A multi-voice account of the unequal history of movement.
She is alone, her head down, always walking slowly and silently. She is not in a hurry, feeding determines her movements. If she is not hungry, she does not move, and when she gets drowsy, she sleeps.
Walking through the grasslands—in what used to be a tropical forest—she finds herself at the border of another landscape: a gigantic pineapple plantation. Canopies of trees can be seen in the distance, resembling an island of biodiversity. She advances through the monoculture field and notices that the chemical smell, typical of these fields, is not so strong, and that the fruits are decomposed. In the past, she has had to cross coffee plantations, banana plantations, eternal pastures, neighborhoods, and even cities to get to where she feels most comfortable: the trees. However, in recent months she has noticed that the monocultures that had invaded almost all the forests where she lives have been abandoned.
Environmental variables condition her activity pattern, that is why the high temperatures, which have increased in recent years, affect her more than other mammals of the same size. Now she is in the middle of this pineapple plantation, under intense sunlight and without shade. The only option left for her is to continue towards the treetops that can be seen in the distance. She tries to psyche herself up, and pushes on through the oppressive heat. In the midst of drowsiness she reaches a border, one that causes her nausea and paralyzing fear: a road.
She stops, she doesn't know what to do: to wait, to cross? She senses that something is different; some time ago she would have smelled and heard the road long before reaching it. She wonders what has happened to all the cars that traveled at high speeds, day and night, on this type of road. Then she remembers that she hasn't perceived moving cars, or even a human being, for a long time. She knows how to adapt to a wide variety of environments such as tropical forests, mangroves and even areas transformed by human activity, so she is already used to dealing with Homo sapiens.
She remembers that first encounter when she was young: after having climbed the canyons of the Uruca River with her long claws and prehensile tail, she arrived at a pasture—of what used to be a rice field—and when she was preparing to cross a barbed wire fence, two giant dogs appeared. She got into an attack position, stood upright supporting herself with her two hind legs and her tail, and with her two arms outstretched and the exposed claws of her hands she bravely expected to put up a fight against these furious domestic animals. Suddenly, a human appeared, he shooed away his dogs and looked at her in amazement as if he were in front of the Viejo del Monte.
As a young man I was haunted by the naive idea that to access wild nature I had to move far away from home, far away from the city, from the suburbs, from 'the human'. Once there—for the first time in a remote and biologically intense national park—I got to know that feeling of being at the total mercy of the uncertainty of the forest and the tropical climate, and I learned a lot about ecology and also about myself. However, although that immersive experience marked me for life, it was on my return to San Jose that I learned several lessons. The first is that in the suburb where I lived, nine kilometers from the center of the capital, there was flora and fauna in a continuous transit, which happens in a very creative and bold way even though walls, electric fences, roads, and concrete try to stop it. The second lesson was the recognition of how little attention I had paid to this whole movement, and that this idea of the city as a space without wildlife was just an illusion. In reality, many of the animals and trees that I had met in the rainforest more than four hundred kilometers from home had always been there, beside me, circulating.
My first encounter with a tamandua happened in that jungle. On that occasion, for long seconds I witnessed their slow but continuous walk, an event that allowed me to keep in my memory every detail of this beautiful mammal. The Tamandua mexicana is an anteater that can walk long distances but spends almost half of their time in the trees. They distribute their eight hours of activity between day and night, their cathemerality (i.e., that they are neither diurnal nor nocturnal, but both) does not respond to a fixed schedule. Their mission is to stick their long, sticky tongue into each of the 50 to 80 termite and ant colonies they visit daily.
A few months after returning home from that trip I heard my two dogs barking wildly at the fence overlooking a small urban forest. I ran and upon arriving at the commotion I found a juvenile tamandua standing upright on two legs, ready to defend herself. I shooed away my dogs, who had somehow spared her life, and stood there contemplating the little anteater.
Still facing the road, the tamandua wonders if it is safe to cross. After several minutes of reflection, the heat becomes more intense, the patch of trees is closer than before, but she knows she still has some way to go. She senses that if she doesn't cross the road, she may get too weak. At the same time, she can't help but think of the many relatives she has stumbled upon scattered in these death traps.
—It's so strange that there are no cars! —the tamandua ponders. She deduces that perhaps that is exactly what those who died in the attempt to cross thought. So she waits. She looks up and with the solar star shining directly on her black and orange fur, she longs for a couple of trees with long branches on either side of the road so that she can cross it from above.
She looks to her right and sees an endless straight road with pineapple crops on both sides. She looks to her left and far away, in the background, she sees African palm trees on either side, but they are trees that don't have branches that allow passage. She is tempted to climb the power line that crosses the road, but desists because in the past she has seen monkeys get electrocuted in the attempt.
I remember thinking how peculiar their gait was and, over the years, I began to notice that the tamandua was an animal that I often found dead on the side of the road. It is clear that it was not the only one I saw, but it was evident to me that many of the carcasses belonged to this species. Their current population is distributed from the south of Mexico to the north of South America. Here in Costa Rica—the country with the highest density of road infrastructure in Central America—they are threatened by vehicle collisions on highways. According to several studies, the tamandua, along with the opossum (Didelphis marsupialis), has long been a common victim of cars, trucks and buses. I wonder if in the future, after thousands of road kills, the tamandua will be afraid to cross the road. If they will integrate it into their DNA as a survival strategy in their animal species.
