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EDUCATION and COMMUNICATION

The El Triunfo RAVE:


Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition
BY JAIME ROJO

I
n April 2007, a group of five well-known conservation working to create awareness and
photographers and a crew of camera people, writers, preserve the last wild places of
and technical assistants undertook a photographic Mexico. During many years,
expedition to the cloud forests of El Triunfo Biosphere Patricio had tried with some suc-
Reserve, in the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, Mexico. The cess to create a team of
objective was to raise the awareness of society on this photographers that would work
endangered ecosystem and to support with their images in an area to obtain enough
and commitment the activities of the El Triunfo images to achieve a successful
Conservation Fund, a local NGO that works to preserve communication campaign, and
the last remnants of these forests in Mexico. this background led to what was Jaime Rojo Fulvio Eccardi
It began as a casual trip to photograph the nesting to be a totally different concept of
season of the quetzal, a highly valued, well-known bird in a conservation photography expedition.
the El Triunfo forests. Mexican conservationist and pho- Patricio invited Fulvio Eccardi and Florian Schulz to
tographer Patricio Robles Gil and his colleagues and join the expedition. Fulvio is an Italian born photographer
friends Jack DykingaPulitzer prize winner and one of and current vice president of El Triunfo Conservation Fund,
the worlds masters in large format landscape photog- whose images of the quetzals and the cloud forests in El
raphyand Tom Mangelsenone of the most respected Triunfo had helped to designate it as a Biosphere Reserve.
and acknowledged nature photographershad been Florian is a young and committed German photographer
longing to do a trip together in Mexico with a conservation with interest in working on a conservation project in
approach. El Triunfo cloud forests are a silent wilderness Mexico. As the project grew bigger, writers, technical assis-
crowned with staggering trees of more than 200 feet (61 tants, a doctor, and two camera people joined the group.
m) and home of the last populations of the quetzal in Patricio discussed the expedition idea with Cristina
Mexico. These forests had captivated Patricio in the past, Mittermeier, who is director of the International League of
so he proposed to his colleagues that they take a trip to the Conservation Photographers (ILCP), a federation of top
area. The El Triunfo trip rapidly began to grow into some- conservation photographers who have demonstrated the
thing of greater importance, as often happens when you highest skills in photography, outstanding ethical stan-
combine passion with commitment. dards, and a sustained commitment to conservation.
Two factors were at work. Patricio was inspired by the Cristina was excited about the idea and endorsed the
Rapid Assessment Program concept of Conservation project as a formal expedition of the ILCP. Together, they
International, in which a group of very specialized scien- named the expedition concept a Rapid Assessment Visual
tists travel to a region to develop a thorough baseline Expedition and that gave it a compelling acronym: RAVE.
inventory of biodiversity. At the same time, he was frus- RAVE is a new concept in conservation marketing, an
trated by the scarcity of nature photographs in Mexico. innovative communication tool created to respond to the
Patricio is founder of Agrupacin Sierra Madre and Unidos pressing needs of modern conservationists in their quest to
para la Conservacion, two Mexican conservation NGOs protect Earths last natural values and wild places. The goal

APRIL 2008 VOLUME 14, NUMBER 1 International Journal of Wilderness 33


This cloud cascade symbolizes the key role of El Triunfo cloud forests in water absorption and climate regulation in a region in which many villages in the lower valleys depend
on the survival of this forests for their water supply. Fulvio Eccardi

is to develop a fast and attractive scape, wildlife, macro), writers, and Mexico. This humid, cold, and quiet
communication campaign to raise the camera people. ecosystem is the domain of organisms
awareness of society about a specific El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in whose origins date back to a remote
region under serious threat. RAVE the southern Sierra Madre of Chiapas geological past. El Triunfo is one of
aims to achieve a full visual and was the perfect environment to host the last biological refuges in Mexico
media assessment of an area in a the first RAVE. Almost 255,000 acres and provides shelter to numerous
short period of time by means of a (103,240 ha) in extent, El Triunfo is endemic species that had evolved
multidisciplinary team that includes one of the biggest and better pre- separately from other members of
specialized photographers (land- served extensions of cloud forest in their families. Centennial oaks and
Mesoamerica, an ecosystem liquidambars covered in bromeliads
highly threatened at a and mosses are surrounded by scat-
global scale, as its original tered patches of ancient tree ferns,
extension has been reduced which give these mountains a prehis-
by 60% in the last decades. toric mood. It is home to a large
The breathtaking moun- biodiversity that includes 24% of the
tains of El Triunfo are animal species registered in Mexico.
reported to have one of the El Triunfo is a key region for migra-
largest diversities of tree tory birds, a priority international
species in North and conservation site, and the domain of
Central American forests the elusive horned guanan
1
The hard, sinuous and humid hike to the camp took 6 /2 hours with 16 mules and to be one of the largest endemic, turkeylike bird of the high-
carrying 55 bags of equipment and supplies. Patricio Robles Gil areas of forests remaining in lands of Mesoamerican hotspot, and

