Batman Returns

They say you can't go home again—to the strange, remote, threatened South American jungle where your larger-than-life, field-scientist dad discovered an extremely rare, weird-looking species called Lophostoma schulzi. They're probably right. But we did it anyway.

Hugh Genoways wrangles a bat     Photo: photograph by Jason Florio

Suriname Map

Suriname Map

Bat

The author and his father in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve

Bat

A field-mounted specimen of Artibeus obscurus

Near dusk on our first night in the Surinamese capital of Paramaribo, my dad stood outside out hotel watching the sky fill with bats. I took this as a sign that they were generally thriving, even amid the throng and crush of the city. Dad shook his head.

"Look around," he said. "What do you see?"

This is our familiar dynamic the dim but diligent seeker and the beleaguered but bemused scientist.

I studied the scene hard. I saw the whitewashed cinder-block buildings of our hotel lined up like boxcars. I saw a rum distillery, a bike-rental stand, half-collapsed homes held together by plywood and scavenged fencing. "What am I looking for?"

He pointed across the street to a tall palm spreading over a trash-strewn lot, holding his finger steadily, waiting. Then I saw: like drips from a leaky faucet, bats trickling from a hole in the trunk.

"Molossus molossus," Dad said. Pallas's mastiff bat. A junk species.

"They're lousy fliers," he explained. "Very fast but not very agile. They need wide-open spaces to hunt in, because they're not nimble enough to navigate tight spots. So for them to be this abundant means that an area has been extremely disturbed."

 

We were after something more elusive: Lophostoma schulzi, Schulz's round-eared bat, a species discovered by my father deep in the Amazon in 1979. Like many bats of the old forest, schulzi is a nimble flier that has the ability to thread dense undergrowth. Whenever timber is cleared, faster competitors take over, so our only hope of catching one was to go out among the tall trees, far from human development. We would confine ourselves to the areas where Dad had collected schulzi before jungle outposts inside Brownsberg Nature Park and at the base of the uncharted Tafelberg Plateau, in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve (CSNR). In Dad's heyday, he led teams of well-trained, well-equipped researchers, but this time it would be just the two of us, using a few ten-foot-tall nets. Dad didn't equivocate: He didn't like our chances.

"It's like casting out a net in the middle of the ocean and hoping to catch a specific fish," he said.

The night had deepened and cooled, and the streetlights and neon signs of Paramaribo blazed in the twilight. A bass-heavy club beat struck up in the distance. Dad scratched his grizzled beard with mock seriousness, as if contemplating the half-moon climbing over the rooftops.

"But we came all this way," he said. "So, what the fuck, let's go get one."

EVEN AS A KID, I knew my dad wasn't like other dads. Most boys' fathers in the North Hills of Pittsburgh were mechanics, welders, steelworkers many of them Vietnam vets, laid off from the mills and scraping by. But my dad was Dr. Hugh H. Genoways, curator of mammals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He started the job in 1976 and soon after undertook a multi-year project, sponsored by Alcoa, the Pittsburgh aluminum giant, to study mammals in the isolated central highlands of Suriname. Those expeditions became the foundation of his career, but they also made him to my young eyes larger than life. He had been held at gunpoint in Mexico, housed his crew in a whorehouse in Jamaica, smuggled weapons into Guatemala. But Suriname represented a higher order of adventure: He was surmounting a remote plateau, hacking through dark jungle, returning with unknown species. The newspapers compared him to Indiana Jones. They called him Batman.

 

And the bat he discovered was as exotic as the place in which it originated. It had a hairless face and a band of wartlike bumps that came to a point on its brow. Every visible inch of it was covered with these bumps its ears, its nose leaf, its arms, even the long digits that formed its wings. It was a ghastly little creature, but Dad's jesting affection for all bats became my genuine love for schulzi. It was Dad's bat and so somehow felt like my bat, my inheritance. Since its discovery nearly 30 years ago, however, only ten specimens of schulzi have been caught. The International Union for Conservation of Nature placed it on the Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species more than a decade ago, due to "ongoing human-induced habitat loss" a fact that, I long ago assumed, doomed it to imminent extinction.

