The human population’s continued thirst for natural resources is rapidly shrinking the areas of wilderness and steering wildlife populations on the course of extinction. Without alternative means of generating income from such areas in their pristine state, the requirement of local communities to make a living inevitably leads to practices such as logging, illegal hunting and the development of monoculture plantations; eventually resulting in the demise of ‘natural’ ecosystems. One such alternative measure of providing livelihoods is ecotourism.
Tortuguero National Park is an ecotourism ‘mecca’ and year after year, thousands of tourists flock to this beautiful corner of Costa Rica. The undoubted main draw is the nesting population of green turtles that flood the 18 mile stretch of beach between the months of June and October. This is a spectacular sight but by no means all that Tortuguero has to offer. Serene canals amble and wind through the acres of stunning rainforest, providing homes to many species of animals; including an array of wonderful birds. No visit to the area is complete without a memorable voyage through the waterways; soaking up all the sights and sounds. But there is a balance to be had.
Obviously the more tourists encouraged to visit results in increased income generation for the local community, which in turn strengthens the resolve to continue the protection of the national park. One way to encourage more tourists to visit and more to return, it is find bigger and better ways of viewing wildlife; delving into areas no tourists have been before would likely attract a greater crowd with an anticipation of viewing rarely seen wildlife. This is all well and good though there is a reason some species of wildlife are rarely seen and that is that they rely on undisturbed habitat, unvisited by man made vehicles. The species are indicator species and say a lot for the health of a habitat; as a result, habitats where these species are located should remain undisturbed and ‘off the beaten track’.
There calls from the tourist associations in Tortuguero to open up certain canals to the public. This would need a lot of maintenance to enable boats an easy passage. The location of these canals had previously made species inventories extremely difficult and a lack of knowledge is always dangerous. This is why GVI Costa Rica has surveyed 4 different canals on the boundaries of park as part of our canal bird project; including a canal unreachable by boat, Sierpe Viejo, and a canal which has a high amount of boat traffic, Cano Negro. Through this we can compare species composition of each canal and the effects human disturbance may have on each individual species of aquatic bird. We are providing critical data to MINAET on the distribution of these species, which will hopefully give them the appropriate weaponry to fend off calls to further open up the park to tourism. There are many species of birds that we record regularly on all canals; such as the ‘mosquito-esque’ northern jacana and the ‘grumpy old man like’ little blue herons. However, of particular interest to MINAET are species that fall under the indicator bracket as mentioned above. Birds whose apparent rarity may be due to their elusive natures or more worryingly, low population numbers. Whatever the reason, each and every sighting is like gold dust and helps improve a currently inadequate database.
The holy grail of these birds is the agami (or chestnut-bellied heron) Agami agami. Radiant green and maroon colours with a sparkling silver side coupled with an enormous bill, really make this a spectacular specimen. Asides from its appearance, very little is known about the agami heron; especially when it comes to distribution and status with only breeding colony known in the whole of Costa Rica. It is believed to skulk anonymously around in riparian vegetation; eluding those who quest for merely a glimpse. Here in the southern end of Tortuguero National Park the last record of the species was in July, 2011. That was until August this year when we had 2 sightings in the space of a week; this includes a sighting on Sierpe Viejo. The debate on whether to open up this remote canal to tourists continues. The reed beds at the entrance currently provide with the protection it needs to stave off the curious eye, with the exception of a fortnightly visit from 5 GVI members who power through this mass of vegetation. And the continued effort has been worth it. The sighting of the agami provides the evidence of how important it is to protect all such canals and further prevent exploitation deeper into the park.
Elena Vargas, scientific administrator of the park, is fully aware of the importance of canal birds as indicator species. ‘There are some who would like to open canals like Sierpe Viejo and Aguas Negras for visits from tourists before we even know what inhabits the area.. It is important that GVI continues to collect data from these locations as the park is unable to carry out research there and data collected on all species from these ecosystems may be what is needed to maintain them in their natural state’.
