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Tree Mining, Cardboard Boxes, & Poison Sawdust

By Jack Ewing

Gmelina arborea leaves

Gmelina arborea leaves

Carpenters, builders and sawmill operators love it; chicken and pig farmers hate it; and environmentalists have mixed feelings about it. I have heard people say that the gmelina tree (Gmelina arborea) is a plague that should be eradicated from the face of the earth, yet others believe that it is a miracle tree with great potential for the recuperation of ecosystems and the environment. Regardless of what you believe about the gmelina tree – native to southeast Asia – the story of how it got to the Americas and how Costa Rica came to plant 25,000 hectares of it, is a fascinating tale.

Hacienda Baru

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More than Sustainable

By Jack Ewing

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word “sustainable” as: “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or seriously damaged.” The word has been in use for a long time, at least since 1727 according to Merriam-Webster. In recent years, with increased interest in our environment and concern over the rate of depletion of our natural resources, the word has come into popular usage. Information about how to live sustainably is readily available, as are products for sustainable ways of doing things. Energy efficiency is of utmost importance followed by water efficiency, social responsibility, general environmental friendliness and others.

In environmental terms being sustainable means that we don’t use resources faster than they can be reproduced. Our actions do not cause the environment to deteriorate. If we are sustainable we can continue to do things in the same manner indefinitely and the environment will remain pretty much the same. The word doesn’t necessarily mean that the environment is in great shape; it only means that it is not getting any worse. 

Hacienda Baru

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A Ball of Fluff Called Equinox

Boy What a Good Bug

Boy What a Good Bug

By Jack Ewing

Equinox is a Latin word meaning “equal night.” Twice each year, when the sun shines directly over the equator, day and night are the same length all over the globe. These two dates are called the March equinox and the September equinox. The March equinox, which marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, always falls on March 20 or 21, and the September equinox, which marks the beginning of fall, always falls on September 22 or 23. The March equinox in the year 2009 fell on March 20, and that was the day that a little ball of fluff came walking into my office at 6:30 in the evening just as I was thinking about closing up and going home. It was obviously a very young owl, nearly ready to fledge, but not yet able to fly. We had heard an owl calling near the office on quite a few occasions, and I surmised that this youngster had fallen out of it’s nest, and that its chances of getting back were almost nil.

Hacienda Baru

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Turtle Season, 2011

Returning to the Sea

Returning to the Sea

By Jack Ewing

The date was October 16, 2008, the time 4:30 PM. Steve and Peggy Sue watched as the bulky form emerged from the shallow waves and began dragging itself up on the moist sand of Barú Beach. It was a strange sight to behold, especially in the afternoon. Olive Ridley Marine Turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) don’t normally come out of the sea and lay their eggs during daylight hours. In fact, they normally steer clear of the moonlight, only appearing on the beach when the night is pitch black. But here she was, in all her glory, awkwardly pulling herself up the beach with flippers that looked better suited for maneuvering around in the sea than dragging a hundred pounds of dead weight across the sand. When she reached a point where thousands of years of accumulated instinct told her that the beach looked right, the female began to dig with paddle-like rear flippers. The digging continued until she could reach no deeper. After positioning her backside over the hole  she began to expel the flexible, white, leathery spheres shrouded in thick mucous, each about the size and shape of a golf ball. The eggs plopped into the hole one by one until no more remained inside the reptile. The female began scooping the sand back into the hole covering the precious eggs that would assure the future of her species. She positioned her hard bony underplate, over the mound of sand and, using her flippers, raised her heavy body into the air and quickly let it fall with a resounding thud, repeating the process until the nest was firmly packed. Near exhaustion, the female Olive Ridley Turtle began her labored trek back to the water’s edge stopping frequently to rest until, at last, she was swallowed by the vastness of the sea. Noticing the encroaching darkness, Steve glanced at his watch. The time was 5:30 PM. “We’d better get back to the lodge,” he said. “Nightfall comes quickly in the tropics.”

Hacienda Baru

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A One-Colored Big “Small” Cat

Puma Concolor – photo by Alan Olander

Puma Concolor – photo by Alan Olander

Where have all the coatis gone?