Then, in 2007, a Conservation International expedition co-funded by Alcoa announced the discovery of 24 new species fish, snakes, toads, insects in two weeks of collecting on the Lely and Nassau plateaus of eastern Suriname. What caught my eye was the rediscovery of an armored catfish introduced to science 50 years ago but since given up on as extinct when runoff from illegal gold mines poisoned the only creek where it was known to exist. Its reappearance raised hopeful questions: Are species like schulzi really critically endangered or simply understudied? Was it possible they hadn't been seen in years only because no one had gone out to look?

But what drew me to South America wasn't just the adventure of netting bats. I also wanted a chance to take fuller measure of my father. Every summer, for most of my childhood, we rode around the country in our Chevy camper, my dad and his team setting traps and stringing the delicate lace-work webs known as mist nets. But when night fell and they started for the woods, I stayed at my mom's side, drawing pictures and writing stories while she cooked over the hiss of the propane stove. My dad never expressed anything like disappointment that I didn't take an early interest, but how could he not have felt a twinge?

A friend of his once confided, "I think it would be hard to be Hugh Genoways's son." I knew what he meant. My dad is a gruff, barrel-chested giant a former college football player who approaches science and life with gridiron resolve. Experience tells him he's not only the smartest person in the room but the most tenacious. The refrain of my boyhood was this: "Nobody ever said it'd be fair." But that didn't mean you gave up; it meant the only way to succeed was to outwork everybody else. To this day, our every phone conversation begins with him asking, "What are you working on?" and ends with him saying, "Get back to work." But his grit is more than just runaway midwestern rearing. My father sees himself in an unwinnable race against the rest of humanity.

Twenty-five years ago, Dad told an international gathering of scientists that it was his goal to "preserve as much of the native habitat of South America as possible in an unaltered state for future generations." But his pursuit of this legacy was interrupted. In 1982, at the height of his research, Suriname's military dictator, Desi Bouterse, ordered the so-called December murders, in which opposition leaders journalists, university professors, lawyers were rounded up and hanged. The ensuing chaos cut short Dad's work. He spent the rest of his career studying neotropical bats, but he never returned to Suriname.

When he retired last year, in his late sixties and slowed by diabetes, he vowed to go into the field only a few more times, just enough to wrap up unfinished business. So when I called him to say I'd booked tickets to Suriname, he seemed more resigned than enthusiastic. After so many years, I don't think he ever expected to go back. Nor, fearing what he might find, did he really want to.

NESTLED ON THE NORTH coast of South America, just above Brazil, Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) was colonized by successive waves of English and Dutch traders more than three centuries ago, but three-quarters of it remains unexplored. Some 80 percent of the nation's half-million people are strung along the Atlantic coast or crowded on the muddy banks of the Suriname River in Paramaribo, cut off from the interior by the verdant wall of the Amazon.

 

Our first morning out, we headed toward Brownsberg Nature Park the country's first national nature reserve, three hours south of Paramaribo. As our Toyota pickup sped past the clapboard houses rotting in the blanketing humidity and blistering sun, it was hard not to feel that centuries of human effort have amounted to little more than a temporary stay against the encroaching jungle. On the outskirts of town, clouds broke into rain, forcing us to roll up our windows partway, until they whistled. The howl was so shrill that Dad had to tap me on the shoulder to get my attention.

"There it is," he shouted.

In the distance rose the great, rusting bulk of a refinery, its even rows of smokestacks belching into the air. In 1941, Alcoa opened the Paranam processing plant to support cavernous bauxite mines along the Para and Suriname rivers. The mines were productive, but the cost to power them and process ore skyrocketed during World War II. When Holland granted Suriname limited self-rule in 1954, Alcoa saw an opening. The company negotiated an agreement with the new government for permission to dam the Suriname River and harness hydroelectric energy for a new smelter, aluminum oxide plant, and power station. The dam would bring electricity to a nation lit by kerosene. Alcoa called the dam Afobaka "back to African ways," a return to ancestral glory for the Maroons, former slaves who inhabit the region.

