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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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Collared Peccary

Their Intelligence Rivals That of Monkeys

Collared PeccaryBy Jack Ewing

Although I have lived at Hacienda Barú since 1972, I had never seen a peccary in the wild until 1997. Volunteers had come here, stayed a week or two, helped on environmental projects, and during that short time many of them had the good luck of seeing the collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), called zahinos locally. Our guides had seen them on numerous occasions as had our guests. My brother Rex came for his first visit in 14 years. He and his wife LaVonne did an overnight jungle camping tour with a sharp-eyed local guide named Deiner. I volunteered to carry the food up to the camp that afternoon. There had been a lot of collared peccary sightings recently, and I figured I had a good chance of seeing one during my hike up to the camp. I saw tracks everywhere and even caught a whiff of their musky scent. The ground had been dug up in several places where they had routed around with their noses for invertebrates, roots and tubers, but no collared peccary. When I got to the camp with the food, Rex and LaVonne couldn’t wait to tell me about the group they had seen, five of them.

Hacienda Baru

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A Man They Call “The Post Office”

39 Years as a Rural Letter Carrier

Pablo and Guardian

Pablo and Guardian

By Jack Ewing

Marvin and Carmen Espinosa were the first pioneers to settle the area around Hatillo. Originally from northern Panama they came to the area in the late 1920s. Working together they took possession of all of the land between Hacienda Barú and the Hatillo Viejo River, about 1000 hectares (2470 acres). Their nephew, Pablo, was born in Naranjito de Quepos in 1929 to their sister Magdalena and Euclides Zuñiga. Pablo was 12 years old when the family moved to Hatillo. His older brother, Gustavo, had acquired some property from his uncles, and Pablo worked with him cutting down rainforest and converting the land into pasture and farm land and tending to the livestock and crops.

War 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 knew that there was an election, but didn’t know who was running, much less worry about the outcome. The government barely knew that Hatillo existed, so the people weren’t 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 from San Isidro were coming, Marvin Espinosa called a family meeting. The men decided to hide out deep into the rainforest until the soldiers went elsewhere. Otherwise they would all be forced into fighting. The women were worried, but Marvin told them to calm down. “You have nothing to worry about. They’re not gonna take you to the war. When the soldiers come looking for us tell them we went with the soldiers from Quepos. They’ll believe that and can’t check on it. We’ll be back in about a week.” The men all headed for a heavily forested area called Dos Bocas.

Hacienda Baru

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Chocolate Addiction isn’t Exclusive to Humans

Cacoa seeds

Cacoa pod & seeds

Lots of Wild Animals Love Cacao Seeds

By Jack Ewing

More than a dozen years ago when I wrote the original article “Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate” for Quepolandia, little did I know that it would later become chapter one of a book by the same name. It talked about the unexpected effect that the increased availability of cacao seeds had on the general health and population of white-faced monkeys. In summary the article said that when we abandoned our nine hectares (22 acres) of cacao plantations at Hacienda Barú, due to a market plunge, the monkeys immediately moved in and started chowing down on cacao seeds. As a result of this windfall of nutrition the white-faced capuchins no longer had to struggle to survive, rather they got fat and happy and started having more babies than ever. The article goes on to compare this to humans and has an interesting message at the end. When I wrote that article I was only beginning to understand the complexity of a cacao plantation that has been given over natural processes. Man can plant cacao for the production of chocolate for the exclusive consumption of humans, which all of my fellow chocolate lovers will appreciate, but only Mother Nature can exploit it to its fullest. One of the most researched protected areas in Costa Rica is a huge nature reserve called “La Selva Biological Station.” A biologist friend once told me that the most biologically diverse areas of La Selva were the old abandoned cacao plantations, not the primary forest that one might expect. This got me to thinking and paying more attention to our old cacao plantations at Hacienda Barú which have not been pruned or otherwise cared for since 1986. I soon figured out that the cacao producing trees were planted only four meters apart, and that nowhere in a natural forest do we find such a concentration of nutrients.

