The World of Wonder: Central America

Ali Wunderman goes neotropical

June 23, 2016


I've wanted to see a resplendent quetzal in person ever since I first heard of the bird and used it to dominate my fellow classmates in the alphabet game. When that "Q" rolled around, you knew I was ready. 

Then came a need to see the jaguarundi, not as desirable for its ability to help me in childhood games, but more as a tool for my childishness, the "undi" part almost phonologically identical to "undies." It made me giggle then as it does now.

The harpy eagle followed when I was given a book about strange animals, so there was no stopping my book-based exploration. Quickly came the silky anteater, then red-eyed tree frogs, poison arrow dart frogs, coral snakes, ocelots, and the list grew and grew and grew until at ten years old I demanded my father take me to the jungle so I could witness the beasts that fascinated me to my core. I was fortunate enough to have my father fulfill this wish of mine, so in 2000, after Y2K showed exactly zero negative consequences, he, my sister, and I took a red eye to Costa Rica. 

Tropical rainforests are home to 50% of the world's life, despite covering less than 7% of the planet's surface. Suffice it to say 10 year old me couldn't take a step without encountering some new creature, creatures which hadn't yet made it into the small animal-themed library I had collected at home. It was in Costa Rica's rainforests I learned the term "naturalist," and knew I wanted to be one.

It's been 16 years since the world opened up for me, and now I'm back in Central America ready to share what I see with a proper camera and a platform - The Naturalist. 

My interest in the animal world has only strengthened since my youth, but the conversation has changed. As kids, animals are presented as points of interest in things like ZooBooks and Ranger Rick Magazine, as delightful in their humanity as in their unique animal characteristics. Their names, their stripes, their paw prints, what they eat and who eats them - this is all coveted information to absorb for a child. 

As adults, animals are proof of concept for the world's destruction. We hear of an animal species for the first time when there are only two of them left, and their extinction is inevitable. We watch as rhinos and elephants get brutally poached so impotent men can use their horns and ivory as some sort of magic sex salve. We witness our own friends taking photos with heavily drugged and tortured tigers abroad, operating under the misinformed pretense that they are somehow basking in these creatures' wild glory. We cry when jaguars get slaughtered by their keepers during the Olympics.

And then we forget, because we cannot constantly bear the world's infinite sadnesses on our shoulders. We have to move on, until the next example of humanity's madness reveals itself.

That's why I started The Naturalist. I know I'm not alone in harboring that childlike sense of wonder about the world's wildlife, and I hope I can communicate what makes animals so fascinating and worth learning about without plaguing readers with negativity. 

That's also why I've started this journey in Central America, because this is where it all began for me. For an entire lifetime I've kept a list of animals I want to see (and photograph) just in this region alone:

  • Resplendent quetzal
  • Harpy eagle
  • Juaguarundi 
  • Red-eyed tree frog
  • Coral snake
  • Night monkey (douroucoulis)
  • Silky anteater
  • Coatimundi
  • Scarlet macaw

...the list is incredibly long, but it will reveal itself during the coming weeks. Over the next two months I'm going to be working tirelessly to capture (with a camera) the animals that have driven my passion for years, and share them with you. There will be photos, videos, written accounts, and maybe even a joke or two (or three). 

Right now I am in Guatemala heading out to Lake Atitlán, where I will be sleeping in the highland jungle with my animal friends (and three volcanoes) for nine days. I won't be actively seeking any species in particular, but I have faith that they will find me. 

This is just the start of a journey that I hope will take me an entire life to accomplish. 

Follow along on Instagram for the most up to date discoveries, and be sure to check back in with World of Wonder to see what I'm up to and what sorts of animals I'm encountering.

Over and out,

Ali Wunderman


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