The friendly wave from the male’s enormous claw is actually a courtship ritual. In Peru the motion is compared to sewing, and the crab is named after a master tailor (maestro-sastres); in Brazil their name denotes someone beckoning the tide to return (chama marés). Valentina taps me gently on the

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