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King of the Jungle

King Vulture flyingRiding along the edge of the forest on horseback I caught a whiff of something rotten, and a moment later a big, beautiful, black and white bird with a multicolored head came into view. It was pecking away at the stinking carcass of a dead opossum. There was a bunch of black vultures hopping around nearby mostly just watching, but occasionally darting forward and snatching a morsel of the decomposing flesh and quickly withdrawing. All kept their distance from the magnificent creature which calmly ate its fill paying little attention to the others.

King Vulture on a branch“What is that beautiful white bird?” I asked Orlando. “The zopilotes sure give it plenty of space.”

“Of course they do,” replied Orlando, a slight smile on his face. “He’s the king. We call him El Rey de Zopilotes (King of the Vultures).”

“I never knew a vulture could be so beautiful?” I blurted out in amazement. “I can see why you call him the king.”

Hacienda Baru

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The Return of the Scarlet Macaws

Macaw pair header

Once upon a time there was a Bribri Indian chief named Pabru Presberi who was master of some big, exceptionally beautiful birds called “Pa”. Everywhere the chief went large groups of Pa flocked around him. Some were red and others green, and all were covered with stunning, bright colored plumage. One day some strange men with beards from a far-away place called Spain arrived on the shores of Costa Rica. Awed by the beauty of the Pa the Spaniards killed them for their feathers which they took to their homeland as gifts for the royalty. The word “la” in Spanish means “the” in English, so they referred to the birds as “la pa” which was later shortened to “lapa”. As time went on there were less and less lapas. The Spaniards had killed all but the large flock that followed chief Pabru everywhere he went. Eventually the chief led a revolution against the Spaniards, so they captured him and took him to Cartago where he was imprisoned. The lapas followed. Eventually the Spaniards executed the chief and the red lapas flew away to the Pacific coast and the green lapas to the Caribbean coast. To this day that is where they reside.

Of course, in English, the lapa roja (Ara macao) is the scarlet macaw, and the lapa verde (Ara ambigua) is the great green macaw. Their numbers have diminished drastically over the years to the point that the great green macaw is now listed on the IUCN red list as endangered. The scarlet macaws, which were once seen in large colorful flocks up and down the entire Pacific coast, have also diminished, but not to the extent of their green cousins. It is estimated that today there are about 600 scarlet macaws in the Osa Peninsula and 400 in Carara National Park. They disappeared from the area between Manuel Antonio and Uvita in the 1960s.

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TAPIRS ARE SO COOL

And Costa Rica Is Their Last Best Hope for Survival

By Jack Ewing

Baird's TpirBiologist and tapir specialist, Charlie Foerster, once told me about an experience he had while standing on a high spot looking down over an embankment into a river when a tapir walked across a shallow area and continued into a deep pool until its head was submerged. Its elongated nose stuck out of the water like a snorkel until the animal reached the deepest part of the pool, and it too went under the surface. The water was clear and Charlie could see hordes of small fish surround the tapir and peck away at all of the ticks, lice and other external parasites attached to its hide, while the tapir blew bubbles. After a while the large mammal surfaced, took several deep breaths and sunk back to the bottom repeating the process a couple more times. Finally it walked out of the pool free of all its unwelcome hitchhikers. Now that’s what I call cool.

The Central American Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) sometimes called Baird’s Tapir, is the largest land mammal in Central and South America. They are about the size of a small cow—an adult will weigh up to 350 kg—but are shaped more like a pig. A long, prehensile snout, that has also been called a short trunk, is used to grasp vegetation and pull it into the tapir’s mouth. The front feet have three large toes and a fourth smaller toe located a little bit higher on the foot. The back feet have only three toes. This puts them in the same family as the horse and rhinoceros, the odd-toed ungulates. They love water and are seldom found far from it.

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THE SPIDER MONKEY AND THE GARLIC TREE

One of Nature’s Many Puzzles

By Jack Ewing

Fluffy yellow flowers carpeted the trail. How beautiful. Then the odor overwhelmed my nostrils. Garlic! “Oh my god,” I exclaimed turning to my friend Juan Ramón. “Are these flowers from the ajo tree?”

Juan laughed. “There it is right over there,” pointing to a tall, thick, straight tree about 20 meters off the trail. “Haven’t you ever seen the flowers before? I know you love the tree.”

As you can see in the photo the tree is not only enormous, but also tall, thick, and straight. The wood is strong and very resistant to water. Ranchers sought them out, felled them and used the wood to make boards for corrals. It was also one of the preferred woods used for railroad ties when Costa Rica’s railroads were being built. Other uses include structural supports for bridges and buildings. In the last century so many of them were cut that very few are left.

