Neotropics

Isla Bastimentos, Panama

Al Natural Resort, built with traditional Ngobe-Bugle construction, uses rainwater, and solar power for energy on Isla Bastimentos, Panama

Isla Bastimentos and the
Poison Frogs of Salt Creek

Notes on the poison frogs of Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro archipelago of Panama.

We had been the sole guests at Al Natural Resort for three nights, but tonight, Martin had set the table for 12. 

Over a glass of rum, he sits with us and talks with our toddler while evening turns to night.  When the chef arrives dressed cleanly and smelling of perfume, I quietly wonder where she came from.  There are no roads here, and I heard no outboard, and no canoe tie up to the dock.  This part of Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro archipelago of Panama is surrounded by thick forests and mangroves. 

“Martin,” I ask, “did she walk here?”

“Elessa lives in Salt Creek,” Martin says.

“It’s pitch black out there,” I say.  “And isn’t it all mangroves between here and there?  How long is the walk?” I ask.  There is no way she could have walked through the mangroves at night without ending up a muddy mess.

“You know, Erik, these Panama women who grew up in these places, they are different than you and I. It’s about a one hour walk from Salt Creek, but these Panama women, they evolved differently, like they have webs between their feet!” he says, only half-joking.  He stands up and says, “There are sometimes these wooden boards between the mangrove trees, and they just know how to walk across them, like this.” 

And then he stands up and says, “Chick-a, Chick-a, Chick-a” and pretends to skip across tiny boards in the mangroves.  “When I try to walk across the mangroves,” he says, “I have mud up to my knees in five minutes.”

Bastimentos Island

A gas station on Isla Bastimentos, Panama

Martin and Elessa will cook the fish that the family next door sold to the resort this morning.  I know that tonight will be wahoo, because I woke up early this morning and saw a boy trouncing across the property with a big wahoo dangling over his shoulder.

The food at small eco-resorts is often some of the most amazing, and here at Al Natural, wahoo is being prepared in a glaze of cabbage, pineapple and almonds.  The guests at small eco-resorts, like the food, are also more likely to be interesting, and kind, and fun, and as the guests funnel in, we introduce ourselves.  One woman, from Manhattan, explains her husband’s obsession with Skippy Peanut Butter.  He, with big East Coast hipster glasses, is a specialist in predicting Egyptian political outcomes for a firm that studies the regional risks for global hedge funds. I wonder how well his last reports predicted the events of early 2011.

Another guest is a middle-aged woman living in Venezuala, monitoring human rights abuses.  Her boyfriend lives in Mexico.  “This is half-way,” they explain together.  Skippy Peanut Butter, responding to her talking about Venezualan politics says, “Chavez is like Nasser.  He didn’t deliver success, but he delivered populism.”  Responding, she says, “And, like Nasser, he’ll know how to keep pulling those magic rabbits out of his hat for a few more years.”

Isla Bastimentos

Homes along the shore of Isla Bastimentos

The four Russian-Americans had traveled through Bocas del Toro for many years, having been to several of the islands in the archipelago.  When one of them, Tamara, heard that we had been to Red Frog Beach, on the other side of Isla Bastimentos, she mentioned they had stayed their once.

Knowing a bit of the history of Red Frog Beach Resort and Marina, I asked her what she thought of her stay there.  “Not very much,” she says.  “It was not a nice place, and you could feel it in the vibe.”

She explained that Red Frog Beach Resort, which was slated to take up nine percent of the entire island of Bastimentos, would be a vast megadevelopment consisting of a golf course, a marina and hundreds of for sale units.  “They just came in there and did whatever they wanted.  They were some guys from Minnesota.  They had no idea what they were doing.  They didn’t listen to the local Indians, who were worried the development was going to ruin their ecosystem.”

I tell her that when we were in the Red Frog Beach area, the place looked run-down, and there was hardly any development at all.

“Well, that’s exactly right, because Red Frog Beach Resort, in all its glory, failed. Now, there is really just a hostel.  They are under new management, and trying to do more with it, but it’s not really working.”

She explains how the development continued to try to do things their own way, often ruining components of the local Indian community and economy. 

