Discovering the RAINFOREST: One hundred feet above the jungle floor

By Kevin Simmons –

The canopy stretches in all directions as far as the eye can see. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves to life in waves, and a shifting light peeks through to illuminate thousands of subtle shades within. The meditative swaying transfixes, one of those moments where time slows and the air is undeniably magically charged.

This is what is it like 100 feet above the jungle floor at the top of the Rainforest Discovery Center’s Observation Tower in Soberania National Park, just 30 minutes outside of Panama City. This treetop world is usually reserved for biologists with scientific equipment and a considerable degree of courage. But, in January of 2008, the Eugene Eisenmann Avifauna Foundation introduced the Rainforest Discovery Center and a unique ecotourism and educational experience.

Named to honor Panamanian ornithologist Eugene Eisenmann, the Avifauna Foundation’s primary mission is to protect the birds of Panama and their habitat with a commitment to conservation through sustainable tourism. Situated on a 50 acres within the national park at the entrance to the Pipeline Road, the Rainforest Discovery Center offers nature lovers an extensive network of guided trails, a lake for kayaking and canoeing and a visitor’s center with a small gift shop and cafeteria. Additional educational exhibits are scheduled to open  next year.

Conceptualized by Patrick Dillon, the lead Panamanian architect for Panama’s Museum of Biodiversity, the design plays with height and proportion to create a stunning example of expansiveness, ambition and restraint. The center is energy self-sufficient with solar panels and a rainwater collection system from the roof. Much of the  materials used to build the structures were recycled from old houses in the Canal area.

The tour begins at the visitor center, built in a small jungle clearing. Out on the breezy balcony, the rapid-fire patter of wings is mesmerizing. Hummingbirds of all shapes, size and color surround the half dozen feeders perched on the recovered-wood railings. Sunlight glints off iridescent plumages of orange, violet, aquamarine, deep red and celadon shine. Some of the beaks are perfectly arced while others angle sharply like carnival masks. Others still are perfectly straight and seem to be three times as long as the birds’ fragile bodies. There are 59 known species of hummingbird in Panamá, one of the knowledgeable guides says.

Just down a gravel pathway is the 100- foot observation tower. A 174-step staircase spirals up the iron structure into the forest, with resting and observation platforms every 25 feet, providing a rare view into the forest habitat. Each altitudinal level is home to a distinct variety of plants and animals, many of which spend their entire life cycles without ever stepping outside their level. In some cases, a species’ home may be as small as a pool of water gathered inside the leaves of a bromeliad.

The variations in humidity, precipitation, and solar radiation at different heights create unique environmental conditions. At the topmost layer of the forest, plants and animals must be highly resistant to extreme variations in weather conditions, including cold nights, intense daytime heat, and violent rainstorms. At these altitudes, canopy-dwelling creatures such as toucans also often display brighter colors to arouse the attention of potential mates.

Through an alliance between the AviFauna Foundation and the University of Panama, each level of the tower will soon have its own small meteorological station to measure and display these weather conditions. And, far above the tower are the data points to monitor and count the approximately 300,000 birds of prey that fly over the tower every year. Tagging select birds helps to assess the health of the forests, the stability of  their migration patterns and the continuity of the population.

Other Avifauna projects include an educational program designed for school children, ages 12 to 18, and working with the Panamanian Association for Sustainable Tourism on a certification program to train naturalist guides, the first of its kind in Panama. The inaugural course will begin in May and will involve more than 400 hours of training.

“We are developing a complete curriculum, using teachers from the United States as well as Panama,” says Beatriz Schmitt, the Executive Director of the Avifauna Foundation. “It will be very intensive, and provide certification and skills that will be recognized internationally.”

The organization is also consulting with private reserves, including one in Coronado, to design and create trail systems and educational displays that will connect residents to their natural environment.

At Soberania, back on the jungle floor, the apricot light of late afternoon reflects off the lake’s glassy surface. Far below the riotous abundance of  life of the Panamanian rainforest, stillness reigns supreme, broken only by the leaves that periodically helicopter down from above.

Hours: Everyday from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. except Christmas and New Year

Entrance Fees:
Between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., $20 (foreigners) and $10 (residents)
Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., $10 (foreigners) and $5 (residents)

Tel: +507 264 6266 and 264 6267
Email: reservas@avifauna.org.pa
Website: www.pipelineroad.org

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