34 International Journal of Wilderness APRIL 2008 VOLUME 14, NUMBER 1


the only surviving species of a very
ancient lineage that dates back to
possibly as much as 40 million years.
It is also home for one of the last
remaining populations of resplendent
quetzalssacred bird of the Mayas
and described by ornithologist and
artist Roger Tory Peterson as the most
beautiful bird on the Americas.
In addition to the biological
diversity that makes El Triunfo a spe-
cial place, these cloud forests provide
important ecosystem services. As one
of Mexicos rainiest regionswith
more than 250 days of rain every
yearEl Triunfo is the origin of
many of the streams that irrigate the The Godmans Montane Pitviper (Cerrophidion godmani ) belongs to a group of snakes in Central America which
inhabit the cold and humid forests of the mountain areas. Florian Schulz
coast and heartland of the state of
Chiapas and adjacent states such as
Tabasco. The thick vegetative cover plantations have been sustained, Hurricane Stan hit the region in
prevents water runoff, soil erosion, thanks to conservation programs 2005, floods ravaged the mountain-
and landslides. The rainfall in El encouraged by the Mexican govern- sides that were unable to retain water
Triunfo sustains arable farming and ment and alliances between due to illegal deforestation, and then
cattle breeding that are downstream corporations and NGOs, as is the case soil sediments filled hydroelectrical
and contributes to the generation of with Conservation International and dam impoundments and washed
hydroelectric power in the country. Starbucks. Such programs encourage away numerous roads and railways.
The Grijalva River basin, fed by rain- local owners to maintain traditional Even after this disaster, unregulated
water draining off the reserves and more sustainable shade-grown land development and illegal logging
hillsides, powers four hydroelectric coffee plantations that need shade pro-
facilities that generate 40% of the duced by the forest canopy to grow.
countrys hydroelectric power, or The programs provide an opportunity
1.4% of the total electricity produced for economic development, while pre-
in Mexico. serving the habitat for many migratory
El Triunfo plays a major role in the birds of the Americas.
socioeconomic development of the However, these magnificent
region. It is one of the few places where cloud forests face severe environ-
traditional organic shade-grown coffee mental threats such as fires,
hurricanes, tropical storms, illegal
RAVE aims to achieve logging, land use changes for agricul-
ture and cattle, and plans to develop
a full visual and a new road that would traverse the
media assessment of region and fragment this valuable,
wilderness ecosystem. Unfortunately,
an area in a short many people, including high-ranking
period of time by government executives in Mexico, do
not recognize the relationship that a The Horned guan (Oreophasis derbianus) is among the
means of a healthy ecosystem has with mini-
most extravagant bird species of this Mesoamerican
hotspot. This turkey-like endemic bird is considered the
multidisciplinary team. mizing or preventing some natural descendent of an ancient lineage of cracids that goes
disasters. For example, when back to 40 million years ago. Patricio Robles Gil

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hours in a cattle truck until, we
reached Finca Prusia, where a group
of 16 mules was waiting to help us
carry the 55 bags of equipment and
supplies. It took six hours to climb
the steep and strenuous trail to El
Triunfo campground. Once there, the
working dynamic of the expedition
was almost flawless. The photogra-
phers would depart early in the
morning and spend all day working.
Patricio assumed leadership and
coordinated the different objectives
necessary to obtain a full visual
assessment of the area. The team even
met with the coffee workers of the
nearby ejidos (communal lands), to
El Triunfo is considered amongst the most diverse forest of all North and Central America. It has almost 2,300 plant species document the struggle of a commu-
including some of the tallest trees in Mexico such as elms, oaks and liquidambars, and some isolated cedar patches in areas nity that loves the forest and
of the Pacific slope. Jaime Rojo
sacrifices a better quality of life to
is still common practice in the region. servation International, Unidos para la sustain the resource for future gener-
The need for a conservation cam- Conservacion, and Reforestamos ations. After two weeks of work the
paign in El Triunfo was even more Mexico. Reforestamos is a newcomer expedition headed back to Tuxtla
compelling under the light of these on the Mexican conservation agenda Gutierrez, where a press conference
threats, so the RAVE team started to and the environmental philanthropic was held at the Natural History
work. The international recognition of branch of Grupo Bimboone of the Museum.
El Triunfo and critical threats to it biggest bakery corporations in the A major turning point in a career
attracted the participation of impor- world. It works to preserve and of a nature photographer is centered
tant conservation institutions. A recover forested areas in Mexico and around personal commitment. Al-
fund-raising campaign was initiated, promote a forestry-related rural culture. though it is always nice to photograph
and soon the partners and supporters The federal and local governments in wild nature, it is through the
for the expedition were consolidated. Mexico supported the expedition subsequent campaign actions that con-
Funding, both financial and in-kind, hosting and providing transportation servation photographers are born. This
was obtained through different for the participants, helped to coordi- was why the ILCP endorsed this
sources. Direct financial support came nate the necessary permits to work expedition, because all of the photog-
from organizations such as the and camp in the protected area, and raphers involved had already
National Geographic Society, Con- set up some blinds to photograph the demonstrated their commitment to
elusive quetzal in its nest. conservation in addition to their art.
The final group of 13 The results of the trip include roughly
people, including the five 30,000 photos and 30 hours of video
photographers, two camera that are being used to develop a
people, three writers, two strategic international campaign to
technical assistants, and a raise the awareness about the conser-
doctor, met in Tuxtla vation needs of El Triunfo. Several
Gutierrez on the morning of articles have been published in maga-
April 1, 2007. the trip started zines in Mexico, the United States, and
with a three-hour drive to Spain, and several more are being
From left to right: Florian Schulz, Jack Dykinga, Patricio Robles Gil, Tom Jaltenangothe last major scheduled. A large format calendar has
Mangelsen and Fulvio Eccardi, the first RAVE team. Patricio Robles Gil village in the areaplus four been produced, and it is already being

