(CNN) — Four researchers navigated treacherous terrain and feared for their lives during a harrowing brush with suspected drug traffickers in one of the most dangerous, scientifically unexplored areas in the world, according to the lead scientist and an account published by a nonprofit conservation organization.
But the highlight of the trip to South America was discovering a species of snake new to science, which the team named for action icon Harrison Ford — a moment of levity in an otherwise dramatic excursion, noted Dr. Edgar Lehr, the lead author of a scientific paper describing the snake species. The report was published August 15 in the German journal Salamandra.
At the time, Lehr, who is a professor of biology at Illinois Wesleyan University, thought: “Wouldn’t this be cool to dedicate this new species to Harrison Ford? And also funny because of the hate his character ‘Indiana Jones’ (has for snakes)?”
Now it’s official: The nearly foot-and-a-half-long, yellow-brown creature found during a perilous journey into a Peruvian national park has the scientific name Tachymenoides harrisonfordi.
Finding Harrison Ford’s snake
But he did not expect what awaited him, a local guide and three fellow herpetologists — Juan Carlos Cusi, Ricardo Vera and Maura Fernandez of the Museo de Historia Natural in Lima — when they ventured into Otishi National Park.
The park is located within Peru’s Junín and Cusco regions, both of which are currently deemed unsafe for travelers by the US Department of State.
The national park is near “the VRAEM (Valley of Rivers Apurímac, Ene, Mantaro) area, which is the center of Peru‘s coca production and narco-trafficking,” according to the study.
The area the scientists explored in the southern part of the park was so difficult to traverse that they had to arrive by helicopter with supplies for three to four weeks. Otishi is considered “Peru‘s least scientifically surveyed national park,” according to the study.
The land has stunning waterfalls and lush forests, but the challenging terrain means few researchers have conducted fieldwork within its perimeter.
The researchers quickly found, however, that danger from fellow humans loomed larger than anything mother nature could throw at them.
“I didn’t think it was a problem because we were in such a remote place,” Lehr told CNN. “I supposed it was of no interest for narco-trafficking.”
“I was wrong,” he said.
The scientific explorers first spotted a camp that they assumed had been abandoned, he recalled. But later, the team heard the voices of other men interrupting their radio calls — a clear sign other people were nearby. Then the researchers spotted a drone spying on them and overheard conversations in which the strangers were attempting to pinpoint their exact camp location.
That was a clear sign of danger, Lehr said, and the group quickly began requesting a rescue pickup. It took four days — delayed by storms — for a military helicopter to retrieve the scientists.
“We are glad that we got out of it,” Lehr said. “We had to shorten the expedition by a week and are probably very unlikely to return.
“I feel sorry for all the biodiversity that remains unknown simply because of the presence of narco-traffickers,” he added.
A representative from the Embassy of Peru in Washington, DC, told CNN that the Peruvian government is aware of media reports about the incident and noted that the government of Peru has worked with the United States and other countries for decades to fight illicit drug trafficking, mainly in VRAEM.
“It is not normal for there to be armed people dedicated to drug trafficking, or maceration pools or clandestine airstrips,” the representative said, adding that it is not clear exactly who or what group the scientists may have encountered.
Confirming new species
Despite the pitfalls, Lehr said he and his colleagues were grateful for the discoveries they made.
The team located and named a previously unmapped waterfall and documented a lizard species unknown to science.
As for the snake discovery, Lehr said the real work began when he returned to his lab with the specimen — a 16-inch (40.6-centimeter) adult male snake with bronze and gold scales. He was able to confirm the species was indeed previously undocumented using genetic sequencing.
Tachymenoides harrisonfordi — or T. harrisonfordi for short — is believed to inhabit wetlands in high elevations across southern Peru.
Lehr said naming the animal with a nod to Ford was a perfect fit, not only because of the tongue-in-cheek reference to Indiana Jones’ hatred for the scaly creatures. Ford, in real life, is a devoted conservationist and serves as vice chair of the nonprofit Conservation International’s board of directors.
In a statement to the nonprofit, Ford jokingly stated that the snake has “eyes you can drown in, and he spends most of the day sunning himself by a pool of dirty water — we probably would’ve been friends in the early ‘60s.
“In all seriousness, this discovery is humbling,” Ford said. “It’s a reminder that there’s still so much to learn about our wild world — and that humans are one small part of an impossibly vast biosphere. On this planet, all fates are intertwined, and right now, one million species are teetering on the edge of oblivion. We have an existential mandate to mend our broken relationship with nature and protect the places that sustain life.”
Naming new species after celebrities does have the bonus of raising awareness among the general public about how many plants and animals around the world are left to be discovered, Lehr noted. He hopes it will spur funding for scientific research.
“This is very important (work), because we can only protect what is known,” Lehr said of documenting species new to scientists.
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