But progress carried its own price. The lake created by the dam flooded at least seven Maroon villages and decimated the Suriname River they depended on. According to one long-term study, there were 172 species of fish just before the damming in 1964; within four years, that number was down to 62. The Maroons dubbed the lake Brokopondo literally "the canoe is broken," a way of life scuttled.

In 1969, to counterbalance this disaster, the government created the Foundation for Nature Conservation in Suriname (STINASU), and Alcoa started underwriting expeditions from the Carnegie Museum, headed by my father. Their charge was to survey Brownsberg and other subsequently created provincial nature reserves while training a generation of Surinamese scientists under STINASU's first director, Johan Schulz, for whom my dad eventually named his bat.

As we neared the town of Brownsweg, the blacktop gave way to the greasy red clay typical of bauxite-rich soil. We fishtailed through puddles and throbbed over washboard. Dad snored contentedly in the backseat, but I was edgy, eager to get to work and away from the despoiled highway corridor. As we began our slow ascent up the plateau, out of the midday heat, I began to breathe easier. At a fork in the road, a park sign painted with a smiling, brown-faced monkey pointed the way through the trees.

BY MID-AFTERNOON, we'd set up in an abandoned World Wildlife Fund education center at the far end of the park headquarters. We threw open the windows and started unpacking gear nets, machetes for chopping poles, and an assortment of muslin bags to hold live bats. A clearing nearby served as the trailhead to several paths into the forest and provided a good spot to string our nets. "Bats are as lazy as people," Dad explained. "If they find a trail, they use it."

After setting nets and returning for dinner at a makeshift restaurant known as Rocky's, we met up with our guide, a young man from Brownsweg named Ramond Finisie. Known to everyone as Melkie (Dutch for "Milky"), he was only days from 20 but looked baby-faced, with wide, searching eyes. Wearing a traditional wrap around his neck and brandishing his machete, he had a mock swashbuckling air.

The night was cooling. The pale trunks of distant trees turned ghostly in the setting sun, then faded as fog rolled in. Before long, the socked-in plateau was cast in a hazy half-moon glow until, unexpectedly, the park lights buzzed to life. Their klieg-light brilliance the product of Alcoa's hydroelectric dam flattened everything into depthless overexposure. As we rounded a corner, we could see a bulb high overhead, its blinding fluorescent glare clearly illuminating our first net. Dad cursed under his breath.

We walked deeper into the foggy darkness but found the other nets empty, so Dad sat down under a palm-topped picnic shelter and waited. There's something maddeningly stubborn yet Buddha-like about him at moments like this not insistent, just unyielding, as if prepared to wait until the world comes to him. Melkie, too, seemed contented by the calm, circling the shelter, swinging his machete idly, crooning some unrecognizable snippet of song. I checked the nets obsessively, until I found one twitching with life, an irate bat that twisted in the nylon threads as it tried to bite its way out.

To remove a captured bat, you clasp it with a leather-gloved hand to keep it still. As it bites the glove's thumb, you work its rubbery wings free from the netting with your other hand. I'm no good at it and harbor the dual fear of being bitten and of dislocating their shoulders. Not Dad. He handled the bats with ease, talking to them all the while. "You're having a really bad night, aren't you?" Or: "Easy, now, don't be like that."

Bit by bit, he educated me on what we were seeing. "OK, this little guy is a Saccopteryx bilineata," he said, adjusting his headlamp to give me a better look. "See these sacs on his wings? He spends all day filling those with saliva and fluid from his glands, then he grooms that into his fur all over his body to attract females. Like Old Spice for bats. And see the two white racing stripes down the middle of his back? Also very distinctive. Sac-winged, double-lined Saccopteryx bilineata." After each lecture, he took a muslin bag and dropped the bat in, then slipped the knotted drawstring under his belt like a scalp. That night we caught several bats, but no schulzi.

I could have slept the next day away, but Dad was up with the sun, skinning bats for scientific use. It's a process I learned as a small child. "You find the V in the rib cage," he said back then, tapping my sternum, "then lift and push until the heart stops, the lungs collapse." In seconds, the bats go from fierce animals to limp specimens. He slits them open and turns them inside out, working the pelts free, then stuffs the empty skin with cotton and wire, pinning it to a foam-core board until the hide dries.