Bringing up the famous red frogs that give the area its name, she explains, “The way [the development] handled the red frogs, was that they would try to pick them up and put them somewhere else.  That was their environmental plan.  This is a place that has coral reefs, mangroves, basically the whole island is a protected national park, and here these guys were trying to build a golf course.”

The red frogs, namesake of the resort and the beach, are the reason I have been drawn to Bastimentos for years.  The strawberry poison-dart frog is actually one of the more common poison-dart frogs in Latin America.  Its range covers much of lowland Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. 

But the strawberry frogs – the Oophaga pumilio frogs that live on Bastimentos are unique in that they are extremely variable, the way that feral pigeons in big cities are extremely variable:  they come in lots of colors.  Some are red with black spots.  Some have white arms.  Some are orange, some yellow, some are even green. 

On a nearby Peninsula, a small population of the same species live right on the beach, and are colored midnight blue.  If you expand to other areas of the Caribbean shores of Central America, pumilios can come in black and white, green and yellow, green and black, and on and on.

These extreme variations in color are known as natural-occuring color morphs.  Frog collectors in the U.S., Asia and Europe go nuts over Oophaga frogs, and they get particularly excited about Bastimentos pumilios, whose natural variability means breeding options and bloodlines

As frog species around the world have been plummeting due to a variety of threats, more attention is being made to reptile and amphibian poachers.  Several books have made it to print describing a vast and seedy international underworld of poachers, zookeepers and collectors who willingly engage in the most illegal smuggling to get their hands on the latest, the rarest, the hottest reptiles and amphibians.

Spectacled Caimans

Spectacled Caimans, near Salt Cree, Isla Bastimentos

These extreme variations in color are known as natural-occuring color morphs.  Frog collectors in the U.S., Asia and Europe go nuts over Oophaga frogs, and they get particularly excited about Bastimentos pumilios, whose natural variability means breeding options and bloodlines. 

As frog species around the world have been plummeting due to a variety of threats, more attention is being made to reptile and amphibian poachers.  Several books have made it to print describing a vast and seedy international underworld of poachers, zookeepers and collectors who willingly engage in the most illegal smuggling to get their hands on the latest, the rarest, the hottest reptiles and amphibians.

While pumilios are not rare, many of their individual color morphs are, and there is the possibility that in the near future, these morphs will be reckoned by science to be unique species.  In that regard, the pumilios of Bastimentos are another example of the way the shadiest in humanity are directly putting biodiversity at risk.  On one hand, you have the threat of megadevelopment in the aptly named Red Frog Beach Resort, and you also have these creepy North Americans, who will come down here in secret rendezvous with the rarest morphs of these frogs.

I tell Tamara that when I saw my first strawberry frog,  I was shocked by their size.  “They are as small as my pinky!” I say.  “I had never pictured poison-dart frogs that way.”

Salt Creek Mangroves

Entrance to Salt Creek.

Hot is one of the big words in reptile and amphibian smuggling.  It’s kind of like the word dude in surfing or da kine in the pot-smoking culture.  It means all kinds of things.  A hot animal is one that you’re after, because your addicted to collecting.  It is rarer, more poisonous, more exotic, creepier and more beautiful than the last one you collected.  And, because reptile and amphibian collecting is an addiction, you’ll do anything to get the next hot creepy-crawly.

While pumilios are not rare, many of their individual color morphs are, and there is the possibility that in the near future, these morphs will be reckoned by science to be unique species.  In that regard, the pumilios of Bastimentos are another example of the way the shadiest in humanity are directly putting biodiversity at risk.  On one hand, you have the threat of megadevelopment in the aptly named Red Frog Beach Resort, and you also have these creepy North Americans, who will come down here in secret rendezvous with the rarest morphs of these frogs.

I tell Tamara that when I saw my first strawberry frog, I was shocked by its size.  “They are as small as my pinky!” I say.  “I had never pictured poison-dart frogs that way.”

The next morning, the Captain and I followed the Bastimentos Island coast south to the native community of Salt Creek.  Because of the narrow mangrove forest passage into Salt Creek, we need to take the smallest boat.  The Indians of Salt Creek travel by canoe, and they navigate the mangroves to their fishing and lobstering locations with ease.

