(header photo courtesy of Miriam Girasol)
The Leatherbacks and the Ants!
I am coming to terms with leaf-cutter ants coming into our cabin at night, and walking their endless trail up and down the door with their carefully cut pieces of leaf ready to feed their fungus.
I don’t know why they use one trail during the day (outside our cabin) and another at night (inside the cabin!). Fortunately they don’t deviate from their path and investigate us in bed!
We are volunteering for two weeks with the Endangered Wildlife Trust at Pacuare Reserve, on the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. 25 years ago, John Denham bought over 1000 hectares of land here, and now the leatherback turtles and the eggs that they come to lay on the beaches here, have been protected from poachers. Why should we care? Briefly, leatherback turtles mostly eat jellyfish. Jellyfish mostly eat eggs and juvenile finfish. If jellyfish are not controlled (and leatherbacks are a big part of this control), finfish stocks become hugely depleted. That affects subsistence and commercial fishermen around the world.
John Denham and his wife Hilda, have a passion for endangered wildlife, particularly the huge leatherback turtles, and that passion is easy to see here among the workers recruited from the local community, and the scientists, researchers, coordinators and assistants who come from around the world to spend months at a time, patrolling the beaches, measuring and guarding the turtles, eggs and hatchlings, and using the statistics they acquire in their ongoing research.
Chris and I are volunteers not scientists, but we’ve been welcomed with open arms, and made to feel a part of this community for the time we’re here. This is the beginning of turtle egg-laying season, so we knew coming in that we might not see any leatherbacks.
Accommodations are in simple cabins, with screened windows – I’m glad we brought our own mosquito nets! The cold showers in the separate shower and toilet block are very welcome after a day’s work in this humid climate. There are solar panels which provide sufficient electricity at night, although not in the cabins, and there is limited internet service too!
We’ve been helping out with general maintenance around the reserve, weeding, taking cuttings and planting in the Reserve’s organic garden. We’ve been out with a group of local teenagers, planting young trees to aid in the reforestation of the reserve, trying to bring back the forest to what it was before slash and burn clearance. That was a fun day! We loaded up the small boat with people and young trees, and made our way down the canal, deep into the forest. There we found an open area, and began to dig holes to plant our trees. This is the rainforest, and soon it started doing what it does best: rain! Well, we continued to plant until all the trees were in, and we were soaked to the skin! We went back to the reserve, and warmed up with the delicious coffee that is always available.
A few days later, some people from Panthera arrived to talk to us about the jaguar situation in central America. Jaguars and their paw prints have been seen on and off for years here at Pacuare, and Panthera plans to set up a few camera traps to try to find out how many there are. The very next morning, we were beyond excited to hear that Jonathan, one of the workers here, had actually photographed a jaguar swimming in our lagoon, at 10 am!
As well as leatherback turtles and jaguars, there are a couple of crocodiles who live in the lagoon, and we have learned that the female has just made a nest. We don’t swim in the lagoon 🙂 There is also a small pond, with a cayman who hangs out there.
One evening, Danilo, one of the workers, took us out on a nature hike in the jungle. We were delighted to see the beautiful red-eyed tree frog, the red poison dart frog, and a huge variety of lizards, spiders and ants. There are numerous frogs that leap from under our feet at night – every size from smaller than your fingernail, to several inches across. There are crabs that scuttle around, fearing nothing. There are fireflies in the trees, and what appeared to be fireflies at our feet. Shiny green reflections showed in our torchlight. A careful look showed us the green was eyeshine from tiny spiders!
Our little group of cabins is set in the trees inhabited by a family of howler monkeys, as well as capuchin monkeys. We often see them feeding on leaves and fruit, and they don’t seem to be disturbed by us. The howlers don’t appear to like the rain. At night, when it starts to rain, the howlers begin to howl!
We also have a resident spider who has built her beautiful web to the side of our cabin, luckily it’s not right outside the door! She’s a Golden Orb Web spider, and we’ve been watching her grow over the two weeks we’ve been here.
We often see beautiful lizards with a yellow-orange stripe down their body, and a turquoise tail – they hardly look real!
One day we took a walk into the forest with Hilda to see the splendid Agami herons. This area is one of only two known nesting sites for these glorious birds. They are quite shy, but we managed to spend some time watching from the hide. Costa Rica is a birders’ paradise. Check out this beautifully written blog piece by Kirsten Hines about the Agami herons at Pacuare.
Chris also took some video of the oropendola birds, showing their mating displays.
Oh turtles, yes indeed, there are leatherback turtles here! We were extremely fortunate to be called out two nights in a row, as the coordinator and assistants spotted turtles coming up onto the beach to nest, right in front of the reserve’s cabins! We threw on our clothes and walked down quietly to the beach. These amazing pre-historic looking creatures are large, usually around 1.5 metres long along the length of the carapace. They haul themselves out of the water and up the beach answering the call to nest. Their back flippers can bend and shape themselves into spade-like shapes, ideal for digging in the sand. The nests are usually about a metre or more deep. After she has dug her nest, the turtle pauses, gives an audible sigh and then starts to lay eggs. The eggs are white, and about the size of ping-pong balls. Although she appears to be in a trance while laying, we take care to keep our distance and not disturb her.
The field assistants carefully and skillfully measure her, note the location, and check for tags. If she isn’t already tagged, they quickly attach one. In some cases, the eggs are carefully bagged and taken to be relocated in a safe hatchery. When she has finished laying – anything from 50 up to 150 eggs – the turtle carefully covers over the nest, and using her flippers, rotates around the nest, camouflaging all signs to try to keep the eggs safe from predators. Then she turns and moves off back down the beach, back to the sea. What a thrill, what a glorious sight, how lucky we are to see this! The eggs will start to hatch in about 60-65 days’ time.
Please note all photos of leatherbacks: swimming, nesting, egg-laying, are courtesy of Pacuare Reserve. We did not take photos when we saw the turtles.
In July 2014, the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Pacuare Reserve, and John & Hilda Denham were honoured by a reception hosted by the British Ambassador to Costa Rica. Long may they and the Reserve’s trustees and the scientists and volunteers who come to work here, continue their good work.
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