While Dad skinned, I decided to hike down from the rim of the plateau to Witi Creek to scout the spot where the last two specimens of schulzi were collected, in 2002. Harry Hunfeld, STINASU's bluff, white-haired grounds manager, had warned that we might not be able to net in the area, because it had become a target= for illegal gold miners known as "pork knockers" a term coined in the fifties when the miners lived in the bush on a diet of salt pork and worked with pickaxes and shovels. Today the operations are huge, using bulldozers to level trees, backhoes and hydro cannons to trench the soil, and a mercury-separation-and-sluicing process that poisons the water.

Melkie and I descended the steep, rocky incline, weaving around fallen trees and hacking through undergrowth. We zigzagged from one bank to the other until the path leveled a bit and Melkie hopped into a bright patch of sunlight. Stepping out behind him, I saw that we were on the edge of a mud superhighway punched through the forest. Sun-hardened ruts left by heavy machinery stood two feet deep, pooled with standing rainwater and teeming with mosquito larvae. We followed the road up a short embankment into a stadium-size hole that pork knockers had slashed in the forest. The temperature must have climbed 15 degrees when we stepped into the sun. The area was devastated and, now, abandoned. There was no chance that forest-dwelling schulzi could thrive in an environment like this.

"Had the miners been down here for years?" I asked Melkie.

"Eight months."

"Months?"

"Before that," he said with a sweep of his machete, "all trees."

BACK IN PARAMARIBO, we took off from the Zorg en Hoop airstrip and flew deep into the interior nothing but forest canopy below us, the coffee-brown Saramacca River snaking through. Our co-pilot was Henk Gummels, the owner of Gum Air, the same airline that flew Dad's crews to the foot of Tafelberg decades ago. Over the roar of the twin engines, I asked whether the Saramacca's muddy current was caused by tidal surge.

"Nee," Henk said. "Pork knockers."

As we flew deeper into the mountains, we saw their camps piles of slash, bulldozed gravel, and bright-yellow gashes of dirt carved from the lush green. Henk's wife, Jennifer, chatted in Dutch with her brother, Anton Brandon, the second in command at Suralco, the Surinamese subsidiary of Alcoa.

Before long, the distinctive flattop silhouette of Tafelberg appeared on the horizon, shrouded in clouds, its dark profile jutting some 3,000 feet above the forest floor. No one knows exactly when Tafelberg, or "Table Mountain," was discovered it may have been during a Dutch voyage up the Coppename River in 1901 or an expedition on the Saramacca a year later. Either way, it remained imposing but remote, seemingly unreachable, marooned and embowered by the limitless forest, until in 1944 the New York Botanical Garden undertook a thorough probe of the forested mountaintop. Bassett Maguire, the garden's longtime curator, spent 54 days exploring the mountaintop and naming the Edenic places he encountered. But in nearly two months of collecting botanical specimens, his team didn't record a single word about the animal populations.

My dad set out to correct that in the fall of 1981, when two of Henk's planes carried his 13-person crew to the Rudi Kappel airstrip, where a pilot named Foster Ford ferried their gear on five round-trips to a sandy clearing on the edge of the plateau.

This mountain occupied such a large place in my childhood imagination that it seemed nearly unreal as we banked by the caprock. But there would be no trip to the top this time; Henk assured me that there was only one helicopter charter company in all of Suriname and that climbing was out of the question. I would have to settle for this flyby view, the plateau's square black shoulders already disappearing into the afternoon clouds. The engines revved, then smoothed to a hum as we swooped down toward the airstrip.

On the ground, we were greeted by the guide Henk had hired, Atinjoe Panekke. A TiriyÓ Indian, Atinjoe had a pro wrestler's physique, a shaved head, a goatee, and facial tattoos, but he wore Air Jordan shorts and flashed a quick smile whenever we managed to get something across in our mishmash of English, Spanish, and Dutch. He cut 12 perfect poles for our mist nets, wielding his machete with unnerving force and accuracy, then heaved them casually over one shoulder.