Hacienda Baru

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Agoutis, Agoutis & More Agoutis

Camera Trap

Camera Trap

A Fun New Way of Monitoring Wildlife

by Jack Ewing

“Oh my God”, I blurted out to no one in particular. “Absolutely incredible”. A full grown puma was walking straight toward me on the computer screen. The two receptionists who were in office and heard my exclamation hurried over to see what I was so excited about.  I restarted the 15-second video so everyone could see. An adult puma came walking straight at the camera, its eyes glowing from the infrared illumination. It looked like it was stalking the camera. At the last moment the large carnivore veered to the right and walked out of the field of view. It was a very exciting day. The presence of large carnivores in the Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge was a clear indication of a healthy ecosystem. Since that first video in December of 2012 we have captured 87 more of pumas at four different locations within the refuge.

Hacienda Baru

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Twice-in-a-Lifetime Experiences

13571260-Cayman-Caiman-crocodilus-fuscus-with-butterfly-feeding-in-its-mouth-Cano-Negro-reserve-Alajuela-Cost-Stock-Photo

Caiman

The Best Job Ever

By Jack Ewing

“The biggest caiman in the swamp always takes possession of the pool that surrounds the area where the cattle egrets nest,” I told the guests. “Whenever a clumsy egret chick falls in the water he grabs it.”

We had been observing a nesting site with hundreds of cattle egrets. It was nesting season and the small island of woody shrubs was full of egrets. It was located in a large open pool in a mangrove estuary. The egrets loved it because predators like raccoons, and coatis wouldn’t cross the water to get to the nests. I assumed they were afraid of the caimans.

Hacienda Baru

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Battling with the Africanized Bees

My struggle with what has been called the most successful biologically invasive species ever to plague the western hemisphere.

By Jack Ewing

beeHacienda Barú Lodge has been in operation since 1990, and I thought that I had experienced all of the problems that could possibly confront a hotel manager. That was until one warm March evening in 2012 when a swarm of africanized bees invaded one of our guest rooms. The guests had returned to their room about 6:30 pm and found it full of bees. The first hotel employee they encountered was the guard who they told about the problem. He went to see for himself and called the office on his radio.

“There are a lot of bees in #24” he told me.

“How many is a lot?” I asked, “10, 20, 50?”

“Oh no, lots more; I mean that there are 1000’s of bees in #24.”

“I’ll be right there,” I said, and headed out the door.

Hacienda Baru

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Wild Animals are Smarter than We Think

A Glimpse of Intelligence and Adaptability in Tropical Nature

by Jack Ewing

Great Tinamou

Great Tinamou

The Jungle Chicken

The great tinamou, called gallina de monte or jungle chicken in Spanish, looks like a grouse. With great effort it can fly, but not far or high. When you are walking through the jungle and a horrible ruckus that scares you out of your wits erupts from the base of nearby tree, it is almost certainly a tinamou. The interesting thing about these chicken-sized, gray colored birds is that they don’t always startle easily. At Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge we discovered years ago that we can use them as a barometer to indicate the prevalence of poachers in the reserve. When lots of illegal hunting is going on the tinamous are very skittish and will take to flight at the slightest provocation. Although the poachers are usually after paca or peccary they will kill the great tinamou as well. On the other hand, after several months without being shot at, they become very tame. I have seen them walking along no more than three of four meters away from people who are hiking through the jungle. What amazes me about this is that the change in their behavior takes place within a short period of time. They apparently learn quickly when people are a threat to them and when not.

