23rd March, 2011. It was indeed a dark and stormy night, the mist blowing over the mountain ridge to chill us. Night fell quickly, too. I wished we’d brought more rum to warm our spirits. After two days travel, by plane, smaller plane, a comfortable 4×4, then a much less comfortable one, came the final stiff hike up the valley.
I was thankful for the mules that carried our gear and wished more than once that I’d taken up the offer of a horse to carry me.
Searching For Dracula
As soon as I heard the name, I knew I wanted to see Dracula. “There’s one a few hours up the valley,” Luis Mazariegos told us that evening.
He didn’t exactly explain that the last stretch would be a hands-and-knees scramble up a steep slope at the end of which we’d be covered in mud. We have to scramble down the same way, of course, the much more difficult direction. At 2500 metres (8200 feet) above sea level, the thin air reminds me that I am not 21 anymore.
In time, we find Dracula, but not in flower. More time, more scrambling, more mud, and we find one that is. Yes, Dracula is an orchid, and to my tastes, a particularly lovely one. And the cloud forests of the northern Andes of Colombia that are its home are a very special place.
Orchid taxonomist, Carl Luer, tells me “this looks like it belongs in the great swarm around Dracula gorgona, D. wallisii and D. woolwardii. It is difficult to determine from a photo without a scale, vegetative parts, and details of the lip.
I’m here in Colombia, once more — and again with my colleague — and Buffet Prize winner — Jorge Orejuela — looking at birds and orchids.
Above all, our mission is how to protect them — and all the other exceptional biodiversity here.
Jorge met me at the airport and introduced me to Luis. Of course, I knew his photographs — he’s one of the world’s leading photographers of hummingbirds. His book Hummingbirds of Colombia has photographs of 110 species out of the country’s total over of over 160 — almost half of all the world’s hummingbirds. National Geographic Magazine has some of these photographs and an interview with Luis here.
Creating a Nature Reserve for A Tiny Bird
It was one of these hummingbirds — the drably named, but nonetheless beautiful dusky starfrontlet — that convinced Luis to create a nature reserve to help protect it.
For over 50 years, the bird was known from a single specimen of an immature male. A dedicated search in 2004 rediscovered the bird in forest above 2500 meters (8,000 feet) in the mountains. Adults were seen for the first time and Luis photographed it — showing it to be a lot more brilliantly colored than thought from the initial specimen.
Even with this discovery, this bird is still one of the very rarest birds in the world. The IUCN Red List classifies it as being Critically Endangered — the most dire category before becoming extinct.
It’s not alone in being so threatened. This area houses no fewer than 11 species of birds that the Red List considers are in danger of extinction. This is truly one of the most precious pieces of real estate for life’s variety.
By the end of the day, I’m walking downhill at last. Every muscle aches. At least I can stop for a pause whenever I wish and pretend that I’m watching some bird or other.
Jorge and Luis catch up with me.
Luis is ecstatic.
“Stuart, I believe we have found a new species of Dracula for science. According to Jorge, it’s something that he doesn’t have in his catalogue.
“Plus we found a gigantic Epidendrum!” (Another kind of orchid.)
“It’s the largest Epidendrum I’ve ever seen.
Luis continues, telling me in great detail about what they have found in the reserve he has helped create. Behind him is another story — and it’s a desperate one.
This is a very wet place — it gets 3 meters (120 inches) of rain a year. Without forest cover, the steep mountain sides wash away, sometimes catastrophically. Indeed, just behind Luis in my photo, the hillside had slipped away burying the livestock that once were penned there.
Evidence of landsides is all around us. Without forest, this land hasn’t much value.
Well, not much value unless, you are a carbon trader — and that’s what I do in my spare time. (I haven’t given up my day job at Duke University yet.) I sell indulgences for your carbon sins.
The average person in the USA, “sins” to the tune of about 7 tons of carbon emissions per year — that’s from the fossil fuels we consume driving our cars, flying around in airplanes, heating and cooling our homes and offices.
I offset carbon emissions by helping organizations such as Luis’ Hummingbird Conservancy (Fundación Colibrí) buy land. Adding degraded pasturelands to the reserve is a cheap way to soak up our carbon “sins”. This is a warm, wet, place and, if we save the soils before they wash away, they are fertile.
Luis showed me a lush forest with dozens of orchids that had been degraded pasture only six years earlier.
For the technically minded, this land probably “grows carbon” at a rate between 5 and 10 tons per hectare (2.2 acres) per year. Given the land prices, this makes the carbon growing in the trees very cheap indeed.
It’s also very beautiful carbon, too.
So, on behalf of my organization — SavingSpecies — I gave Luis’s conservancy a down payment on 140 hectares. You could help us pay off the rest of the mortgage at www.savingspecies.org.
After all, there should be a safe home for Dracula in the mountains of Colombia.