El Yunque towers at the northeastern edge of Puerto Rico. The summit rises at 3,494 feet and gradually reclines to the sandy coasts that embrace the whole island. From afar, the Luquillo mountain range, of which El Yunque is a part of, is a hazy blue, a crest of a Caribbean terrestrial wave shaped by time. Patches of green fill the ridges that scar the sides of the mountain. When the rain comes, white rivulets form on these small valleys, nourishing an oasis of endemic plants that include Crescentia cujete or the calabash plant.
Sands from the Sahara sometimes blanket the cordilleras. These windblown desert dusts from Africa roll toward the Atlantic covering most of the island in a fog of whiteness. When this happens, everything is opaque: even the sun loses its luster, a gigantic egg hanging in the skies, beautiful like opal, resting above the silhouette of El Yunque.
Kathryn Robinson, author of where dwarfs reign: a tropical rainforest in Puerto Rico, explains that the Luquillo range is a remnant of an ancient supervolcano, Hato Puerco. This volcano was “one of the region’s largest and most active volcanic centers during the Cretaceous period.” Paraphrasing a pioneering geologist, Robinson explains:
The early volcanic activity, followed by a period of colossal bending, produced the mountains. Their stubborn resistance to erosion, “giving silent testimony to the ancient majesty of the ranges from which they had been carved,” enabled them to endure. To Myerhoff, Luquillo is a true monadnock, an isolated mountain remaining from ancient topography that rises above the more level, eroded land around it.
What once was smoldering lava has been transformed into a verdant spot in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Eons of weathering and the corresponding dispersal of soil macronutrients have left El Yunque very fertile. This area is home to 150 native fern species, 240 tree species, an assortment of endemic animals, including the critically-endangered Puerto Rican parrot. The rich biodiversity of the area prompted locals to call this range as “el pulmon de Puerto Rico” or the lung of Puerto Rico. The Tainos, pre-Columban inhabitants of the island, also believed that El Yunque is the home of the god, Yakiyuyu.
El Yunque’s biodiversity however is under threat. Using endemic frogs as biodiversity indicators, researchers have noticed a steady decline of Puerto Rican frogs in the area. In 1993, S. Blair Hedges (1993) said that two of the native Eleutherodactylus have not been seen in recent years. S. Blair remarked:
In the case of E. karlschmidti, known localities where the species occurred abundantly in the 1960s and 1970s have been searched repeatedly during the last decade by myself and other herpetologists and no evidence of this species has been found. The disappearance of E. karlschmidti has no obvious explanation. Some of the localities are in protected and unaltered forest (Caribbean National Forest) on El Yunque. However, rats and mongooses, which were introduced, are abundant in Puerto Rico and occur in undisturbed forest. Black Rats (Rattus rattus) especially are a problem in Caribbean National Forest where they are very common, even in the dwarf forest on El Yunque Peak. It is possible that these arboreal nocturnal omnivores prey on Eleutherodactylus eggs or the frogs themselves. The mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus), although primarily diurnal, is known to prey on frogs (Walker, 1975; Nellis and Everard, 1983) and this particular species of frog would be especially vulnerable because it characteristically sits on exposed rocks in and around streams.
A follow-up study by Burrows et al (2003) supported the earlier research. They recorded that three Eleutherodactylus frog species are already presumed extinct and eight populations of six different species of these endemic frogs are significantly declining at elevations above 400 m. While Burrows et al are not discounting the impact of invasive species on frog populations, they maintain that climate change and the spread of a chytrid fungi may have been responsible for the steady decline. They said that “possible synergistic interaction between drought and the pathological effect of the chytrid fungus on amphibian populations” could explain the population decreases.
Visits to nature parks always elicit a certain ambivalence in me: that the urge to discover might also be intrusive. The short treks on muddy paths to reach a peak or visit a waterfall are voyages of discovery and understanding. This is our way of seeking connections to the primal and the natural in these times when modernity drives a wedge between our lifestyle and the natural world. But do we in the process change the very environment that we wish to visit, know, and conserve? Is mere human presence enough to have a ramifying impact on other species’ habitats?
There is indeed a need to critically reflect our relationship with the natural world. After all, inscribed in the oral traditions of many cultures indicate that mountains are ancient sources of wisdom. In the Philippines for example, healers (tambalan) go for long treks and settle in caves in search of spirit guides. They would stay long and converse with the spirits and sometimes come out with greying beards and hair. Now endowed with the wisdom of the forest, they would embark in a journey of healing and divination, moving from one barrio to the next to impart the knowledges they learned. For these healers, the forests are not just a collection of plants and animals but are sites of wisdom and contemplation.
Perhaps this renewed sense of awe (coupled with an intimate ecological understanding) at mountains and its environs will be helpful in preserving and conserving El Yunque’s biodiversity.
EL Yunque pictures