Protect Caribbean Rainforest in Costa Rica

by Global Vision International Charitable Trust
Red Knot - by Kate Holmes
Red Knot - by Kate Holmes

We hope you are all having a fantastic holiday. Thank you for your support to this project in 2012, we are happy to announce we will be continuing into 2013 thanks to your donations.

This month has been an exciting and challenging month for birding at GVI Jalova. It is the time of year when migratory birds arrive, resident birds abound and juvenile individuals present difficult plumage succession. Staff enjoys the challenge and volunteers marvel at the variety that Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast has to offer. There have been two noteworthy sightings for this month. The first is a relative of the gulls who breed on Arctic coasts - the pomarine jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus; pictured). This aggressive aerial-master harasses other seabirds, forcing them to disgorge their food which they snap up on the wing. They are rare and sporadic to Costa Rica, and most records are for the Pacific coast. It was with great pleasure then that we watched this aerial acrobat move in with stealth and swiftness to the great distress of a mixed flock of terns and gulls. In the air the juvenile jaeger was incredible to watch. Academically, it is an exciting record for Tortuguero National Park's coastline.

The second notable sighting has been a very thrilling one. We were very delighted when we discovered that the ‘new bird’ recorded on one of our regular shorebird surveys was a red knot (Calidri scanutus; pictured) – the first record for the Caribbean coast! Somewhat more reserved than the jaeger, the knot moved slowly through the driftwood on the high-tide line feeding on invertebrates. It was almost as though he was thinking.

Rare bird reports have been sent to both the iNaturlist website (used by the IUCN to maintain up-to-date conservation threat status’) and to the Asociación  Ornithológica de Costa Rica. Without the hard work and enthusiasm of dedicated staff, volunteers & donors it is likely that these rare bird sightings would go overlooked. Range shifts & extensions of migratory species are important, not only for the conservation of the species themselves, but also for considering habitat conservation within their summer breeding grounds, and also when considering the effects of climate change.

In January 2010, GVI began the Biological Assessment and Incidental Sightings Projects to collect data regarding the abundance and diversity of animal species belonging to the four classes of: Amphibia, Aves, Mammalia and Reptilia. A secondary aim of the Biological Assessment Project was to determine if the data collected could be used to develop new, more class/species specific projects.

Since their inception (using data compiled from both projects), a total of 26 species of Amphibians have been identified within the area of Tortuguero National Park surveyed by GVI. These include 1 Caecillian, and 25 Anurans (3 Toads, 22 Frogs): many of these have been seen only sporadically and only a handful are recorded regularly.

It became apparent that after many night walks over several weeks, between May and July 2012, that there is a very diverse amphibian population residing in the Jalova area; which have the potential to be seen more often if regular surveys occurred. This thought, along with a desire to further understand how each area of forest effects the species found therein, prompted the creation of the Amphibian Project.

This project has two aspects: the first involves surveying various sites at night, all of which differ in their ability to retain water during the wet season - water being crucial at some stage (or all) of the life cycles of all Amphibians. The second involves gathering data on the morphology of individuals and the area they are found. This information is collected during the night and day to gain information on both nocturnal and diurnal species.

In the past 3 months, GVI has seen an increase in the number of Amphibian species recorded on a weekly basis. This includes species which have never been recorded by GVI before, such as the Boulenger’s Snouted Treefrog (Scinax boulengeri), as well as species which are rare due to extremely small ranges, such as the Tawny Treefrog (Smilisca puma) With continuing surveys it will be interesting to see if such species will be sighted more often. This will also give us more insight into where and when each species is likely to be present. It is also hoped that with the data collected from this survey, GVI will be able to further understand the differences between the habitats types.

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:

  • Walked over 3,000 miles in a combination of night and morning surveys; spending over 3,500 hours monitoring and protecting this critical nesting site
  • Recorded over 30,000 marine turtle nests; of which we have marked and excavated over 300
  • In 2011 alone, we have worked with nesting turtles on 272 occasions; including 34 with the critically endangered leatherback, 5 with the critically endangered hawksbill and 2 with the endangered loggerhead.
  • Although difficult to quantify against previous years, the low levels of poaching we observe in our section is likely due in part to the extensive amount of time we spend on the beach. In the last few months we have been directly responsible for the recovery of 470 poached leatherback eggs.

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:

-Poachers were apprehended by park rangers only a mile or so north of base and a live green turtle and 86 eggs were recovered in the process. Our continued presence on the beach acts as an extra pair of eyes for the authorities and we continually inform them of any illegal activity we observe.
-A jaguar was seen feeding on a green turtle, killed the previous night, only 300 meters from the entrance of base.
-A bird eating snake was found sleeping in one of the dorms reaffirming the fact that we really are at one with nature.
-Base renovations have been in full swing and new roofs have been built on some of our buildings, complete with skylights!!
-Green turtle nesting season really has begun and this morning, 280 new nests were recorded on our 3 mile stretch of beach… all from last night!

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Organization Information

Global Vision International Charitable Trust

Location: Exeter, Devon - United Kingdom
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Kate Robey
Exeter, Devon United Kingdom