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!!