36 International Journal of Wilderness APRIL 2008 VOLUME 14, NUMBER 1


sold around the United States and in
Mexico. A short TV documentary was
edited and launched at the Jackson
Beneath Waves of Fog
Hole Film Festival. The first fund-
raising event, organized in Tuxtla
When the Mountain Speaks
Gutierrez by Fulvio Eccardi in late From the diary of Mara Jos Cruz-Guerrero de la Concha,
October 2007, raised nearly a writer on the first RAVE
US$500,000 for El Triunfo. All these
conservation efforts are being chan- I started my way up the dense rites: identifying each detail and
neled through the El Triunfo mountain guarded by young and finding the extraordinary in the
Conservation Fund (www.fondoeltri- old trees well protected by a thick obvious; spending days hidden,
unfo.org), a local nonprofit institution. mushy layer of recently fallen motionless inside a blind or
This fund was established in 2002 and leaves. The growing blend of the strolling in silence through the
partially financed by the Packard silence in human voice and the forest and pausing to blend with
Foundation to provide the reserve with subtle sound of our boots touching the background for a while in those
the financial resources necessary for fertile soil was beginning to reach spots that seem promising.
projects and basic operational my soul; as the climbing got steeper
expenses and, ultimately, to ensure the and my nonathletic heart pounded
long-term conservation of the area. faster, more intense was my immer-
Among all of these results, one On a personal level, El Triunfo
sion into that new dimension where
has acquired a larger meaning. The RAVE is a call to abandon any pro-
the eccentricities of urban life had
first RAVE was a success for the pho- fessional option that does not
no sense at all. I knew it would take
tographers and for the conservation contribute to the reconstruction of
us at least five to seven hours to get
of El Triunfo. The RAVE is a new tool the Earth. Memories of the cloud
to the camp: also, I was full aware
for conserving wild nature, a model forest wild will also stay with me:
of my scarce physical condition.
that can be replicated elsewhere on fleas, ticks, and way too many mos-
Nevertheless the excitement within
the planet and already is being quitoes. I am very fortunate: many
me surpassed any weariness. It was
used. The second RAVE took place in conversations we had during the
a privilege to immerse myself into
mid-September in Balandra Bay, Baja trip became a turning point in my
this mystical cloud forest, hopeful
California, and helped to prevent the life; deep experiences that usually
of witnessing the quetzals flight or
land development of a wilderness come once a year were an everyday
the jaguars roar
along the Gulf of California. More activity on this trip; my soul was
RAVEs are already being planned by healed and mental boundaries were
Patricio and the ILCP (www.ilcp. erased; I was able to fully sense, a
The El Triunfo RAVE symbolizes a
com/Projects/RAVE.htm). A new rev- talent so basic but so easy to
diverse picture, including not only
olution has started in the field of oversee living in a metropolis such
flora and fauna but also a human
nature photographya new conser- as Mexico City.
sense. These photographers gave a
vation opportunity. IJW special touch to this trip, all of

them being unusual people who
JAIME ROJO honed his photography have allowed themselves to be car- Now I question myself: What
skills in Mexico with Patricio Robles Gil, ried away by lifes peculiarities, would happen if these spaces did
the acclaimed Mexican conservation making every experience they have not exist? How would we find our-
photographer. Jaime was director of con- an incredible narrative of absolute selves? Surely, our spirit would
servation programs for Agrupacon yet unusual facts. slowly die, in absolute loneliness
Sierra Madre, a conservation organiza-
and covered in deep longing,
tion founded by Patricio, and is now the
searching constantly to return to
executive director for WILD 9the 9th
Nature photography is an art the wilderness that once existed in
World Wilderness Congressthat will
and a science, blending different abundance.
convene in Mexico in 2009.

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