40 meter tall Ajo tree

40 meter tall Ajo tree

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Once a Beautiful River

By Jack Ewing

A few short years ago I wrote an article about the Barú River and the otters that could still be seen there at that time. (Read it HERE.) I proclaimed that the Barú was the most beautiful river on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, proudly stated that no other river bridge on the coastal highway could boast such a magnificent view, and expressed the hope that the community of Dominical would fight to keep it that way. At the time there were a number of companies trying to acquire permits to extract gravel from the river bed. The community of Dominical, having seen the destruction created by the mining of other rivers such as the Naranjo, went before the authorities, opposed the exploitation of the river for removing sand and gravel, and won. Everybody was happy, and the Barú retained its fame as the most beautiful river on the coastal highway. That was about four years ago.

Barú River before

One day in February of 2018 while driving from Hacienda Barú to Dominical I happened to glance up river while crossing the bridge. My God. It’s gone. What happened to that beautiful view? What on earth is that monstrosity running down the middle of the river? I couldn’t believe my eyes. That spectacular view from the bridge, a veritable treasure that distinguished the community of Dominical from so many others whose rivers had already been ruined, had disappeared. Almost overnight it changed from the photo above to this:

Barú River now

I am not an engineer, but I’m pretty good on common sense, and I can’t even imagine what that aberration of sand and gravel running down the middle of the river is supposed to accomplish. I suspect that it has something to do with protecting the property of people downstream who have chosen to build homes and businesses on the floodplain of a major river. As often happens when you try to alter nature it will most certainly bring some unexpected and unwelcome consequences which nobody can predict. I breathed a sigh of relief at the thought. Of course the new dike is only temporary. When Mother Nature decides that the time is right she will remove it and give us our view back.
Hacienda Baru

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Life Before and After Janet

By Jack Ewing

When the paths of powerful storms take them near the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica the accompanying low pressure systems draw in the weather from every direction including across the country and out into the Pacific aOcean. As the clouds move toward the Atlantic storm they are halted by a formidable obstacle, the Talamanca mountain range. As the moisture laden air rises in an effort to clear the mountains it cools, condenses, and falls in torrents on the Pacific side of the country. One recent example, tropical storm Nate caused millions of dollars of damage, 11 deaths, and 11,700 people displaced from their homes. In the 46 years that I have lived on Hacienda Barú, we have on occasion experienced torrential rains caused by Atlantic hurricanes: Joan in 1988, Cesar in 1996, Mitch in 1998, Stan in 2005, Nate in 2017, and many lesser storms.

Hurricane Janet pathBut from what I have been able to learn from people who were living on the Pacific coast in 1955 all of these storms were mere thunder showers compared to Hurricane Janet. She slowly made her way across the Caribbean on a course similar to that of Nate with the difference that Janet was a category 4 hurricane, not a tropical storm. Those of you who experienced Nate can only imagine the fury of Janet. On her trek northwards along the coast of central America and into southern Mexico, she became the first category 5 hurricane in the history of the region and the first to cause over 1000 deaths (according to Wikipedia).

Hacienda Baru

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Elusive Wildlife

Elusive Wildlife header

By Jack Ewing

The tropical rainforest contains more biodiversity and more biomass than any other habitat on our planet. The amount of life in the forest is overwhelming. The rainforests of the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica are home to many animals that are seldom observed by humans. We are going to have a brief look at 12 of these species. All of them have either been captured by trail cameras or seen on rare occasions by Hacienda Barú guests, guides, park rangers, and researchers. I first came to Hacienda Barú in February of 1972. During the 46 years from then until today I have never seen a puma, ocelot, margay cat, or false vampire bat, and have sighted each of the other 8 species less than 10 times.

Puma

Puma (Puma concolor) The first sighting on Hacienda Barú was in the year 2010 by two of our guests. Since that time there have been about a half dozen sightings per year and many photos and videos taken by trail cameras. The fact that the ecosystem is robust enough to sustain a large predator speaks highly of the biological health of the region. This photo of a young puma was taken by a trail camera.

Ocelot

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) – These are the second largest feline in the area, with mature adults weighing about 15 kg (33 pounds). I have never seen a live one in the wild, but my wife Diane has seen two during the time we have lived here. One of the workers at Hacienda Barú killed one in the early 1970s because it was eating his wife’s chickens. The sight of the dead body of the magnificent spotted cat affected me deeply, and set me on a path that led away from cattle ranching and toward the restoration and protection of natural habitat and the wildlife that it harbors. This photo was taken with a trail camera.
Hacienda Baru

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Ocelot Factory

Ocelot

Photo: Daniel Allen

By Jack Ewing

On September 14, 2016, one of the Hacienda Barú guides sent me a photo of an ocelot killed on the coastal highway in front of the Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge. From the spot pattern on its neck and shoulders I was able to identify it as a young male, about two years old, who I had previously named “Frodo”. His identification was made possible by comparing the photo of the dead ocelot with photos and videos of Frodo taken by our trail cameras. Every individual ocelot’s spot pattern is unique, and this facilitates identification. There are tunnels under the highway at Hacienda Barú, and most of the ocelots use them. I assume Frodo had never crossed the highway before and didn’t know about the tunnels.