Something as simple as not being able to cross the street can generate a shortage of individuals in animal populations in certain sectors, decreasing the abundance and flow of genes. Therefore, road kills are only the tip of the iceberg of what really affects the population of a species in the long term: the reduction of genetic diversity.
On the other hand, there is a silent impact on the ecological balance of forest habitats and food chains: one of the roles of the tamandua in the ecosystem is to avoid the overpopulation of termites and ants. If they fail to cross the road, their absence in the forest can lead to an overpopulation of ants or termites, which then causes a shortage of one type of plant, and so other vegetation can spread excessively and kill off the food of animal species. Likewise, the scarcity of big wildcats (also common victims of vehicles) on one side of the road generates an increase in herbivores in certain sectors, which at the same time causes certain species of plants to decline, affecting insects and other invertebrates.
Costa Rica has a biological corridor program, which was created precisely to allow the genetic exchange of flora and fauna between ecosystems and thus maintain biological diversity over time. The problem is that this initiative clashes with the development of road infrastructure, which continues to increase. In this regard, it is important to highlight the creation of the Environmental Guide: Wildlife Friendly Roads, a research and advocacy work that a group of biologists have produced and that can somehow change this environmental problem in the short and medium term. In theory, this revolutionary instrument should be used by the Costa Rican Ministry of Transportation for all new road development projects and road expansion or construction.
Some communities, either on their own or supported by organizations, have joined this initiative by creating wildlife crossings along roads. However, the general lack of knowledge about the ways in which road infrastructure affects biodiversity and the pace of life imposed by modernity continue to be the main obstacles to adopting these solutions.
The heat and hunger continue to weaken the tamandua, as she fixes her gaze on the trees in the distance. Hours continue to pass and she has no idea how to cross the road safely. She clings to the hope that some other animal with the same need will appear and encourage her to cross. But she has not seen any other animals, perhaps she is on one of the routes that have stopped being used because they are dangerous.
In that immersion in the jungle, I also learned about the Oso Caballo (Bear Horse), a name that immediately charges any living being with a mythical dimension. Some park rangers and local guides that I met mentioned it in their stories of a not too distant past. So in my curiosity to know about this missing animal I asked why it no longer existed here in Costa Rica. The first version I heard was from Felipe Mota: he explained to me that this animal had a screech that was very similar to that of a human being screaming, that is why in the past, when people heard it, they rushed to answer the call. When they arrived they would find an animal two meters long, weighing 33 kilograms and with an immense and bushy tail, and when the animal saw humans approaching, they would stand up and reveal their claws. In reality, with this position the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) only sought to intimidate, but people did not wait and the reaction was to kill them. This made it very easy to locate them and therefore to hunt them.
Another version of their disappearance is linked to the Costa Rican myth of the Viejo del Monte, a ghostly being that roams mountains, forests and uninhabited places uttering horrible screams that can be heard from a great distance. Ironically, according to the Bribri myth from which this folkloric character arises, his role was to frighten those who destroy nature. However, the connection between the giant anteater and this fantastic story made the population fear this harmless animal. And possibly that fear, combined with the lack of knowledge about their appearance and behavior, put an end to their presence in Costa Rica.
Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) illustrated by Charles Dessalines D'Orbigny (1806-1876).
From wildlife accidents on the road, another myth can be inferred: the myth of development. Based on anthropocentric shortsightedness, we tend to consider road accidents as isolated events, immediately justifying them under the idea that roads are necessary and that these accidents are something that will happen anyway. This normalization works under the logic that everyone (humans and nonhumans) must adapt to roads in the name of the progress they represent, completely ignoring the vital needs of all the living beings that circulate in the territory.
“When ignorance reigns, life is lost”
—Zach de la Rocha
Like in the case of the disappearance of the giant anteater, the ignorance and indifference of today's humans toward recognizing the existence of other living beings in their integrity threatens the ecological balance. Considering their paths, their particularities, the size of their habitats and the relationships they need to live is an exercise of attention that seems very complex, but with empathy, human creativity is capable of moving towards ideas of progress that instead of rupturing, sustain life.
The tamandua starts to fear. She fears starvation if she does not cross. She fears that, even if she does cross, that patch of forest in the distance will turn out to be one of the many where she can't get food. Suddenly, a crocodile appears in the distance, he walks slowly and parks himself in the middle of the road. With her gaze lost and hallucinating from the heat, the tamandua observes this phenomenon. She has seen before snakes, iguanas, lizards, which upon being attracted by the heat of the pavement are crushed to death by vehicles, that is why what she sees causes her dread for the reptile. She waits to see if it is a mirage caused by the high temperatures, but the crocodile remains still like a rock over the faded yellow line in the center of the street.
Hours go by.
The image of the crocodile, who is still in the same position and alive, gives her courage. She tries to get up, but her legs are too weak to support her little tiny body, her gaze can no longer distinguish the contours of the treetops of that fragmented forest in the distance. She walks a few steps and, astonished, sees an oso caballo on the other side of the road, which greets her kindly, as when welcoming a person to their new home.
In the meantime, no cars have passed.
Text & Photography
Pablo Franceschi Chinchilla
2023. Costa Rica
Published on July, 2023
Volume 7, Issue 6