Now GVI intends to extend our research into the depths of Aguas Negras. If we thought getting into Sierpe Viejo was a challenge...well, we have seen nothing yet!!
Marine Turtle populations face a variety of pressures worldwide; including illegal poaching of nesting females and eggs, fisheries by-catch, loss of nesting habitat and pollution. Turtle numbers had been declining as a result of these pressures for decades – long before organizations began developing conservation programs across the range in attempt to reverse this slide and prevent the extirpation of local turtle populations. One such organization is the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), formerly the Caribbean Conservation Cooperation. The STC runs projects across the Caribbean which includes a monitoring program in Tortuguero National Park. The STC established its work here in 1959, and is the longest running marine turtle program in the world. This area also happens to host, depending on the source, the ‘largest’ nesting colony of green turtles Chelonia mydas across the globe (c.20,000 females), as well as small nesting populations of leather-backs Dermochelys coriacea, hawksbills Eretmochelys imbricata and the very occasional loggerhead Caretta caretta. Since the STC began their stewardship of the area, there has been a steady increase in the total number of green turtles.
Prior to 2010, the STC was restricted to surveying the 5 miles of beach along the north end of the park, directly in front of Tortuguero, on a daily and nightly basis. The rest of the 13 miles of beach could only be patrolled a few times a week, and was limited to only counting tracks as opposed to marking nesting turtles. This is where GVI comes in. Since setting up base here in 2010, we have been able to significantly increase the STC’s sampling effort and provide further protection to the vulnerable sea turtles. With our help the STC can now collect invaluable data in an area that was once out of reach; improving the accuracy of population estimates, the understanding of factors affecting hatching success and also reducing the rates of poaching that were likely to have been at a very high level.
So what do we do? Turtle season is broken up into two segments: leather-back season (March-June) and green season (June-November). During leather-back season we patrol a 4 mile stretch of beach where as in green this is reduced to a 3 mile stretch due to the abundance of turtles. During our night patrols we mark the nests of turtles we find and tag and measure them. On our daily nest checks we ‘watch over’ as it were, the nests we have marked, as well as count the number of nests we did not observe the previous night. Nests are also excavated after their incubation period to determine how many of the eggs developed into hatchlings. All this data is invaluable for marine turtle conservation, and when you step back and look at the figures, GVI is really doing its’ part. Since the beginning of 2010, we have collectively:
The existence of most marine turtle species hangs on a knife’s edge. At the forefront of preventing this demise are organisations like the STC whose collection of accurate and reliable data will drive area management plans in the direction of marine turtle conservation. These organizations need support both financially and with volunteers. We are providing such support and in every sense, act as the STC’s third arm in Tortuguero National Park. We have significantly increased their monitoring capabilities and are helping to protect a section they were previously unable to reach. Although for conservation measures to succeed turtles require protection across their ranges, every contribution makes a difference. Together with the STC and members of ACTo (Area Conservacion de Tortuguero) we will strive to provide protection to the turtles that use Tortuguero for the breeding and nesting stages of their life cycles. At the moment, poaching levels are still unsustainable and there is not enough being done; primarily due to the lack of resources provided to the park rangers. Rangers are unable to respond to illegal harvesting due to lack of man power or even the lack of fuel. In response, the STC are in the process of organizing a protest in Tortuguero with the aim of highlighting the plight of this precious resource to the rest of the nation. We are in full support of this and with any luck, poaching rates will continue to decrease!
