Day 1 - Welcome to the Land of the High Mountains


Ayiti means the land of the high mountains; at 8,793 feet (2,680 meters) above sea level, Pic la Selle, which is the tallest peak in Haiti along with Pic Macaya and Morne Kadeneau, which rise to above 7,000 ft, many mountains here are taller than Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the Appalachians. The name comes from the Arawak language of the Taíno natives that once lived in the Caribbean islands, and was the name given to the western part of the island of Quisqueya, the second biggest island in the Caribbean. Once the Spanish arrived in 1492 they called the island Hispaniola. The western part, Haiti, still bears its ancient name. Haiti, however, is a land of contrast, and not only because of its topography. Most people here are extremely poor; yet everybody seems extremely happy. Most of the land is heavily deforested; yet whatever little forest remains is lush with an impressive biodiversity rich in unique species found nowhere else in the world.

A destroyed riverbed near Port-au-Prince carries dirt and debris, a sign of the extreme habitat destruction that occurs up in the mountains. These rivers are no longer functional ecosystems, nor do they provide the countryside with usable water for irrigation, much less drinking.
Port Au Prince
A bay just north of Port-au-Prince. The lack of urban planning and unchecked deforestation increases the erosion of soils. This in turn causes most of the topsoil to wash off when it rains and end up in the Caribbean, slowly choking the marine wildlife.
The level of destruction because of the earthquake is still visible two and a half years later. At the end you can see how an otherwise fertile valley is used for housing and can also see the deforested mountains.
A pair of peacocks are sold at a street market that also sells geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits, other farm animals and illegal native wildlife like Hispaniola parakeets, seen in a small white cage in behind the peacocks. This shows the contrast between people that may only have enough money for a chicken or two and people who may just simply buy illegal wildlife, native or exotic, off the street.

On Monday, October 1st, I embarked on my third trip to this magical nation, which shares the western half of the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, Ayiti, as it was once known is full of mysteries and secrets. I am off to begin a two-year conservation and education project in both countries that is the formal beginning with what will hopefully be a long and dedicated collaboration with interested stakeholders in an effort to tackle the biodiversity crisis in the island, but specially in Haiti. I took the bus up from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to Penn Station in New York City and then took the train to John F. Kennedy International Airport so I could fly down to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. It turns out all flights that leave from Philadelphia to Port-au-Prince have to fly north to either New York City or Newark before heading south to the Caribbean, so I decided to reduce my carbon footprint and take the bus. The flight was pleasant, but as soon as you approach land, the reality of the country becomes evident. You see row upon row of destroyed houses amidst the cement rubble and blue tarps that are still there as a scar that continues to bleed from the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Haiti hasn’t recovered from that yet. Another thing that becomes evident very fast is the high level of deforestation and habitat degradation across the board, which is why almost all frog species in the country are in risk of extinction. From the plane you can see the typical Caribbean shoreline of pale blue shallow waters rimed by white sands, but here that sight has an additional hue of yellow and brown near the surf and especially among the delta of rivers. That hue is not sand, but all the silt and sediment that washes off from the mountains into the rivers after even the smallest of rains and ends up as suspended particles in the ocean choking out the oxygen and light and thus killing off coral reefs and marine wildlife.

I arrived in Port-au-Prince at an airport that is still under reconstruction from the earthquake. As soon as you exit the plane, you walk through a newly remodeled hall down to the tarmac and hop on an internal bus that drops you off at the old customs and immigration post that looks more like a hangar than anything else. Then, as if the slap of 90ºF and 100% humidity wasn’t enough of a hint you are in the tropics, a welcoming band playing traditional Haitian music reminds you where you are, a tropical Caribbean Island that longs to be a paradise once again.
After a smooth ride through Haitian customs I picked my bag and met with Joel Timyan at the airport entrance. We quickly head off through busy Port-au-Prince and up the mountain to a meeting with Arnaud Dupuy in Petion-ville. Driving through Port-au-Prince is a truly unique experience; the road is filled with pedestrians, potholes, street vendors, unruly drivers and all sorts of adventures. Slowly we crept up from the stuffy mid-day traffic downtown, to the cooler upland suburb of Petion-ville, where most of the hotels are located.

Both Joel and Arnaud are members of Societé Audubon Haiti, our partner institution that works with the conservation of biodiversity in the country. I met Joel two years ago on my first visit to the island and I just met Arnaud last week at the Philadelphia Zoo during our ‘Summit on the Conservation Strategy of Haitian Frog’, where we invited a Haitian delegation of key stakeholders to set all of the groundwork for amphibian conservation work in the next two years in Haiti.

A lot was discussed during the meeting. We touch on every topic from the recent meeting we had in Philadelphia and the captive colony, to the problem with charcoal and Haiti’s dependency on foreign aid and non-government institutions. We organized our budget for the next two years and planned my time in Haiti and devised a schedule of events that included a meeting with the Agency of Protected Natural Areas. I am looking forward to that meeting, where a lot will be discussed with regards to the future of the remaining forests in Haiti and how to draft a nation-wide reforestation plan.