By Jack Ewing

Gatun Lake was created when the Panama Canal was built. Before the area was flooded there was nothing but primary rainforest. Once the lake was full only the top of a mountain remained above water. Today that 15.6 square kilometers of forest covered mountain top is known as Barro Colorado Island, and it is one of the most intensively studied rainforests in the world. At some point scientists noticed that bird populations on the island were diminishing, and they endeavored to find out why. As it turned out, the root of the problem had to do with big cats. When the lake was flooded a few pumas and jaguars ended up on Barro Colorado. Since the island was too small to support even one large cat for any length of time they all eventually swam to shore. That’s when the birds started diminishing. Without pumas and jaguars to prey on the coatis and raccoons their populations increased rapidly. Both of these mammal species are omnivorous, both are semi arboreal, both are opportunistic predators, and they wreaked havoc on the nesting birds. As often happens when Mother Nature is allowed a free rein, the problem eventually solved itself. From time to time a large cat will swim to the island, stay and hunt until the prey base is thinned considerably, and swim back to the mainland. This keeps populations coatis and raccoons more or less under control.

Hacienda Baru

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The Eternal Problem of Poaching

You Can Diminish It, But You Can’t Stop It Completely

By Jack Ewing

In February of 2003 I had the opportunity to visit the Sirena Biological Station located on the Pacific side of Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. We met several University of Costa Rica biology students who were participating in. Dr. Eduardo Carillo’s long standing study of jaguars (Panthera onca) at Corcovado. They were searching for signs of the jaguar’s primary prey, the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari,)  more commonly known as the wild pig. For an entire week they saw only the smaller collared-peccary (Pecari tajacu.)  When asked why the jaguars and their prey were suffering serious population reductions, the UCR students stated that poaching in Corcovado was out of control.
Hacienda Baru

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The Guy with the Black Hat Riding the Bicycle

by Jack Ewing

The Story of a Campesino Called “Tornillo”

Everyone who lives near Dominical has seen Tornillo (pronounced tor-knee-yo) at one time or another. He’s the guy with the black hat riding the bicycle toward Platanillo every week day in the mid afternoon. For twenty-four years Daniel Valverde Granados has lived in Platanillo and worked at Hacienda Barú. His work day begins at 6:00 AM, which means he has to leave home around 4:00. The ride down takes less than an hour, putting him at Hacienda Barú before sunrise. That leaves an hour to drink coffee and chat with his fellow workers, who usually begin arriving at 5:00. After eight hours of swinging a machete, building fence, planting trees and driving a tractor, Daniel again mounts his bicycle and begins the grueling uphill ride back to Platanillo, this time an hour and a half ride. As you might suspect, with an exercise-filled day like Daniel’s, he is in excellent physical condition. Now that he has decided to retire, he is worried about getting fat.
Hacienda Baru

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A Small Golden Eagle for Juanito

By Jack Ewing

In 1957 Juanito was 12 years old. He was the youngest member of a group of six who left San Isidro early one morning on an adventure they would all remember for the rest of their lives. Rodolfo’s 4WD pickup was loaded to the brim with supplies, including enough rice and beans for two weeks, shovels, picks, bars for digging and prying, machetes and a few other basic items. Juanito and Ignacio’s son, Jorge, rode in the back of the pickup with Luis; Rodolfo drove; and the other two men, Ignacio and Quincho, rode up front. The Pan-American highway was rough and full of holes, but after nearly four hours they pulled into Buenos Aires and stopped for a bite to eat. There the group was joined by an Indian named Porfilio, who would serve as their guide for the rest of the trip. Porfilio rode with those in the back of the heavily loaded pickup. They drove out of Buenos Aires and again headed south on the Pan-American highway.
Hacienda Baru

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Lencho’s War

By Jack Ewing

1948 is a special year in Costa Rican history, but its significance was perceived differently by different people. If you were on the winning side you would remember it as a heroic revolution. The losers would call it a power grab. Most outside observers saw it as a bloody civil war, and none of the participants will ever deny that it was bloody. Today everyone recognizes that the single most important result of the war was the abolition of the Costa Rican armed forces six months after its conclusion.