A big welcome to our latest group of volunteers. They joined us 2 weeks ago from a variety of nations and we look forward to a successful phase 123. Since their arrival life has been as fast and furious as ever and here are just a few things that have happened in this short space of time:
Not only do GVI staff and volunteers spend hours comprehensively sweeping forest trails and canals in Tortuguero National Park, we also live deep inside the parks southern boundary. Our 24-hour presence either on base or travelling to town establishes a constant connection between us and unbelievably diverse ecosystems. Many of the species we see are ever present in our temporary home. Clay coloured robins Turdus grayi frolicking around our ‘garden’, American crocodiles Crocodylus acutus basking at the river mouth and mantled howler monkeys Allouata palliata alerting the world to the rising sun with a roar that would not be out of place in ‘Jurassic Park’. These animals all have one thing in common; Tortuguero National Park (TNP) falls within their normal distribution and they are abundant here. This does not mean that is not important to record their continued local existence as a change in abundance may signify significant alteration to the parks habitats. However, to record a species that is believed to be rare within the park or that has a normal range not believed to overlap with TNP, really does instil a great deal of excitement and brings home the fact that our research station can add new data to worldwide species databases. And we are in the process of building up a collection of such sightings.
Birds are an obvious contender for such recordings. Although they may have specific distributions mapped in scientific literature, their ability to transcend boundaries through flight enables them to migrate to locations their may have rarely frequented before; a situation which will likely become more prevalent as the effects of climate change begin to take their toll. So what have we seen here that we apparently shouldn’t have been so lucky to do so? Here is a few we have accumulated in 2012:
But it is not just birds of note that we have recorded; there is also a snake that stands out. To me it resembles a mini anaconda (a species I would give my left arm to see in the wild) and one that is also believed to be very rare in this area. It wasn’t discovered on any of the trails or along the waterways but under the staff house! Again illustrating how we can make a contribution to the scientific community by merely taking a few steps from our beds. I give you the orange bellied swamp snake Tretanorhinus nigroluteus!!
So what are we doing with this data? Firstly, all the data we collect goes directly to MINAET, who will hopefully be able to incorporate it into the park’s new management plan. We also report any rare bird sightings directly to Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica (AOCR). And finally, GVI we have begun to collaborate with I-naturalist and an official GVI Tortuguero project has been set up. I-naturalist is a worldwide database that allows experts and amateurs alike to upload photos of species they have seen all over the world; thus documenting a current and accurate distribution of all species in time and space. We are currently developing an extensive photo database of every species we have photographed in this area and aim to upload these to our project on i-naturalist on a regular basis.
The work GVI has accomplished studying jaguars in Tortuguero National Park has started to catch the attention of feline biologists and conservation organizations. Since moving to the Jalova field station in 2010 the frequency of jaguar captures on camera has steadily increased. Jaguars can be recognized and told apart by their unique rosette patterns on their fur, and to date GVI has identified 10 different individuals active in the 3 mile survey area. They have achieved this with over 500 nights of camera trapping and more than 1000 jaguar pictures collected and identified in their database. A scientific paper written by Diogo Verissimo, a previous GVI staff member, brought to the attention of the media and the scientific world the incredible and unique interactions between Jaguars and Marine Turtles on the Tortuguero beach. We believe this relationship is what is principally supporting the coexistence of such a large jaguar population in such a small area.
“Panthera was founded in 2006 with the singular mission of conserving the world’s 36 species of wild cats, it currently focuses its range-wide conservation strategies on the world’s largest, most imperilled cats, one of these being the jaguar, the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere”. The hard work of the GVI Costa Rica Expedition team has been repaid with the possibility of working alongside this leading organization. Roberto Salom-Perez, manager of Panthera’s Costa Rica jaguar projects, visited our Jalova base whilst working here with the BBC wildlife team back in September 2011. Nearly 8 months later, after a lot of paperwork and meetings the first signatures were laid on what will be a 3 year collaboration between Panthera and GVI.
Expectations are high on both sides. The GVI team will be helping Panthera field scientists as they try and explore the extent and distribution of the jaguar population in the whole of Tortuguero National Park. The small piece of the puzzle that we have been working on for the past two years may now fit into a larger framework that will help with the management and conservation of jaguars in Costa Rica. Expertise from the Panthera staff will help the GVI team come up with new methodologies and extend the GVI camera trapping project to cover a larger survey area. They will also provide the means to allow us to expand our study techniques to include scat collection and analysis, a development that could greatly aid our understanding of the local jaguar population.
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GVI Charitable Trust Manager