Off to Colombia.....again!

June 1st 2016

I was 22 years old the first time I traveled to Colombia. I joined Global Wildlife Conservation, where I worked as an intern for the summer, on an expedition searching for “Lost Frogs”. The Lost Frogs campaign was part of a larger global effort to rediscover species that had not been seen in over a decade or more. We were searching for a frog called the Mesopotamian Beaked Toad, (Rhinella rostrata), a small toad with a beaked snout that remained hidden for almost 100 years.  I had never gone on a field expedition before and I was quite excited and a bit apprehensive. Not to mention my mother was worried about her daughter trekking around in the Colombian jungle without cell phone service or internet to let her know I was OK.

Our team, led by biologist Alonso Quevedo (ProAves), explored the Choco region of Colombia for a week. The Choco region of Colombia had long been closed to outsiders due to the armed conflicts and civil wars that have ravaged the country for decades. We were amongst some of the first gringos to explore this region. The country felt safe to me, whether this was my own naivety or because we had Alonso I am not so sure. During the expedition, we would pass through military checkpoints and the gringos would wait in car until everything was sorted. Generally this took no more than 30 minutes and we were well on our way up rocky and muddy roads that were, at times, almost impassible.

My most memorable experience came when I was alone (of course) in the jungle searching through leaf litter along a stream off of a dirt road.  A soldier emerged from the forest with a rifle slung across his shoulder. When I saw him I spoke to him in Spanish; he asked me what I was doing and I told him I was with a team of biologists looking for frogs. He was young and his smile sparkled with braces. I took him to Alonso who effortlessly eased the situation by describing our work and showing him a few frogs. The young man was very interested and we got to snap some pictures with him before he disappeared quietly into the forest. I felt lucky, since he was a military guard and therefore he did not have a problem with us being there. The rest of the week passed by quickly, with lots of driving and few rain storms (which was surprising for a wet cloud forest). I recall one particularly rainy day where the rain came down so hard we all decided to go swimming in this watering hole. Here I was, knowing nothing about the world of international conservation, swimming in my skivvies with a bunch of highly respected biologists, also in their skivvies. It was a moment that embodied the spontaneity, enjoyment, and the somewhat alternate universe that often is fieldwork. While we did not find the beaked toad, the expedition unearthed three new species of frogs, a testament to the undiscovered wildlife that lay lurking beneath Colombia’s surface. Partially, this wildlife has been, by unintended consequences, protected by armed conflict and civil wars that have consumed the country for years.

My trip to Colombia inspired me to continue working in the field of conservation including my goal to work internationally. Now, on the cusp of my 28th birthday I am returning to Colombia to pursue a new project for my PhD. Again I will be searching for a lost species, but this time, I will be searching for a lost rat (sexy I know), the Santa Marta Toro (Santamartamys rufodorsalis). This species was considered extinct by the IUCN Red List until 2011 when it was re-discovered at the El Dorado Reserve in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. It is here, at El Dorado, where I will go back to search for the Toro. I realize I have an affinity for finding difficult species- like my master's research where I spent a 4 months searching for North America's most elusive marsh bird, but alas, that story is for another time....

The only known photographs of the Santa Marta Toro, circa 2011 at El Dorado Reserve. 

I often refer to myself as an unlikely biologist. I get nervous traveling alone to new places and in order to combat this, I have always been acutely aware of my surroundings, which I like to think may help me in the field when I get lost in the jungle. This new adventure presents lots of unknown and so it is not without nerves that I depart for Colombia on June 10th to explore a region I know virtually nothing about. There is comfort (don't worry mom!) because my endless Skype calls to Colombian researchers and their immediate willingness to help with my efforts has provided a needed sense of security While I parted ways with Colombia for almost six years, and forged my own path in wildlife conservation biology, I am heading back to where, for me, it all began. I must say I am excited for my return. 

* My work will take place in collaboration with Global Wildlife Conservation, ProAves, Rainforest Trust, and local researchers at University of Magdalena and ProCat.

Oh and follow me on twitter for updates @niksroach

Until next time!



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