The first night we set up near a handmade wooden bridge spanning a creek. Over the next six hours we caught only four bats all rare and diverse, from Trachops cirrhosus, which uses echolocation to pluck piping tree frogs from the lower canopy, to Artibeus obscurus, which thrives on guava and soursop. But Dad couldn't understand why we weren't catching more. He had expected 10, 15; if we got lucky, 20. Four seemed like a bad sign. Bats are bellwethers, he reminded me. Without bats, the whole forest is in trouble.

But Dad wasn't about to give up that easy, so the next night we got ambitious, spending hours setting up six nets, including some that were nearly 60 feet long, at spots that effectively cut off three major trails. We caught just two bats again, uncommon species, but only two, and no schulzi. The night passed with so little action that Atinjoe dozed in the tall grass, snoring until he woke himself.

Well after midnight, we sat on the porch of the airstrip lodge, drinking warm Parbo beers while Dad reviewed the field notes from his old expeditions, tallying the incredible numbers of bats 40 and 50 each night caught at these very sites. To boost our spirits, I checked to see whether the rain barrel had caught enough water to allow for a much-needed shower. But when I twisted the spigot, only a miserable trickle bubbled out. Dad laughed at my stricken expression. "Come on, rookie," he said, and, by the dim light of our perched flashlights, he hopped breathlessly under the icy dribble, before handing the soap off to me.

"Sorry," he said with a toothy grin. "I think I used up all the hot water." I laughed in spite of myself, a gallows laugh. Whether or not we caught that goddamned bat the next day, our last at Tafelberg, I knew the moment would stand alongside tales of past misadventures that my dad and his friends told over howls of laughter. This was my initiation.

So I commended myself to the frigid water the sound of my hollering rattling the rafters and echoing out into the starless night.

FOR OUR FINAL NIGHT in the CSNR, Dad decided to move deeper into the forest. All through the cloudy afternoon, he scouted the canopy on the other side of the airstrip for bulging termite nests, explaining that two of schulzi's closest relatives Lophostoma silvicolum and Lophostoma carrikeri are known to day-roost in cracks in arboreal mounds. Spotting several along a trail, Dad selected net placements on either side of a grove of tall palms. Of the few schulzi ever taken, several have been netted in palm-dominated forest, leading some to speculate that the bats may use them for hunting roosts at night. As Dad explained all this, I felt an irrational surge of optimism. The conditions were perfect; of course we'd catch one there.

Maybe Dad was feeling optimistic too, because he decided to string only one more net, the largest we had. We'd set it up across a stream at the top of a spectacular waterfall. The water there was thick froth so suffused with leaf tannin that it had turned the color of port wine. Both banks were blanketed with razor grass, but Atinjoe mowed the way clear with a few swift machete strokes. Dad decided to make the most of the dwindling daylight, so we unfurled the net, the low sun dappling the orange water. No sooner had we tied off the poles and switched on our headlamps than a light rain started to fall. Then it got heavy. Then heavier. By the time we returned to the first net, it sagged with rain, glistening in the beams of our lamps. The trees were piping with frogs.

"Will bats fly in the rain?" I asked.

"Not rain like this," Dad said. "Not many, anyway."

We tramped to the shelter of a deck overhanging the newer, larger lodge where Henk's family was staying. They stretched out in their hammocks drinking cabernet and enjoying the downpour. After a few drinks of our own, I asked Anton about Suralco's plans for Nassau and Lely plateaus, east of Brownsberg. Now that so many endangered species had been found, would Alcoa still mine?

"You must understand," he said. "The Paranam mines, when they were opened, were estimated to contain 60 years of bauxite. It has now been 65. The ore cannot last."

He acknowledged that the research team had found many rare species, but they'd also found evidence of illegal hunting by Maroons and illegal gold mining, most of it by French Guianese and Brazilians. "Saying these lands are off-limits to development," he said, "would change nothing." Averting the sort of wholesale devastation that has occurred at Brownsberg requires research and enforcement. Both require money. And the only money in Suriname comes from bauxite.

The rain continued to fall as Dad and I zipped our jackets and headed back out. "He's right, you know," Dad said. "We can't expect the Surinamese to sit on their natural resources. You look around here, you see the rainforest, but people like Henk or Anton see their country. This is where they live."

