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Into the Forest: Nicaragua's Selva Negra
by Ronda Green (rondag@plato.ens.gu.edu.au)

May 1996

The forests of many of the more accessible slopes of the Nicaraguan highlands have been cleared at some stage for various reasons. The forests now have a hard time regenerating because the local people have a constant need of firewood for warmth at night and for cooking. Hence many of the hills even where not being used for agriculture are covered in low secondary growth.

As a zoologist studying wildlife of Australian subtropical rainforests, I was keen to visit the forests of Nicaragua while visiting the country for a few days, and did not have the time available to visit the extensive forests of the Carribean slopes and lowlands. It was hard to gather information in Australia as to alternate areas to visit - the travel agencies just kept telling me I shouldn't go to countries like that in case of political conflicts etc.

After zeroing in on the Selva Negra Hotel, which I read about in Central America on a Shoestring (a Lonely Planet book) I had one or two moments of wondering whether the agents were right.

The book spoke of the forest adjacent to the hotel (which can be reached by northward-bound buses from Matagalpa, itself well-served by buses from the capital), and the abundant wildlife and many walking trails. Perfecto! I had also made contact with an Australian environmental scientist, Peter Devereux, working at FACS (Fundacion de A. C. Sandino) on forest regeneration, and he kindly offered me accommodation in Managua with himself and wife and two young boys and to accompany me in a hired vehicle to Selva Negra as well as to various FACS projects in the highlands.

Two weeks before my flight to LA and Managua (mid 1993), my husband and I saw (in Brisbane) a very brief news item claiming that there was renewed conflict between ex-Contras and Sandinistas and a new civil war was about to break out (such terms as 'possible bloodbath' didn't help my husband's attitude towards my travels). I tried to ring Selva Negra for local advice on the situation: on 61 3883 (the number I was advised bythe international exchange) but kept getting a strange signal. When I rang the Exchange back for help, I heard my receptionist discussing my problem with a co-worker and being told "she won't get through to Nicaragua, there's a bloody war going on there!" This didn't help my nerves much, but a moment later she continued "didn't you see the news last night?" - so I decided she probably didn't have any further information than I did. I finally got through to the American embassy (Australia doesn't have one in Nicaragua) and later to Peter's wife, and was told by both that the situation had been exaggerated by the press.

Into the Selva Negra

Once there, we found the predictions of civil war had been exaggerated. The hotel at Selva Negra has comfortable cabins and an attractive restaurant balcony (and great food) beside a lovely small lake at the edge of the forest.

Trails with names such as Sendero Mono ( Monkey Trail) or Sendero Indiana Jones (!) wind through attractive and lush forests which seemed amazingly familiar to me, given that I'd never visited tropical America before.

The whole structure of the forest, the native figs, the lichen-dappled bark and many of the trees and understorey plants had a familiar look to them. I had visited forest restoration sites near Jinotega earlier in the day and seen cobbler's pegs, Sida, 'Wandering Jew', Ageratum and other weeds around the young trees which seemed to be the same species I'm forever pulling up around young trees I plant in the highlands of southeastern Queensland.

Now in the forest at Selva Negra there even seemed to be stinging trees - a tree in the nettle family with large roundish painful leaves and a fluted trunk. It had dropped some fruit to the ground which I carefully tasted - yes, it had the texture and taste of Australian stinging trees. If it had not been so early in my six-week travels, understorey were large leaves of what looked like what we call (in Australia) Cunjevoi or Elephant-ears - leaves whose juice is supposed to relieve the pain of the stingingtree and which somehow always seem to be growing in the vicinity.

Another Australian plant common to regrowth areas of rainforest is the bleeding heart (Omalanthus), and again I saw a plant very much like it in general form, leaf and flower. I was unable to find out while in Nicaragaua or from looking through information on Central American botany since then whether anything in the same or a related genus occurs naturally there, whether there are unrelated Nicaraguan species that happen to look amazingly like some of ours or whether some have been introduced from Australia and gone wild in places (I did see Australian eucalypts, acacias and Melia azaderach planted - rather inappropriately I thought - in a regeneration area nar Jionotega).

The bromeliads festooning branches everywhere (and telegraph wires in the villages) reminded me I really had crossed the Pacific, as did some of the colourful butterflies, large banana-like leaves and strange bird calls. When we returned from a forest walk and saw in cages some of the local wildlife we had not been fortunate enough to see along the trails the difference was even more obvious - walking through the forests at home I would be pretty astounded to come across macaws and spider monkeys! Apparently the monkeys are often seen and heard along Sendero Mono, but we regrettably only had one night to stay at Selva Negra. Although the forest patch is quite a small one I would have loved to spend several days just walking and sitting and waiting for wildlife and enjoying the forest in general.

One aspect of the forest I didn't enjoy quite so much - and which also reminded me very much of the forests at home - was finding a tick that night with its head buried in my waist. I pulled it out - except for the head. Australian ticks often kill dogs, and that has VERY occasionally been known to happen to humans as well. The sharpest instrument I could borrow was a pocket knife and I spent a few fruitless minutes trying to dig it out, then smothered it with hydrogen peroxide (H2O2, which I carry as antiseptic and for tooth-brushing in areas where local water can be doubtful) hoping it would oxidise anything still in the head, but spent some time that night lying in bed wondering what toxins or diseases are carried by Nicaraguan ticks. Perhaps the H2O2 worked, or perhaps the tick was quite harmless - whatever the case, I had no further effects.

Don't let the tick put you off - they can be avoided easily enough by smearing some insecticide around gaps in your clothing or directly on skin, and can ususally be pulled off pretty easily (preferably after killing with insecticide or kerosine) if you inspect yourself soon after a walk.

Since my return to Australia I've met Nicaraguans who lived in the capital but used to travel up to Selva Negra when they could for a weekend away from town. Although we travelled by hiring a vehicle it can be easily reached by public buses going through the Matagalpa district.

For a quick introduction to Central American highland forest on limited time and budget, Selva Negra is a great value.

Dr. Ronda J. Green
Environmental Sciences, Griffith University
Nathan, Qld 4111 Australia
Ph 07 3875 6680 (international: 61 7 3875 6680)
Fax 07 3875 7459 (international: 61 7 3875 7459)
Email: rondag@plato.ens.gu.edu.au

 

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