Finding The Lost World
January 2022: An investigation of the world's forests declares that over 9,000 tree species have yet to be discovered by science. The findings, the report concludes, '...highlight the vulnerability of global forest biodiversity to anthropogenic changes in land use and climate.'
A few years ago I visited a small island that was gently dipping its toe in the possibility of tourism. Economically it made sense. Better a few hundred foreign visitors than hydrocarbon exploration, or logging. This beautiful island has a unique flora and fauna. It is served by a small airstrip. On the incoming flight, as we approached, I spotted a separate islet, standing off the remote southern coast of the main island. I decided that, if the chance arose, I would go there.
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At first the boatman simply took us around the island, keeping about fifty yards out. I could see a plinth of jagged rock, deeply fissured and wave-battered, surrounding a dome-shaped peak whose sides were thick with vegetation. The summit, however, was bare and must have been about 205 feet above sea level... no, more like 195 feet, hang on, I was right, 205 feet. The boatman assured me that no one ever landed because the swell was always too huge. It was impossible.
There was only one other passenger: DM. She worked on the main island which we had left an hour before. On the way she had been telling me how a Spanish team of divers had recently discovered new species of fish in these waters. That was no surprise since the main island had dozens of endemic species of birds, plants, butterflies and bats. I'd spent days wandering around, feeling as though I was in Charles Darwin's boots: wide-eyed in amazement as yet another rare island species swung into view. That morning I'd spotted a small colourful bird on the flowers outside my cabin and ticked off another rarity. Most of the other cabins in what was the island's only tourist resort appeared to be empty, but there were two more small resorts under construction. The people were welcoming: tourism was their only real hope to scramble out of the endless grind of self-sufficient poverty while not destroying their beloved island.
Back on the boat we came around to the straits between this offshore atoll and the main island. Here the rock shelf was narrower and we were closer to the jungle-covered slopes. A movement caught my eye. There were birds flitting about.
"Do you fancy trying to swim ashore," I asked DM, pointing to a place where the surging waves were driving into a narrow gap in the rock. "It might work, if we time it right."
Her reply was immediate and direct. Picking up the dry bag that held my camera, she dived overboard. I went in after her. We were both wearing rash vests, shorts and training shoes.
In the water, the prospect looked rather different as we approached. Sculling across the swell, I could see huge jagged rocks surging up towards me from below, then dropping away. DM was quick and clever: a few powerful strokes took her across the danger into the next slice of deep water. I followed her lead. Finally the last crusty clump of rock was rising and falling in front of us while we paddled madly to avoid being torn to shreds. Then from the top of a wave we grabbed at the rock, feeling the surf fall away from under us. Gravity reclaimed us. Our knees, hands, and elbows took the weight. We came ashore like some newly evolved species of crab, an exceptionally clumsy species whose survival was highly unlikely.
Having made it this far, I straightened up and examined the next challenge. Ahead was a crumbling tangle of fallen earth, loose rock and plants, some dead and some living, but all thorny. Clambering through jungle is never easy but this was near vertical. Slowly we ascended, sometimes traversing to avoid impenetrable rock faces or chaotic labyrinths of creepers. Then after about twenty minutes we came to a rock wall below the summit. "I'm not climbing that," said DM. I agreed. The ascent looked tricky, but the descent without a rope would be suicidal. I did small forays to the left and right and found no route. This was as far as we could go. We sat down in silence.
Barely a minute had passed before I noticed a sudden movement in the corner of my eye. I turned my head and there was a bird sitting on a branch examining me. It was a little beyond arm's reach. Then I saw a flash of colour above it. A kingfisher had been perched there all the time.
DM had noticed them too. "They have no fear," she whispered. The kingfisher's head cocked slightly to one side, as though listening, but neither bird fled. In fact, over the next half hour, several more came to inspect the new type of clumsy crab that had arrived on their planet. We just sat and let ourselves be checked out. Eventually DM whispered, "I think the boatman might be wondering where we are."
I came off that place feeling enormously privileged and excited, as though I'd been granted a glimpse of Eden. But on the boat ride back I started to feel something else, something edgy and awkward. If that was how one tiny, uninhabited and unvisited island reacted to a human (probably not the first, but perhaps the first in a long time), did it mean that I had been living my entire life on a planet that was terrified of me and my kind? For some reason I thought of the 1998 film, The Truman Show. Jim Carey is Truman Burbank, a man living an idyllic life in smalltown America. But one day he discovers that it's all a massive lie. He is actually a dupe, an actor in a reality television show, and has been since birth. He's an orphan that the TV company bought. Everything is a fraud. I got off that boat feeling, like Truman Burbank.
I also felt guilt. I should not have gone to that place. Had I started the rot? Would DM take future tourists? Would they one day build a jetty, then a boardwalk, then an exclusive suite with horizon pool, Wifi and a bathroom sign warning visitors not to use too many towels, 'in order to save the environment'? And come to think of it, wasn't every island on earth stuffed with endemic species until humanity lumbered into view?
The main island was not huge, but the arrival of a tourist resort in that place had also brought a few vehicles to transport people and materials from the airstrip via a dirt road that curled through forest and plantation. One morning I went for a walk along it, moving slowly and silently. The first thing I found was a blind burrowing snake, a scolecophidian, finger-thick and forearm-long, wriggling through some leaf litter by the track. The next thing I found was a dead kingfisher. It was one of the island's endemic species. It had been hit by a car.
Despite that sad experience, I do believe eco-tourism can work. I’ve seen some great examples. If you want any suggestions, subscribe and drop me a line.