An interview with John Kricher, author of The New Neotropical Companion
What originally focused your interest in the Neotropics and why did you want to write about the region?
When I was early in my career in ecology and ornithology, way back in the 1970s, I longed to experience the tropics, to be in hot, steamy equatorial jungles, the ecosystems of the world that harbor the most species. There was so much I wanted to see, especially bird species. It was really birds that got me there. I wanted to see firsthand the various tropical birds, the antbirds, parrots, cotingas, trogons, toucans, etc. To me, these were pure glamor birds, and so many of them. Reading about them only intensified my need to go and see them firsthand. So, I jumped on the first opportunity that came along to get myself passage into “the Torrid Zone.”
And what was that opportunity?
I met a man who was to become a long-time close friend, Fred Dodd. Fred had just started a company called International Zoological Expeditions (IZE) and he was organizing trips to Belize for college classes. I saw such a trip as my ideal way to get a foothold in the tropics. And it worked! My first tropical experience was to take a class of about 30 students from Wheaton College to Belize and Guatemala over semester break in January of 1979. The unexpected and challenging experiences we had as we faced numerous logistical hurdles in this admittedly pioneering effort would, in themselves, make a pretty cool book. But we did it, I loved it, and wanted more, much more. When I meet my first Tropical Ecology students at alumnae gatherings they all want to relive memories of “the Belize trip.” We tell the same stories over and over and never seem to tire of it. Going to Belize, getting to the American tropics, was a watershed experience for me, transforming my career.
Why did you feel the need to write A Neotropical Companion and how did you choose that title?
It was hard to systematically organize information to present to students about the American tropics. In the late 1970s information about the tropics was widely scattered and incomplete. For example, there was no single book I could recommend to my students to prepare them for what would await them in the field. At the same time, I read multiple journal articles on everything from tree diversity to army ant behavior and it was such cool stuff. I loved telling the students my various “stories” gleaned from the ecological literature. As I made more and more visits to Central and South American countries my own perspective was greatly enhanced so I could bring something to the table, so to speak, directly from personal experience. My knowledge base grew in leaps and bounds and I kept expecting that any day a book would be published that would bring together what I was experiencing and enjoying. It never was. So, I thought I could adapt my course information into an introductory book. That was what spawned A Neotropical Companion. The illustrations in the first edition, published in 1989, were by one of my tropical ecology students who adapted them from her field notebook kept when she took my tropical course in Belize. As for the title, when Judith May, editor at Princeton University Press, read my manuscript she liked it and said, with enthusiasm, that she had “the perfect title” for the book. It was Judith who gave it its name.
Your first edition was nicknamed “The Little Green Book.” Did its popularity surprise you?
It did. It was flattering that many folks told me they carried my little green book on various tropical trips and found it very informative and easy to read. And it was indeed a little green book that conveniently fit in a pocket or backpack. I knew I had barely scratched the surface with regard both to breadth and depth of information but I was very pleased and a bit surprised by the warm reception the book received. And as I began making frequent trips to lowland Amazonia as well as Andean ecosystems I knew it was time to expand and revise the book. The little green book needed to grow. It did that with the publication of the second edition in 1997 and obtained what I consider its “full maturity,” a coming of age, in the present edition. It is no longer green and no longer little but much more comprehensive and far better illustrated than its predecessors. This is the book I had always wanted to write.
What is the biggest thing that has changed with regard to visiting the American tropics since you first wrote your Little Green Book?
In the nearly 30 years since I published the first edition the American tropics has become much easier and more comfortable to visit. Good tourist lodges were relatively few when I first visited the tropics and now they abound. Talented local guides skilled in finding wildlife take groups to see all manner of fantastic species such as Harpy Eagle, for example. There are now tours in which you are virtually assured of getting fine views of fully wild jaguars. I wrote in the first edition about being very careful as to what you eat, where you go, and various health concerns. I scaled that way back in my new edition because it is no longer necessary to include it. A determined traveler may make trips virtually anywhere in the Neotropics and do so safely and in relative comfort, though some areas do remain rugged and challenging. There are now even tours to Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “River of Doubt,” once considered a huge challenge to explorers. This was unheard of when I began my travel to the tropics.
Are you still always being asked about encountering snakes and biting insects in the tropics?
Indeed, I am. And to be truthful, snakes, including many venomous species, are relatively common if not abundant in some tropical venues, though they are not necessarily easy to find unless one is skilled at searching for them. It is important to be vigilant when on trails and walking around lodges and field stations, especially at night or after a rainfall. Snakes may be out and about. But very few encounters result in venomous snake bites. I encourage people to experience snakes as interesting and beautiful animals and, as one would a lion on the Serengeti, make sure to maintain a respectful distance. In Trinidad, my group encountered a huge bushmaster, the largest of the Neotropical venomous snakes. It was crossing a road late at night and was caught in the headlights of our van. We all saw it well and from a safe distance, a thrilling sight. As for insects, I have rarely been very bothered by them, especially mosquitos, but if you travel in rainy season mosquitos may be locally abundant and highly annoying. Visitors to the tropics must really beware of bees and wasps and even ants, some of which act aggressively if disturbed and may pack a powerful sting. One ant is called the “bullet ant” because it bites you, holds on, and then stings you. The sting allegedly feels like you were hit with a bullet.
Now that The New Neotropical Companion is complete do you have any plans for further exploration of the Neotropics or are you satisfied that you have done all you set out to do?
I continue to be strongly drawn to the American tropics. I have very recently visited Honduras and Cuba. I have plans for trips to numerous other Neotropical venues, from Guyana to Peru and Amazonia. The wonder of the regional biodiversity has always compelled me to want to see more, go to new areas as well as revisit places I have come to know well, and just keep on learning. No two visits to the tropics, even to a place where one has been repeatedly, are the same. The more you go, the more you see. So, I keep going.