When we arrive at the long docks, we look for a guide to take me into the forest.  I meet a young man named Luis, and negotiate a small price.  He then says, “you have mosquito repellent, yes?” I explain that I left my bottle of deet back at Al Natural.  He says, “We cannot go in the forest if you don’t have repellent.” 
“What about you, do you have some I can borrow?”

“I am used to them, they don’t bite me,” he explains.  “Can you ask around and see if anybody has repellent here?”

He leaves and comes back fifteen minutes later.  He says, “nobody has mosquito repellent in Salt Creek, so we can’t go.”  I explain that I’ll be just fine without any repellent.  Jane already had over 200 bites up and down her legs, but I had gathered those were chiggers, and they didn’t bite me.  How bad could the mosquitos be?

As soon as Luis and I begin to walk into the forest, I realize the strength of his naturalist skills, and he is keen on the fact that I am familiar with the animals here.  We get distracted from our search for the red frogs, and follow a large bird through the woods, which is staying just out of our view in the upper canopy. 

Strawberry Poison-dart Frog

An adult Strawberry Poison-dart frog typical of the Red Frog Beach area.

Luis, who is walking barefoot, begins slapping at his legs and ankles.  When I notice this, he gives me a mild stink-eye, but we continue in pursuit of what we believe is a large forest hawk. Finally, n a green-glowing window, we see its profile.  It’s not a hawk at all, but the giant and elegant green ibis, in a sheen of green and black.  Like other ibises, the green ibis is a wading bird, but it prefers more wooded waters, as it specializes in frogs and small fish. 

Encouraged by our find, we continue in the woods until we come to a small swamp, which hosts a pair of large caimans.  Here, we begin to hear the strawberry frogs calling, and we circle the swamp in pursuit.  We find the first calling from the base of a tree.  Conspicuous as he may be, calling cheerfully at mid-morning, his bright red color will shield him from the green ibis. 

Bright colors are the international symbol of the rainforest.  They say to every bird, mammal and reptile the same thing: you fucking try to eat me and you’ll be a rotting carcass by afternoon.

This strawberry frog is strikingly different from those at Red Frog Beach.  His belly is gray, not white, and rather than distinguishable red polka-dots, he has texture and tones of bright red, with a shade of green and violet.  He is, at first glance, a completely different animal.  I place my finger in front of him and he steps on my fingernail.  He has no cause to be concerned, for were I to consume him, I would be an easy lunch for the two curious caimans, now eyeing us from twenty feet away.

Seeing this color morph reminds me of a conversation I had with Kierán Suckling, the executive director of the noisemaker environmental group, Center for Biological Diversity.  During the height of the legal battles over the coral reef at Great Guana Cay, Suckling explained the importance of populations in animals who may one day face extinction threats.  You can’t just look at the species, he explained, in order to protect a species.  You have to look at the population pockets themselves, because, as likely as it is that we will see individual populations collapsing, maintaining the multiple populations is the best hope in anticipating the bigger picture.

And anyways, genetics may soon see this Salt Creek Strawberry Frog as a species unto its own.

The Salt Creek community is receiving support from private groups, as well as funding from U.S. Aid, in order to protect the area and the culture.  Various initiatives have served to set up tilapia farms, train the Ngobe Indians in tourism management, and to find alternatives to fishing in the degrading coral reefs around this area.  The programs appear to be diverting this quiet, nearly empty wilderness from the worst aspects of development. 

The tiny red frog, and its various populations, are just a tiny component of the complex set of stresses placed on these hotspots of biodiversity.  But, considering that amphibians are the front-line of a very new sort of battle, it is worthwhile to consider them as representative for a larger set of issues.

In this context, it is rewarding to see the success of the Salt Creek community, and to see Bastimentos as a huge island known more for a handful of forward-thinkng eco-resorts and native communities at the edge of a vast, roadless interior.  And it is rewarding to see the Red Frog Beach Resort not as a failure, but as a rotting carcass, and a big, sprawling golf course megadevelopment that never was.