The war of 1948 had been brewing for some time, but the incident that triggered the eruption of violence was alleged election fraud in the elections of 1948. The people who lived in Hatillo de Aguirre knew that there was an election, but didn’t care who was running, much less worry about the outcome. Had there been a place to vote, none was eligible, as all were Panamanian citizens. The government barely knew that Hatillo existed, so the people weren’t much concerned with who ran the government. Likewise the war wasn’t of any special importance to them. It wasn’t their war. For that reason, when word arrived that the soldiers were coming, Marvin Espinosa called a family meeting. It wasn’t very democratic because Marvin made all of the decisions. But everyone had their say, the men at least.
Hacienda Baru

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Petroglyphs, Head Hunters, and Gold Seeking Grave Robbers

By Jack Ewing

Petroglyph

Petroglyph

Quite a few years ago someone wrote a short article for a local magazine in which they stated that at the beginning of the twentieth century the area around Dominical was covered with forests and inhabited by indigenous people who lived at peace with each other and in harmony with nature. The person who wrote those words obviously hadn’t studied any of the available evidence about indigenous people in this part of Costa Rica and was writing straight from their imagination. The part about the area being covered with forest is true, but at the beginning of the last century, there were no Indians here at all, and hadn’t been any for at least four hundred years. The last Indians to inhabit this region, far from living in peace with their fellow man were head hunters, who practiced slavery and human sacrifice. Whether or not they lived in harmony with nature is a matter of debate, but they were fairly advanced agriculturalists and must have done a lot of deforestation in order to grow the corn that was the basis of their diet. Nevertheless, they probably didn’t do as much damage to their environment as modern humans.

Hacienda Baru

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Great Weather for Bare Throated Tiger Herons

By Jack Ewing

The season is here for bird watching fever.

The patter of raindrops lightly pelting the leaves far above our heads was the first warning of a change in weather. It would take a minute or two for the rain to filter down 50 meters, through the layers of canopy to the jungle floor. We covered our binoculars with plastic bags.

“Maybe it’ll pass,” I offered weakly.

“You think so?” queried John, hopefully.

“No, not really, but let’s wait and see. When the rain comes this early in the day, it’s not usually a passing shower. If we go back, we’ll be soaked by the time we get to the house anyway, so we might just as well wait a while and see.”Hacienda Baru

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Hocus and Pocus – Strange Creeper Cats

By Jack Ewing

JaguarundiWhen I first laid eyes on the two black kittens a quote from a Robert Heinlein novel popped into my mind. It has been so many years ago since I read it that I can’t even remember which one is was, but I remember the quote. In referring to a complex subject Heinlein said that making sense of it was “… like searching in a dark cellar at midnight on a moonless night for a black cat that isn’t there.” These two kittens were that black without a hint of any other color. Even their eyes were black. In addition to their extreme blackness there was always an air of mysteriousness about them. They didn’t walk like ordinary cats, rather they walked all crouched down, more of a creep than a walk, like they were constantly stalking something. They never made any noises other than purring; they never clawed the furniture; they were never underfoot and never got into trouble of any kind. There was always something strange about them. We named them Hocus and Pocus.
Hacienda Baru

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Please Don’t Swim with the Crocodiles

Caiman 1.5 meters

Caiman 1.5 meters

By Jack Ewing

It never occurred to me that bathing in the Barú River might be dangerous. We used to go there every day during the dry season, around 4:00 in the afternoon. Sometimes when the tide was in, I wondered if sharks ever came into the river, but we never saw any. We once saw a snake swim across the river. It was partially submerged, and even though it came pretty close to us, I couldn’t tell what kind it was. We saw lots of caimans in the mangrove estuary at Hacienda Barú, but not in the river, and the ones we saw were more afraid of us than we of them. Most of them were a lot smaller than a human and didn’t look like much of a threat. 
Hacienda Baru

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How Our Towns and Villages Got Their Names

Dominical-1868By Jack Ewing

The origins of the names of places are sometimes obvious and sometimes obscure. The stories of how the places in the south central coastal region got their names are often interesting and tell us something about the area where we live.

Many places in Costa Rica were named by the church and our region is no exception. Examples of these are San Isidro, San Juan de Dios and San Josecito. A few villages already had local names when the church decided to give them the name of a saint. In these cases the inhabitants didn’t always embrace the new name.Hacienda Baru
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YOU MAKE MISTAKE, MAYBE WE DIE

by Jack Ewing

These days everybody knows that Costa Rica is a Central American country located between Panama and Nicaragua, but there was a time when it was fairly common for people to confuse it with Puerto Rico. I once made that mistake myself. Little did I know that I would end up living here for most my life.

As director of Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, I meet lots of people and am often asked the question: “How long have you been here?”

“Forty years”

“Wow, what did you do, come down here on vacation and never leave?”

“Well no, it wasn’t quite like that.”

Hacienda Baru
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