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Mounting a Rapid Inventory

Although we’ve pulled together a rapid inventory in as little as six months, typically we need a year. Inventories can begin with a phone call from a government official, a request from an indigenous leader, an email from a colleague. If the area has high potential for huge diversity, and if there are partners in place for follow-up action, we pull together our core team, and begin creating a strategy.

Many events happen in parallel. We sign an agreement with our partner organization. We sign agreements with the local communities that will be participating. And we apply for permits for the expedition, with additional permits to collect specimens.

We assemble a team. Our recipe has been to invite several people that have already been on an inventory with us, and several people that we may not know, but who have particular expertise in the area where we will be working. For example, in 2004 when we knew we were going to remote tableland mountains in southeastern Peru, ones that seemed to be enveloped in a perpetual fog bank, we knew we wanted Norma Salinas, one of Peru’s orchid experts, along on the expedition.

Here at The Field Museum, we spread out satellite images and topographic maps. We pull up Google Earth on a computer. Our team pores over the landscape together, and communicates in a mysterious short-hand born of countless hours doing this together.

“This ridge here reminds me of the Cordillera del Condor in Peru and Ecuador”

“You think it’s sandstone?”

“We’ll want to get up into these bizarre looking swamps here. Never seen anything like these, seems like they used to be part of the floodplain. And the vegetation here is different from anything else in the area”

From these discussions, we land on tentative sites to inventory, and we map out a route that covers the most intriguing areas. Our next step is an overflight of the area, typically in a helicopter or a small plane. From there, we decide exactly where we will conduct our inventory.

We pull together a medical history for our entire team. We want to have everyone’s emergency contact information at our fingertips, and we want to know about allergies, past breaks and sprains, and whether people still have their appendix or not. Typically our team has an impressive tropical disease resume, with malaria, dengue, and leishmaniasis (mountain leprosy) quite commonplace. The truly rare gets a raised eyebrow and a low whistle (Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis? Wow).

We refresh our large medical kits. Each year, there is a different item that is critical. One year it was eardrops for the ichthyologists, who spent so much time underwater they all suffered ear infections. Another year, icy hot muscle strips, for our mammalogists’ pulled hamstring. And anti-fungal cream is consistently a hot ticket item.

We implore the team to pack light. Some people bring lightweight tents, others use hammocks. Most people pack one item they consider their “luxury item”. Corine Vriesendorp, the Rapid Inventories Director, doesn't go anywhere without her camping French press and several pounds of ground coffee. Max Hidalgo, the Peruvian ichthyologist who has been on all ten of our inventories in Peru, often brings his guitar.

Most of us spend several weeks looking at collections. There is no better way to prepare for being able to interpret what you see in the field. For plants, if you want to know what is rare, what is common, what is unexpected, and what is almost certainly new--The Field Museum has the best collection of Peruvian plants in the world. And not just plants, Doug Stotz uses his database on Peruvian bird distributions to create a preliminary list of species he’d expect to find in the field. The team will review his list systematically every night, from the ground-dwelling tinamous to the fruit-eating euphonias, and record the species that saw or heard that day.

Before Alvaro del Campo and our advance team go into the field to create heliports and cut the trails, we’ve thought through countless contingency plans. We build in extra days for weather delays. Our logistics team and pilot collaborators store aviation fuel in strategic entry points to the inventory. We think through evacuation routes, e.g., if we can’t fly out, we can hike to this point and descend by river. We create redundancy in our communications—if we can’t reach people via radio, we have our satellite phone. 

And then the inventory begins. I know we all consider ourselves privileged to spend three weeks exploring truly remote places. There’s something extraordinary about spending every day hiking kilometers of trail, with that buoyant sense of expectation that something truly fantastic is just around the next bend or over the next ridge.