The story of “How I almost died in Trinidad”

A reporter from the Trinidadian press contacted me for this story. I feel like I have told it too many times. Hopefully, this will be the last time, and now I can just refer people to this blog post!

Greater spear-nosed bat, Phyllostomus hastatus. The females live in stable cooperative groups with non-kin. They will protect unrelated pups in their own group, but will attack and kill pups from other groups.

Greater spear-nosed bat, Phyllostomus hastatus. Photo by Dan Riskin

First some background–

The last week of June I helped my labmate Danielle Adams with her work on greater spear-nosed bats in Trinidad. These bats are truly incredible. They have one the most interesting social structures of any mammal. Females live in stable cooperative groups with non-kin, and will protect unrelated pups in their own group, but will attack and kill pups from other groups. We were there to estimate the number of the pups that survived after Danielle had banded them about 5 weeks beforehand.

Danielle had been doing much of her work at a site called Guanapo Cave in the mountainous Northern Region of Trinidad. Guanapo Cave and its bats have actually been the focus for many long-term studies on behavioral ecology of bats since the 1960s. People who have studied the greater spear-nosed bats at that cave include Jack Bradbury, Gary McCracken, Jerry Wilkinson, Jenny Boughman, Kisi Bohn, and Danielle. The Wilkinson Lab has been doing work there on and off for about 20 years. Tragically, this year the cave was completely destroyed by mining operations that have increasingly encroached into the mountain valleys.

A picture of me in front of the pit entrance to Tamana Cave in 2004.

A picture of me in front of the pit entrance to Tamana Cave in 2004. Photo by Dan Riskin.

So Danielle moved most of her work to Tamana Cave, which has been another important study site for our lab. Unfortunately,  our trip was mostly spoiled by some crazy person who followed us there. Here is an email I wrote on June 22, which explains what happened. I’ve made some minor edits for clarity:

Hi, 

We faced a series of very scary and strange events at Tamana Cave which culminated in some guy trying to kill me by throwing a basketball-size rock down on to my head (which would have obviously and easily crushed my skull but it only grazed me). This guy followed us into the forest on two different days and caused 475 US dollars of damage to our car, stole some valuables, personal items and food (on 2 different occasions), and also cut our climbing anchor. 

On June 20, we parked our car at Tamana Cave and started setting up camp. I heard someone in the woods. We looked around and Danielle heard, then saw, a guy come out on the road. He then disappeared again into the forest. We didn’t think much of it, assuming he was harvesting bananas or something.

Upon returning back from Tamana Cave, we found that the car had been broken into and the door handle was ripped off. Our stuff was tossed everywhere. I lost headlamps, a phone, about 100-200 in US cash, and much of our food. The tire also went flat a bit later, maybe from driving over the broken glass. At this point, we thought this was merely an incident of opportunistic theft. 

June 21, we reported the incident to the Arima police. We also returned to Tamana Cave and this time we got permission to parked the car in someone’s driveway in the town. We hiked all of our gear up the road and trail to the cave. 

As soon as we got to the entrance, I set up a nylon webbing anchor on a nearby tree and dropped a haul line into the Tamana pit entrance, and then we meticulously hid our packs further up the trail in the woods covering them with a camouflage poncho. (We later realized that someone had followed us and had been watching us do this.)

Soon after we entered the cave, we were getting our equipment set up at bottom the pit entrance. Someone had pried a hefty rock out of the ground (leaving a big obvious hole). They could see me sitting at the bottom of the pit and they threw this rock directly down towards my head. It is unlikely that the rock was thrown in randomly, because it landed less than 12 inches from my head. Also, he must have thrown it forward with much effort to get the distance required away from the edge of the pit. It landed with a huge thud and broke apart, right against my hips and legs as I was kneeling and looking down. My original thought was that the rock had fallen from the lip by accident. If it had any part of my body, I would have been seriously injured, and if it hit my head, it would have been fatal.

The guy also cut our webbing line into the pit with his machete such that it came down when I tugged on it. This was when I knew there was someone up there. I immediately began climbing out of the pit entrance, but I feared that if he were still there, he could kick me as I got to the lip. So we went back and exited out the other entrance. But he was gone.

He knew right where our stuff was hidden, because in the very short time we were in the cave he had caught it apart with his machete, took some more food and items, and scattered our stuff everywhere. He took glasses and contact lenses, and even unscrewed Danielle’s water bladder and dumped all the water out.

The creepy part is that this all happened so quickly after we arrived that he must have been watching us set up and hide our stuff. We packed up our stuff and left, and filed another police report. Danielle does not want to go back to Tamana Cave on this trip. We are going to Caura next. Also trying to check out the other cave in Lopinot Valley. 

Sorry for all the bad news. I’m feeling very happy and lucky that the rock did not hit me.

Gerry

This 2004 picture of me standing at the bottom of the pit shows some sense of scale.

This 2004 picture of me standing at the bottom of the pit shows some sense of scale. Photo by Dan Riskin

I think it was a single deranged person, because the crimes were so irrational and spiteful. He had many opportunities to steal valuables from us, but he didn’t. For example, he took Danielle’s GPS from the armrest, then just threw it in the back. He stole some foods like peanuts, but left others. He dumped out the contents of our packs, instead of just taking one or both.

Also, why throw a rock down on a person in such a way as to kill them, and then just leave?

Trinidad is still one of my favorite places to visit and to work. And I have many vivid, treasured memories of the times I’ve spent there since I first visited 10 years ago. In 2003, I visited Trinidad as a college student. It was my first time in the Neotropics. I walked across the Northern Range, hiked up El Tucuche, and saw my first vampire bats. I hope they find the person so that Tamana Cave will be a safe place again for scientists or tourists to come and see some of Trinidad’s amazing bats.

Bats in Tamana Cave, Trinidad

Bats in Tamana Cave, Trinidad

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About Gerry Carter

I study the behavioral, sensory, and social ecology of vampire bats. http://socialbat.org.
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3 Responses to The story of “How I almost died in Trinidad”

  1. Kurt says:

    Good god, Gerry — glad you made it through this incident ok. Funny, when you, me, Kyle and Dan went there back in ’09, I never felt we were in any peril. All it takes is one psychopath.

  2. So sorry to read of this experience in my home country :-/ Happy you all are okay.

  3. Robert Mackie says:

    When I worked at NYZS SIMLA in the late 1960s, any cave work was usually done by a group of at least four persons. Even at that time you had to take precautions. You were proberbly infringing on the guys marijuana plantation. Trap guns were a danger in those days. Many visitors did not have a clue on how to handle situations. I had one student who was doing research on bats , who broke a curfew during the civil unrest in the early 1970s and was shot at by regiment soldiers in the Wallerfield area when returning from a solo trip to Guanapo Caves.

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