When researchers heralded the olinguito as the first new carnivore species discovered in the western hemisphere for 35 years last August, I imagined that seeing one would be impossible. After all, they'd eluded scientists for so long.
The nocturnal olinguito, which inhabits the Andean cloud forests of central Colombia and eastern Ecuador, is a little larger than a domestic cat, has a woolly coat and a teddy-bear face that prompted one spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institute research team to describe it as "cute".
But their discovery came about in a laboratory as a result of Dr Kristofer Helgen, of the Smithsonian, testing the DNA of collected skins dating back several decades. It was assumed they were from smaller specimens of another Andean mammal, the olingo, but he found a distinct species.
When planning a trip to Ecuador, I contacted Bellavista cloud-forest lodge. To my surprise, I was told that olinguitos visit them nightly to be fed bananas. This raised several questions: if it's a regular visitor to a tourist lodge why hadn't zoologists noticed it, and exactly how did being partial to bananas fit its carnivorous billing?
After a two-hour drive north of Quito into the cloud forests of the Chocó Region, I began to understand how a species might remain undetected here. The steeply impenetrable slopes are packed by billowing primeval forest in one of the most biologically diverse hotspots on Earth. The 70 species endemic to the Chocó are more than that recorded in any other mainland area.
Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve stands at around 6,600ft on a mountainous spur lost in a cloudy whiteout. Its owner, Richard Parsons, is a long way from home: Derbyshire to be precise. He greeted me with dry humour: "We're called Bellavista because of the great views." He came to Ecuador in 1982 to work as a naturalist guide in the Galápagos then, with his Colombian wife Gloria, he bought part of Bellavista's current site in 1991 to stop its conversion to cattle pasture.
His lodge centres on a structure resembling a geodesic dome, with a restaurant and dormitory accommodation. I was housed in one of several small suites in a wooden building above the reception area, called the Trogon Cloud Lounge. I was soon in their main office reviewing camera-trap footage taken the previous evening from an observation deck jutting into the forest. To date they have recorded three olinguitos and one had visited only the night before. Grainy images revealed a feline body and distinctive ursine facial features.
"We first noticed it in May last year a few months before the discovery of olinguitos was announced," said Richard. "They started turning up to take fruit and drink nectar from the hummingbird feeders. We assumed they were olingos or kinkajous (another local mammal) but noticed they didn't have their prehensile tails. We started to believe we had something different on our hands and encouraged it by putting out bananas."
Surely that makes it an omnivore or even a frugivore, I suggested? "Yes," laughed Richard. "Not quite the flesh-eating creature the media portrayed when it was discovered." At 7pm that evening I hunkered down on the observation platform with my camera and a warming cup of Ecuadorian canelazo, made from naranjilla (a local orange) and cinnamon, spiked with cane spirit.
Two hours passed. Nothing. The only movement was from swirling pea-souper mists and occasional crashing boughs. David Pinto, one of Bellavista's guides, joined me. "From May to September they came every night around 7pm," he said. "But since October's winter rains, the olinguitos are more irregular in their visits." By midnight, my eyes were perceiving luminous dots of lichen as eyespots. I retired, defeated.
The wildlife was more forthcoming the next day. I watched scarlet-headed cock-of-the-rock birds wooing females with manic dances while the high-altitude plate-billed mountain toucan displayed its multi-coloured assets, and Bellavista's hummingbirds provided pure theatre. Later, I returned to the viewing platform. I hoped the clear, crisp evening would be more to the olinguito's liking.
I didn't have to wait long. At 7.45pm a rustling was followed by the appearance of a white-tipped tail protruding from the canopy. Shortly after, a dainty creature shinned down a tree-trunk headfirst, a few feet from me, and purloined several banana chunks. In the half-light, I saw the olinguito's slender cat-like form and long tail, with its fuzzy, brownish coat. It happened quickly – just allowing me to shoot a few photographs then hurry to the main office to have my sighting verified.
Forty-five minutes later, the banana-scoffing male returned, squatting briefly before me on all fours and staring right down my lens. And yes, the only word that came to mind was "cute". Richard appeared on the balcony to share my euphoria. "It's the jewel in our crown," he said. "It's a big animal to have been overlooked for so many years."
Mark Statton travelled with Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1260; rainbowtours.co.uk), which offers a nine-night trip incorporating three nights at Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge plus more birding locally at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (tandayapabirdlodge.com) from £2,650pp, based on two sharing. Includes flights to Quito with KLM (0871 231 0000; klm.com) via Amsterdam, three nights in Quito, all transfers, most meals and guides.
Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge (00 593 2 290 3166; bellavistacloudforest.com) has two-day packages with a night's accommodation, all meals and transfers from Quito for US$206 (£137)pp, based on two sharing a double room. Dorm beds on the same basis start at $164 (£109)pp.
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