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Aerial Tram Offers Unique View of Tree Tops

by Sorrel Downer

You might be the most observant and intrepid person ever to set foot in a rain forest but while your feet are planted firmly in the mud you will see only a fraction of the plants and animals that call the forest home. While scientists invest millions of dollars into exploring space, virtually no one has ventured into the tropical canopy.

Jungle life begins in earnest 30 feet up in the lowest branches of a jungle canopy that can tower, tier upon tier, up to the height of an 11-story building.

"We have what might be the most complex community of life in the universe right here," says Dr. Donald Perry." The canopy represents the most accessible and least known habitat left on earth."

Perry has created a Rain Forest Aerial Tramway, the first of its kind in the world. Built in a 1,000 acre reserve of primary forest just beyond Braulio Carrillo National Park, the tramway is open to the public. Tourists can swing through the trees in the comfort of a cable car and experience the thrills of exploration and a strange, new world, just 50 minutes drive from San José.

Perry, who discovered the canopy by accident while rescuing a friend's hang glider, has spent years trying to get more people up there. His own preferred method in the early days was to winch himself up in a harness and his experiences, as told in "Life Above The Jungle Floor," go a long way in explaining the reluctance on the part of the scientific community to get involved in this particular area of research. His Automated Web however, built at Rara Avis, a remote Costa Rican reserve, proved popular with the public and won him the Rolex Award for Enterprise and the front cover of Scientific America Magazine in 1984.

The tram is the culmination of his work to date; more comfortable and more accessible. Research by one Smithsonian Institute scientist suggested there might be 20-30 million species living in the tropical treetops but to the inexperienced eye tropical tree tops mean leaves, and lots of them.

"You do need extensive training to understand the canopy" admits Perry, "but while I am a biologist I am also a popularizer. I am writing a guide and I am very confident I will be able to deliver to the public the best talk on nature that has been available to date in Costa Rica. The guide will help the tourist look at the forest as a mosaic of organisms not just as a mass of oppressive green. We'll point out the things we think are important to pull them in." This involves focusing primarily on the things we can eat.

"We'll show them the jungle avocado tree, vanilla, pineapples, and cacao as well as "houseplants" and wicker. I want to tell them about reforestation, about forest destruction, forest use and the origin of chewing gum and automobile tires. If they want to see and know more, they can go round again."

Birds and animals are plentiful in the reserve but, as Perry is keen to point out, spotting them will be incidental to the trip, the icing on the cake. The trip is about experiencing the jungle as a whole—smelling the leaves, feeling the steam, hearing birdsong and the drips of condensation, and wildlife is just a small part of the big picture.

"Some people will see monkeys, some will see river otters, tapirs, anteaters, pigs, coatis, trogons, hawks, great currassows or the snow capped hummingbird but it will never be the same. We're not a slideshow, we're the real thing. I have no sympathy for those who are addicted to seeing a specific animal at a specific time. That's a zoo.

More importantly, people will have the chance to see things they never knew existed; even some creatures, which as yet remain, unnamed. "We have on film a large moth, a big spider and a stick insect, a foot long with big long legs, which we can't identify," says Perry. The smallest jungle inhabitants hold a fascination for those who understand a little of the trials and tribulations of their life. Perry mentions a wasp that makes clear windows over its nest to protect it from rain while letting in light, frogs that climb trees to lay their eggs in the safety of the rainwater ponds formed in tank bromeliads, and a spider that used its air-filled sac as a float when caught in a flood.

"Africa has elephants which are very impressive animals that represent the large of the animal kingdom but in here in Costa Rica we have the large in terms of the diversity. We have the largest and most complex community of life on the planet."

Constructing the tram and the access road to it has taken a year and a half to complete. Building in a forest blessed by the 24 feet of rain a year needed to create this biodiversity has its problems. "It is slow work" says Perry, "all obstacles in a sense. You have to work with the jungle rather than fight it.

Two trails have been laid down at either end of the tramline and a gift shop, restroom and cabins are under construction. Further plans include educational areas complete with computer facilities and bulletin boards allowing scientists to describe ongoing projects that need observation and visitors to contribute.

"I see this as an educational institution. I don't see a tourist as really any different from a student except there's a lot more of them and they have more money.

Perry has had no support for his canopy work from the scientific community since winning the Rolex Award. The Rain Forest Aerial Tram has been financed by private investors who have bought a little over $2,000,000 worth of shares in the project.

"We're not philanthropists yet—maybe one day we'll be fortunate enough. Our investors are wealthy people with a strong interest in nature who want preservation to be a profitable business in order to encourage more of it around the world. They would like to make money at preservation through tourism because they know that the tourist is an economic force and the governments will listen and protect more nature because of them. We want more tourism in Costa Rica because we want to save more nature."

"We have plans to build more of these around the world" says Perry, "but we're not a replicating type animal. We're not going to bud off like Hydrazoa."

Perry's expected volume is 100 people over a 10-hour day. "That mean at any one time there will be ten people on the trail and, assuming they come in pairs, five cable cars occupied out of possible 20, strung 150 meters apart. The Aerial Tram not only combine profitability with preservation but offer people a chance of solitude and new experience within the mass tourist market.

"They will be virtually alone in the forest", says Perry, "and that is incredible."

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