"But he's as much as admitted they're going to mine there," I said. "That doesn't shock you?"

Dad was quiet as we walked. "Alcoa is going to do what's in its best interest," he said finally. "That doesn't shock me. Suriname will do what's in its best interest. That doesn't shock me. And everybody in Suriname sees Alcoa mines in their best interest, so, no, I'm not shocked. Besides, what's the alternative? Mine iron instead? What does that solve?"

This is my father no pundit, no poet, no profiteer. He makes no value judgments, argues for no outcome. He is a thoroughgoing scientist and professor, intent only on the twin purposes of mapping the rich complexities of the world and teaching others to do the same. He had no stake, no investment, in whether we found his schulzi or not. So when the final bat of the night, twisted and rain-sopped in the net, turned out to be Lophostoma silvicolum, it didn't bother him in the least. "So close," I groaned. Dad shook his head. It's not about one species, he reminded me no matter how rare, no matter what sentimental attachment you may feel to it. It's about observing and learning, rather than consuming and destroying.

Surrounded by perfect darkness, rain soaking through my coat, I finally understood. Lophostoma schulzi isn't Dad's bat at all; it's Schulz's bat. My father didn't name his discovery for himself but for those who stayed in Suriname. And those who continue to fight for the forest are its true inheritors. In that expanse, more than anywhere, his simple lessons applied: "Nobody ever said it'd be fair. Now get back to work."

I pulled on my glove. "It's OK, Dad," I said. "I got this one."

ON OUR LAST MORNING, as we scanned the skies wondering if the rain would clear enough to fly, we heard chopping rotor blades. Suddenly a helicopter hove into view and landed at the airstrip. I sprinted down and started talking begging, bargaining, bribing our way to the top of Tafelberg. The pilot, Jerome, worked for Hi-Jet, the company that runs the Surinamese medical-emergency service, but he'd flown out that morning to pick up some tourists from an illegal lodge under construction atop the plateau. We were shocked to hear such a place existed, but there was no time to consider. We agreed to Jerome's offer: For $600, he would take us up on his way back to Zorg en Hoop.

We'd be allowed only a few minutes on top, but that didn't matter. If we hadn't been able to net even one of Dad's bats, to assure ourselves of its survival, at least there was this unexpected gift. And in the months after our return, we would learn that a team of Canadian scientists, working in far-western Suriname, had netted several specimens of schulzi, dramatically increasing its range and likely population. Their expedition was so encouraging that in October the IUCN took schulzi off its list of endangered species. But, at that moment, all we knew was that we'd chanced upon this small, personal redemption before we were gone from Tafelberg. So we squeezed into the heli­copter and zoomed up the escarpment and over the lip of the plateau, a dizzy-making sensation of falling even as you felt your body rise. Jerome laughed over the intercom. "It feels like a roller-coaster, huh?" He took us over the Arrowhead Basin, then around the southwestern edge to a tiny clearing barely big enough for the chopper's whirling blades. We touched down and hopped out, stumbling as we went. "Five minutes," Jerome yelled. "I'm not even going to power down. Five minutes."

We wouldn't need more. I couldn't believe that I was standing atop Tafelberg but especially with my dad. And as he looked over the edge of a cascading waterfall, then turned back into the chopper's rotor wash, I had a flash of a photograph I've carried in my mind all these years. When Foster Ford's helicopter lifted off in 1981, leaving my dad and his crew isolated for 11 days, someone thought to lean out of the passenger seat and snap a single black-and-white frame. It's my dad, a camera slung around his neck, wearing a T-shirt with the distinctive seventies logo of the Carnegie Museum. All around him, the vegetation swirls, but he stands with feet planted, hands on his hips.

But it was Dad's expression that brought the image back to me. His face had drawn and slackened, his stance grown less certain; still, his gaze was set now, as it was then, in a tight squint probably nothing more than a wince and a square-jawed grimace against the blast of the departing chopper, but it looked for all the world like defiance.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Comments

Next in Adventure (1 of 200)

Sign for Delivery

Read More »