Hacienda Baru

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Quest for the Silky Anteater

Silky anteaterThe Golden Tennis Ball

By Jack Ewing

Back in the 1980s the economy in this part of Costa Rica was still driven by rice farming and cattle ranching. Tourism was something we all knew would come later, but nobody had a clear picture of how it would work. In 1986 the government paved the road between San Isidro and Dominical, and the bridge across the Barú River was completed. Work on the Coastal Highway south of Dominical was in progress and proceeding slowly. A few tourists started filtering into the area, and cabins to accommodate them started appearing here and there. It was the very beginning of a new way of life for the rural community. In a few years it would come to replace farming and ranching as the most important economic activity in the area.
Hacienda Baru

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Exploring the Rainforest Canopy

Santo Domingo Andrivel

Santo Domingo andrivel

By Jack Ewing

Everyone I know who has ever crossed a river on one of those old cable cars has gotten their fingers pinched at least once. Years ago this was the only way to cross some of the major rivers in rural Costa Rica. There was one over the Guabo river at Barú before the bridge was built in the early 60s, and I have ridden in the one that used to span the Savegre River at Santo Domingo. Up until about 2010 a cable was stretched across the river there with a platform hanging from it on a couple of pulleys. In Costa Rica this type of cable crossing is called an “andarivel”. Everybody knew that the carrying capacity of the one at Santo Domingo was two passengers, but people often overloaded it anyway. In order to make the platform move along the cable it was necessary for the passenger to pull on the cable. Since the only place to pull was between the two pulleys people often got their fingers caught in the second pulley. I can testify to this from personal experience. The andarivel at Santo Domingo was replaced with a suspension bridge about five years ago. There is still a functioning andarivel on the Savegre river between Silencio and Santo Domingo. I jokingly say that the andarivels were Costa Rica’s first zip lines.
Hacienda Baru

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Bird Watching Fever. Ecotourism at its Best.

Scarlet Macaw

Scarlet Macaw

The Dance of the Red-capped Manakin

By Jack Ewing

For the uninitiated, a bird watcher’s enthusiasm for hearing, sighting and studying our feathered friends, is hard to fathom. Why would anyone rise with the sun, walk for hours while toting binoculars, spotting scope, tripod, field guide, check list and notebook just to observe something so mundane as a bird? We all see birds every day, so what’s the big deal? Hard-core bird watchers have even been the brunt of jokes and cartoons. One of my favorites is a Gary Larson Far Side Cartoon with a view through a pair of binoculars, showing a large nasty looking bird sitting in an equally large nest, staring evilly at the observer — the person looking through the binoculars. Dangling from the edge of the nest are several pairs of binoculars, a birder’s hat and a tote bag with a Field Guide to the Birds of America. No caption was necessary.

Hacienda Baru

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Hunting and Poaching

Paca

Paca

By Jack Ewing

At about 8 years of age I started going with my dad on Sunday mornings to his skeet club in Greeley, Colorado. I was too young to handle a gun, but loved watching him and his friends blow flying clay discs called “clay  pigeons” out of the air with their shotguns. Even though I wasn’t shooting, my dad hammered firearm safety into my head on those Sunday morning outings.

Hacienda Baru

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MORE ABOUT SNAKEBITE

By Jack Ewing

In the August issue of Quepolandia I published an article entitled, If You Are Unfortunate Enough to get Bitten by a Snake, Do it in Costa Rica. If you didn’t see it the article is available online at www.quepolandia.com/category/jack-ewing/.So much new information has come to my attention since those words were written that I decided to elaborate on the same theme this month.

Terciopelo head

Terciopelo head

The August issue of Quepolandia arrived at Hacienda Baru the same day that my friend and neighbor Randy Burns was bitten by a Terciopelo (Bothrops asper), Sunday, August 2, 2015. He was awakened at 4:00 AM when his dogs started barking. Concerned about what may have triggered the barking Randy got up and walked barefoot onto the front porch of the house. No sooner did he set foot on the porch when he felt a sting on his left ankle and thought he had been bitten by a scorpion. Returning to his bedroom, he illuminated his ankle with a flashlight and saw blood. Thinking it strange that a scorpion sting would draw blood he returned to the porch with the flashlight and a stick and shined the beam around the floor. There was the Terciopelo coiled up in a corner. He tried to hit it with the stick, but the snake managed to escape out into the yard. “Marie, Marie,” he called to his wife. “Hurry! We need to go to the hospital. I’ve been bitten by a snake.”

Hacienda Baru

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Hocus and Pocus – Strange, Creeper Cats

jaguarundiBy Jack Ewing

When 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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