Dead ocelot on the roadA couple of months earlier a new mature male, an enormous individual who I named “Brutus”, had ousted the male who had reigned for at least three years. I would imagine that Frodo, who was probably a son of the ousted alpha male, and who was approaching reproductive age, felt threatened by Brutus and was forced to leave the territory where he was born and raised. The death of the beautiful, young spotted cat was saddening, but not cause for alarm. There was at least one producing adult female and an immature female, “Tinkerbell”, about a year from reproductive age. There was also quite possibly a second mature producing female within Brutus’ territory. So the death of Frodo wouldn’t have a major impact on the population. We thought.
Hacienda Baru

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Osa Gold

Osa Gold HeaderIf you saw a small Irish man with a beard and bushy eyebrows who lives in the forest, loves the color green, and has a passion for gold you might think he was a “Leprechaun”. But if that forest happened to be on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, more than likely it would be my good friend Patrick J. O’Connell, commonly known as “The Goldwalker”. Unlike the Leprechaun he is not the keeper of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but he has lived the most extraordinary life of anyone I have ever known, walking from one end of the Osa to the other for 26 years buying gold.

Jack and Patrick

Jack and Patrick

In 1964 Patrick and three friends drove to Costa Rica in a 1958 Dodge panel truck. All were veterans of the Korean war and out for adventure. They came to Costa Rica for the hunting. For three years he stayed in the Talamanca mountain range in southern Costa Rica near a place called Potrero Grande. Then Patrick moved to the Osa Peninsula where the hunting was spectacular.

As it is today the Osa of the 1960s was one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet but that is where the similarity ends. At that time there was no national park, no tourism, no roads, and most of the residents were fugitives from the law. After the civil war of 1948 many of the soldiers from the losing side fled to the Osa to escape execution. Additionally criminals of all sorts took advantage of the remoteness of the peninsula and went there to escape punishment. It was a place of exile. No criminal act was terrible enough to bring the police to the peninsula. If someone was killed in a barroom brawl the others just dragged the body outside, and in the morning someone would bury it. The government didn’t care.
Hacienda Baru

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Strange Partners

When You Quit Chopping the Weeds the Jungle Returns With a Vengeance

macaws return
By Jack Ewing
Environmentalists and people in the real estate business don’t usually like each other very much. The former tend to blame the latter of environmental destruction while the latter accuse the former of obstructing development and progress. In spite of this, on a strip of coastal land in southern Costa Rica 80 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide, nothing short of an environmental miracle has been accomplished by these two actors working separately and each doing their own thing. The area is called the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor (PTBC), and its landscape has been transformed from one of pastures and farm land to lush tropical forest replete with wildlife. It is one of the few places on our planet where biodiversity is increasing and has been for the last 35 years.
Hacienda Baru

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SAVEGRE BIOSPHERE RESERVE

International Recognition of our Natural Treasures

By Jack Ewing

Those of us who live in this area and have been active in the environmental movement are proud to inform our visitors, friends, and the general public that on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Paris, France, UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program declared the Savegre River basin and much of the surrounding area “The Savegre Biosphere Reserve”. On Saturday, July 8, 2017 in San Gerardo de Dota, with the presence of Luis Guillermo Solis, president of Costa Rica, and representatives of local governments, community and environmental organizations the reserve became official. The president and the minister of the environment signed a decree officially recognizing all four biosphere reserves in Costa Rica and declaring November 3 annual biosphere reserve day. The newly signed decree creates the organizational structure with which locally entities will promote the sustainable use of our biodiversity. It is truly an honor to live and work in such a special place.

Paramo to Pacific Beach. Photo: Lautjie Boshoff

Paramo to Pacific Beach. Photo: Lautjie Boshoff

The MAB program designates certain areas of the planet that are well conserved and representative of a variety of natural habitats as biosphere reserves. The program is unique in that it not only promotes the protection of natural areas but also values human activities within those areas.Hacienda Baru

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Torture in the Rainforest

Puma arrivingBy Jack Ewing
All of you cat lovers out there aren’t going to be very happy with my use of the word “torture” to describe what your beloved pets do to little animals like mice, frogs, birds, and geckos. It’s hard to think badly about your beautiful, soft, cuddly friend and easy to rationalize any behavior no matter how abhorrent. The justification usually comes out something like: “Oh! That’s just what cats do. She’s only playing with the mouse.” Humm, I see, ”only playing”. I wonder what the mouse would have to say about that euphemism.

