Day 10: And Then The Mule Died

The team catches wind of a 2008 Ivory-bill sighting—and passes on some questionable meat.

February 1, 2016, Campamento de los Rusos, Humboldt National Park, Cuba — Shortly past midnight, we awoke to a loud commotion at the edge of camp. A mule lay on its side, thrashing in the mud and moaning pitifully. One of the men held the mule’s head while another massaged the side of its stomach, which looked swollen. After a grim two hours, the mule finally stopped struggling and exhaled deeply. It did not breathe again. I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine what had happened to the mule. Could it have eaten something toxic? When I asked Jabao, he hit his fist against his chest and said, “Corazon” (“Heart”). A minute later, the rains came, making us feel even worse.

At dawn, we broke camp to move to a place called Cayo Probado, which had once been a farm, but few traces of human occupation remain there now. After everything was packed up, the Cubans left with the remaining mules. Martjan and I traveled on foot, arriving at the new camp about midday. Jabao and Vladimir had already done a lot of setting up work—cutting logs for the cooking structure, peeling other logs to tie the poles together, and putting a waterproof tarp over the top, using only machetes. It was raining again, so we stood under the tarp until the shower eased, then rushed to set up our tents before the next cloudburst.

After eating lunch, we took a long hike, stopping for two more double-knock sessions. The second place overlooked a spectacular valley of pines with high ridges on both sides. In the far distance below, we could make out a body of water—the reservoir near Calentura. In 1956, long before the dam was built, George and Nancy Lamb found Ivory-billed Woodpeckers nesting down there. Even now, we’ve heard a report about a man in Calentura who supposedly claims he saw an Ivory-bill in 2008 and heard one call in 2011, somewhere between where we stood now and his home. We definitely want to find and interview him before we leave Cuba.

Bam-bam—the sound echoed down the valley as Martjan hit the box, but there was no response to the drumming or the playback of the Ivory-bill calls. Bam-bam. Nothing. We stayed a while, reluctant to leave, listening intently as the sun dropped behind the mountains and night descended. Hordes of bats whooshed past us, some so close they nearly brushed against our faces. We finally walked back to camp in darkness.

While we were away, the Cubans had returned to Campamento de los Rusos and butchered the mule, burying the unusable parts. They cooked some of the meat and were eating it as we arrived in camp. Nothing goes to waste here. We just ate beans and rice.

Follow my daily blog as the search for the Ivory-bill unfolds.