Gellman: The Silent Rain Forest

Iguaçu is the kind of place that when you really see it makes you smile with one eye and cry with the other.

With my smiling eye I was transported by the sheer natural exuberance of one of the largest waterfalls on earth. Seeing one great waterfall is wonderful. Seeing 275 waterfalls (who counts these things?) linked together is much more than wonderful. Iguaçu's hundreds of adjacent waterfalls have an effect that is both numbing and exhilarating. Some of the falls are massive and frighteningly powerful while others are almost delicate and meandering as they take their time to fall from pool to pool and then down into the mist. I have heard many symphonies, but until Iguaçu I never saw a symphony. This is what I saw with my laughing eye when I visited Iguaçu on my way to Buenos Aires to dance the tango with my wife for her birthday.

What I saw with my crying eye at Iguaçu was how hard it is for poor people to preserve great places. The ecological disaster caused by the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest is well documented if not well controlled. Iguaçu is the symbol of another ecological tragedy that is much less well known but an equal threat to the earth's biodiversity—or to the good stewardship of God's Creation—whichever language is most congenial to you. Iguaçu is the symbol of the silent rain forest: a place where the trees remain but the animals are cut down. In the decades since 1920, and particularly from 1950 to 1986 when Iguaçu was finally given proper protection, most of the animals of the rain forest were poached and sold or poached and eaten.

Since most people come to Iguaçu to see the waterfalls, the striking paucity of animals is not a big deal to some of the folks who take the tickets. Besides, visitors  usually do run into a few quotis--goofy looking, long nosed raccoonlike creatures who regularly rummage through unattended backpacks looking for food, passports and credit cards. (I still cannot figure out how the quotis can read the PIN numbers on the back.) One is also likely to see a few lizards and perhaps a toucan now and then. However, this is supposed to be the rain forest--home to hundreds of species bugs and birds and wildlife large and small, and there are just too many vacancies in the Iguaçu rainforest today.

You can see evidence of the silent rain forest by the absence of birds in the air and the absence of hawks floating above the birds. You can see it in the reduced number of heart-of-palm trees that need toucans and monkeys to spread their seeds. You can see it in the way the very few remaining big cats gather at the Sheraton Hotel garbage dump at night to scavenge for food because their natural prey like tapirs are long gone. Mostly, you can see it in the absence of monkeys.

Worst of all, the poverty of the local people makes the restocking of the park futile because of the economic temptation to poach the new arrivals. I guess even I would reluctantly agree that restocking Iguaçu Park with jaguars and pumas might not be the safest move. Millions of tourists walking through rainforest paths might then become the jaguar and puma equivalent of those moving sushi bars where you watch the passing show and pick off the piece you want to eat.

Now, I freely admit that I might be dead wrong about all of this. I apologize in advance if as soon as I left the rainforest, a million monkeys came out to play. I make no claims to have taken a scientific census of the animals of Iguaçu Park. However, my personal impressions were confirmed by many longtime residents of Iguaçu who have also seen the animals of Iguaçu vanish. They told me how they remembered seeing animals in their childhood that they do not see now and have not seen for years. They remember having to stay inside at dawn and dusk to avoid the jaguars. They remember miles of monkeys and tons of toucans, and they mourn the silent rain forest that surrounds them now.

Like a group of compliant conspirators, the guides and other tourist workers offer the same seemingly rehearsed answers to anyone who notices that there are no animals to be seen here. They say, "Seventy-five of the animals here are nocturnal." When asked why the other 25 percent are also invisible they say in creepy unison, "You just need to be lucky to see them." About this I have no doubt. To see animals in Iguaçu you need to be really lucky. I think the last jaguar of Iguaçu waiting for the evening garbage dump might also agree. You need to be lucky to live here and really lucky to survive here in the silent rain forest.