Diane and I live in a rural environment, and our three cats roam about freely inside and outside. They all love to hunt, seldom eat what they kill, and often don’t kill what they catch. I have watched a cat grab a battered mouse in its mouth, toss it into the air, bat it around with its paws, scratch it, and, when the prey quits moving, leave it to die a slow and painful death. You can call that whatever you want, but I call it torture.

I love our pets, but I love nature even more. Though I never really thought about it, it never occurred to me that this type of behavior might exist in the wild. Somehow wild animals, even cats, seemed too noble to engage in anything as abominable as torture. Mark Wainwright, in his excellent field guide, Mammals of Costa Rica, describes how the specialized dentition and formation of the jaw of our wild cats is adapted to killing their prey quickly and efficiently. He tells us, “They kill with a bone-splintering bite to their prey’s head or neck, for which the canine teeth—the broadest and strongest of any carnivore—are essential. A gap between the canines and the cheek teeth allows the canines to sink deep into the prey.” Not only Wainwright, but many other sources refer to the death bite inflicted by the large felines. I’m sure that I have heard about it on Animal Planet more than once. Cats are almost exclusively carnivorous seldom touching any food other than animal flesh. Wainwright goes on to say that pumas and jaguars eat deer, peccary, pacas, armadillos, rabbits, agoutis, opossums, porcupines, spiny rats, iguanas, bats, and snakes. Other sources also include coatis and raccoons in the list.Hacienda Baru

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Gmelina

Tree Mining, Cardboard Boxes, and Poison Sawdust

 By Jack Ewing

Gmelina treeCarpenters, 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 (61,775 acres) of it, is a fascinating tale.

I first learned of gmelina in the early 1980s from an article in The Economist magazine. It told of a wealthy investor named Daniel Ludwig, who had determined that the world would soon be facing a severe paper shortage. In order to capitalize on the situation, he purchased one million acres of land in the Amazon jungle near the Jari River. Next, he contracted with a Japanese firm to build a paper mill mounted on pontoons. He then hired some monster tug boats to tow the mill from Japan, across the Pacific Ocean, around the tip of South America, up the eastern coastline of the continent, into the mouth of the Amazon River and up the Jari River to the point where he expected to operate it. The plant was too big to pass through the Panama Canal. The plan was to cut the existing forest, process the trees in the paper mill and plant gmelina trees on the denuded land. The gmelina trees were fast-growing, made excellent paper pulp, could be harvested after only six years and then grew right back again.Hacienda Baru

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Machete

Machete by Jack EwingMany years ago on a Saturday afternoon, having gone to the police station in Matapalo for something or other, I found a hand cuffed, bare footed, blood covered man with a deep cut starting on his right shoulder and extending across his chest. There was blood on the floor, the chair he was sitting in, and even on the wall. Don Marcos, the policeman, was sitting at his desk writing up a report. “Machete fight,” he said in reply to my inquisitive look. “The other one’s on his way to the hospital. This one started it,” nodding toward the bloody prisoner.

Assorted machetes.

Assorted machetes.

To the average outsider visiting rural Costa Rica the big knife is simply a machete, but to the campesino, or rural resident, it is an absolute necessity of life. Machetes are used for everything: chopping weeds, cutting small trees, trimming hedges and bushes, pruning trees, peeling the bark off of poles, splitting kindling, peeling oranges, harvesting rice, corn, cacao, bananas, and other crops, cutting boards, shaving the edge of a board, scraping crud off of anything, unscrewing bolts, cutting lawns, digging in flower beds, killing snakes, and I’m sure there are more that can be added to the list. I have never seen anyone shave with one, but I don’t doubt that it has happened. As mentioned above it is, on rare occasions, used as a weapon. More about that later.

Hacienda Baru

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A Really Nasty Character

Greater grison

By Jack Ewing

Nature & Natural History logoThe book Mammals of Costa Rica by Mark Wainwright describes 21 different species of carnivores found in the country, two from the dog family (canids), six from the raccoon family (procyonids), six from the cat family (felids), and seven from the weasel family (mustelids). This last family boasts some of the toughest and most ferocious animals on the planet, pound for pound. In Costa Rica they are represented by the long-tailed weasel, neotropical river otter, spotted skunk, stripped hog-nosed skunk, hooded skunk, tayra, and the greater grison. This last, the greater grison (Galactis vittata), is distinguished by its ferocity and ability to kill prey considerably larger than itself. I certainly wouldn’t want to tangle with one.

Greater grisons are found in the central and southern pacific regions of Costa Rica but are relatively unknown even by people who live in areas where they are found. I did an informal poll of employees at Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge and found that most of the guides and park rangers had heard of the grison, but only four had ever seen one. None of the receptionists or restaurant personnel had ever heard of them. Over the last 45 years I have been privileged to see five greater grisons.

Hacienda Baru

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