By Mark Stratton
Last August, when researchers heralded the olinguito as the first new carnivore species discovered in the western hemisphere for 35 years, I imagined that seeing one would be impossible. After all, they’d eluded scientists for so long.
The nocturnal olinguito, which inhabits the Andean cloud forests of central Colombia and eastern Ecuador, is a little larger than a domestic cat, has a woolly coat and a teddy-bear face that prompted one spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institute research team to describe it as “cute”. But their discovery came about in a laboratory as a result of Kristofer Helgen, of the Smithsonian, testing the DNA of collected skins dating back several decades. It was assumed they were from smaller specimens of another Andean mammal, the olingo, but he found a distinct species.
When planning a trip to Ecuador, I contact Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge. To my surprise, I am told that olinguitos visit nightly to be fed bananas. This raises several questions: if it’s a regular visitor to a tourist lodge, why hadn’t zoologists noticed it, and exactly how did being partial to bananas fit its carnivorous billing?
After a two-hour drive north of Quito into the cloud forests of the Choco region, I begin to understand how a species may remain undetected here. The steeply impenetrable slopes are packed by billowing primeval forest in one of the most biologically diverse hot spots on Earth. The 70 species endemic to the Choco are the most recorded in any mainland area.
Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve stands at 2012m on a mountainous spur lost in a cloudy whiteout. Its owner, Richard Parsons, is a long way from home: England’s Derbyshire to be precise. He greets me with dry humour: “We’re called Bellavista because of the great views.” He came to Ecuador in 1982 to work as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos; then, with his Colombian wife, Gloria, he bought part of Bellavista’s current site in 1991 to stop its conversion to cattle pasture.
His lodge centres on a structure resembling a geodesic dome, with a restaurant and dormitory accommodation. I am housed in one of several small suites in a wooden building above the reception area, called the Trogon Cloud Lounge. I am soon in the main office reviewing camera-trap footage taken the previous evening from an observation deck jutting into the forest. To date three olinguitos have been recorded, and one had visited only the night before. Grainy images reveal a feline body and distinctive ursine facial features.
“We first noticed it in May last year a few months before the discovery of olinguitos was announced,” says Parsons. “They started turning up to take fruit and drink nectar from the hummingbird feeders. We assumed they were olingos or kinkajous (another local mammal) but noticed they didn’t have their prehensile tails. We started to believe we had something different on our hands and encouraged it by putting out bananas.”
Surely that makes it an omnivore or even a frugivore, I suggest? “Yes,” says Parsons, laughing. “Not quite the flesh-eating creature the media portrayed when it was discovered.” At 7pm I hunker down on the observation platform with my camera and a warming cup of Ecuadorian canelazo, made from naranjilla (a local orange) and cinnamon, spiked with cane spirit.
Two hours pass. Nothing. The only movement is from swirling pea-souper mists and occasional crashing boughs. David Pinto, one of Bellavista’s guides, joins me. “From May to September they came every night around 7pm,” he says. “But since October’s winter rains, the olinguitos are more irregular in their visits.” By midnight, my eyes are perceiving luminous dots of lichen as eyespots. I retire, defeated.
The wildlife is more forthcoming the next day. I watch scarlet-headed cock-of-the-rock birds wooing females with manic dances while the high-altitude plate-billed mountain toucan displays its multi-coloured assets, and Bellavista’s hummingbirds provide pure theatre. Later, I return to the viewing platform. I hope the clear, crisp evening will be more to the olinguito’s liking.
I don’t have to wait long. At 7.45pm a rustling is followed by the appearance of a white-tipped tail protruding from the canopy. Soon after, a dainty creature shins down a tree-trunk headfirst, a few feet from me, and purloins several banana chunks. In the half-light, I see the olinguito’s slender cat-like form and long tail, with its fuzzy, brownish coat. It happens quickly — just allowing me to shoot a few photographs, then hurry to the main office to have my sighting verified.
Forty-five minutes later, the banana-scoffing male returns, squatting briefly before me on all fours and staring right down my lens. And yes, the only word that comes to mind is cute. Parsons appears on the balcony to share my euphoria. “It’s the jewel in our crown,” he says. “It’s a big animal to have been overlooked for so many years.”
Credit: The Australian, www.theaustralian.com.au; Photo credit: A olinguito in the wilds of Northern Ecuador; An oberservation center in the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve.