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POACHING: A New Mafia is Determined to Destroy Our Wildlife and Forests

paca

Paca

By Jack Ewing 

Years ago when I posted the first “NO HUNTING” signs on Hacienda Baru, the prohibition was aimed at neighbors who loved to hunt. Most of game in the parcels of forest left in the area had been killed, and the hacienda still had 180 hectares (445 acres,) of healthy rainforest that harbored lots of wildlife. This is where everybody came to hunt, and prohibiting hunting was definitely not the way to win a popularity contest. Of course, nobody paid the least bit of attention to my signs. We often found them shot full of holes or chopped to pieces with a machete. Eventually I decided to hire a guard, a local man named Alejandro, who knew the forest well. Though having a guard didn’t stop the hunting entirely, it helped a lot. Then one day a friend of Alejandro’s convinced him to look the other way for just one afternoon. “Your boss always goes to San Isidro on Thursdays,” he begged. “ I haven’t eaten paca meat for months. Just let me kill one paca, and I won’t bother you any more.” Alejandro relented and let his friend hunt, “just this one time.”

Hacienda Baru

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Surviving Joan & Cesar

By Jack Ewing

Joan

When she opened the freezer the putrid odor of rotting meat seeped into the room. Doctor Jiménez pinched her nostrils and stepped back. She gave the restaurant owner a sidelong glance, pulled out her citation book and began writing.

“You don’t have to do this,” he pleaded. “Give me a break. With the hurricane and all it’s been tough getting supplies. We have to take what we can get.”

“Sign here!” she ordered. “That meat came from a dead bull that washed up on the beach. Witnesses saw you cutting it up. Others saw you serving it to your customers. I’m taking that rotten packet of frozen meat as evidence.”

Hacienda Baru

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Poor Man’s Viagra: The Plight of Our Marine Turtles

Collecting turtle eggs

The date was August 16, 2013, 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 on the beach with flippers that looked better suited for maneuvering around in the sea than dragging one 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 of 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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How Do You Help a Wild Pig Cross the Road?

By Jack Ewing 

Wild pigs using a tunnel under the road

Wild pigs using a tunnel under the road.

I once saw a menu from a fictitious restaurant called the Road Kill Cafe. “You Kill it; we grill it.” It offered selections such as flat cat, smear of deer, awesome opossum, chunk of skunk, and swirl squirrel. The daily special was called “The Mess. If you can guess what it is, you eat it for free.” The chef’s name was “Squash em Jack.” I always thought that menu was hilarious, but later in my life, I realized that road kill is a serious problem that can have a major impact on wildlife populations. I think the experience that really brought the problem to my attention was the day an employee brought a dead jaguarundi for me to see. It had dashed out in front of his car so quickly that he didn’t have a chance to brake. That incident made me realize that steps needed to be taken to minimize road kill and maintain connectivity between forests on both sides of our roads and highways. We live in biological corridor where biodiversity has been increasing since the mid 1980s, and where, until recently, the roads were so bad that cars couldn’t go fast enough to kill any but the slowest animals. The construction of new highways and the improvement of old ones has changed all of that. 

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Big Spotted Felines

Jaguar

Jaguar

“Baarooom” resounded the hollow buttress-root of the Chilamate tree with each blow of the thick branch. Carmelita wasn’t sure which was louder, the “baarooom” of wood against wood or her pounding heart. Again she struck the hollow root. “Baarooom.” 

“Carmela honey,” her father’s voice penetrated the darkness before his silhouette came into view. “What’s wrong? What’s all the noise.” 

“Oh daddy,” she cried. “Thank god you’ve come. It’s el tigre come to eat our pigs, and probably me too. It was my turn to guard them. I tried to scare him away, but he keeps coming closer.” 

Hacienda Baru

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A Real-Life Superwoman

The Hardships, Tragedies, and Challenges of Women in Rural Costa Rica

Doña Porfiria

Doña Porfiria

 by Jack Ewing

How many women do you know in their early 60s who have given birth to thirteen children, most of them at home, and without the assistance of a mid-wife? Eleven of this woman’s children are still living and have, up until April 2013, given her 15 grandsons and 11 granddaughters, who in turn, have given her one great-granddaughter. In spite of having lived through years of hardship that most women can barely imagine Doña Porfiria Gómez carries her 64 years well. My impression was that of a mature, self-confident woman who looks upon her family as her reward for a lifetime of sacrifice and perseverance.

Hacienda Baru

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Bird Watching in the Killing Field

By Jack Ewing

Egrets Feeding

Egrets Feeding

When the first settlers moved into the area around Dominical in the early 1900s, they found primary forests comprised of hundreds of thousands of species of living organisms. Over time trees were felled and the highly diverse forests replaced with several species of grass intended for the exclusive consumption of domestic animals which in turn would be slaughtered for human food. The ecosystem that evolved around this reality was much lower in biodiversity than the primary forest it had replaced. However, certain species that humans consider pests, such as vampire bats, ticks, lice, grasshoppers and rats, experienced population explosions; and, in the case of birds, the number of species increased significantly to include those that thrive in open spaces and near livestock. 

Hacienda Baru

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The Luxury of Living in the Third World – Life in Southern Costa Rica in the Good Old Days

Dead-eye After Surgeryby Jack Ewing

Back in the late 1980s we still didn’t have telephones in the coastal communities, and we were just starting to do some bird watching and ecological tours at Hacienda Baru. The lodge didn’t exist yet. For booking the tours we shared an office with a travel agency in San Isidro and communicated with them by radio. One day I was at the phone company in San Isidro, which was also the electrical utility, seeing about getting an extra phone installed in the office. The whole process should have taken about ten minutes, but we kept having power outages. The computer that the clerk was using didn’t have a back up battery, and every time the power went out she lost all the work she had done up to that point. When the electricity returned, she had to start from scratch. The third time the lights went out she let out a exasperated shriek, “I can’t stand this anymore. What the hell is wrong with the power?”

Hacienda Baru

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Has the Time Come to Say Good-bye to an Old Friend? I Hope Not!

By Jack Ewing

River Otter Eating Fish

River Otter Eating Fish

Back in the 1970s Diane and the kids and I lived in the casona, the old Hacienda Baru home. We didn’t get around to digging a well until the early 1980s, and every year, the free flowing spring that supplied our water would dry up in mid February. To deal with the situation we carried drinking water in 5 gallon plastic containers from another spring two kilometers away, and water for washing dishes and flushing toilets from the river in 55 gallon drums. The girl who worked for us went to the Barú River to do laundry, and every afternoon around 4:00 PM everyone went to the river to bathe in the crystal clear water. The village of Dominical was out of water too, so most of the town – about 8 people at that time – met us there, and the afternoon bath became as much a social event as one of personal hygiene. 

Another daily visitor to the bathing ritual was the Neotropical River Otter (Lutra longicaudis.) No sooner did we started splashing around than a couple of otters would appear from down river, swimming toward our location at the “Paso del Guanacaste.” They would swim directly at us at high speed, and about four meters short of our location they would dive. Sometimes they stayed underwater only a few seconds and sometimes longer than a minute. When they resurfaced it could be anywhere, but it would definitely be at least four meters (13 feet) from the nearest person. It was like they were playing a game with us, but only to a certain point. 

Hacienda Baru

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Top Predators: Pumas in the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor

Puma FaceBy Jack Ewing

In the rainforests of Central America the jaguar (Panthera onca) is at the pinnacle of the food chain, and the next largest feline, the puma (Puma concolor,) is one step below. There isn’t much that will confront a jaguar except the larger crocodiles that lurk in some of the rivers. The presence of these magnificent spotted cats in a rain forest is a strong indication of the biological health of the ecosystem. It means there is enough for them to eat, and enough for their prey to eat. It suggests that the ecosystem is well balanced and productive. It also means that hunting is under control.

Hacienda Baru

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Wars, Politics, Roads, and Bridges

Stuck in the River 1985

Stuck in the River 1985

By Jack Ewing

In 1974 President Daniel Oduber began his four-year term as president of Costa Rica. Several months after the inauguration a small article appeared in the daily La Nación mentioning that the president and the minister of transport had stated that the planned coastal highway would be finished during his administration. The highway took a lot longer than four years to get to Dominical, and a lot more political promises were made and broken before its completion. The southern part of Costa Rica is one of the last areas of the country to develop. The roads and bridges that facilitated that development didn’t come easily, and they have a long and interesting history. 

Hacienda Baru

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The Early Bird Gets the Worm

Chestnut Mandibled Toucan

Chestnut Mandibled Toucan

By Jack Ewing

Be Careful Bird Watching is Addictive 

Do you think birds are boring, and don’t see why anyone would want to watch them? Don’t put this article down yet. Let me share with you one interesting tidbit of information about birds, and see if you still think they are boring. 

Many member of the cuckoo family are freeloaders. Ornithologists call them brood parasites. They lay their eggs in other birds nests, dumping their responsibility as parents in other birds laps, while saving themselves the time and energy of incubating eggs and feeding chicks. The various bird species that end up as unsuspecting foster parents have devised certain tricks with which they try to outsmart their unwelcome boarders. A truly fascinating method came to light recently in Australia where researchers were studying the behavior of the superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus). Mother wrens sing to their eggs, and, in so doing, teach their embryonic offspring a password, even before they hatch. After hatching, the chicks don’t get fed unless they include the password in their begging call. The cuckoo chicks that hatch in the same nest don’t know the password, don’t get fed, and end up starving to death. The female wrens conserve their own energy and devote it to raising their own young. Every mother wren uses a different password, presumably to prevent the cuckoo chicks as a species from learning how to get fed. You can read the entire article at: http://www.nature.com/news/wrens-teach-their-eggs-to-sing-1.11779#b2

Hacienda Baru

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A Snake in the Attic But No Bats – A Grand old House

La Casona 1977

La Casona 1977

By Jack Ewing

Forty years ago the interamerican highway was full of holes and had even more curves than it does today. It took Ricardo and me four hours to drive from San José to San Isidro de el General. Pulling into town we filled the Land Rover with diesel at the Gasotica, one of two service stations in town. The other was the Texaco which was located where today there is a Pizza Hut. The highway was paved, but all the streets in San Isidro were gravel. After buying some supplies at the central market, where today stands the cultural center, we drove through town and asked a man on horseback for directions to Dominical. He pointed us down the street that ran along the west side of the park. It took us past the airport, which stretched from where today we find the new central market, south past the soccer field, and all the way to the bar called “Uno Mas.“ Soon we were on the outskirts of town stirring up dust on a bumpy gravel road which eventually took us up some extremely steep hills and straight over the top of El Alto de San Juan. Even though the road was dry we wouldn’t have made it up that hill without 4WD. Two and a half hours from San Isidro, after passing through four small villages and fording four streams, we arrived at our destination, a place called Hacienda Baru. That was my first view of la casona hidden behind a grove of mango trees 100 meters from the road.

Hacienda Baru

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The Plight of the Olive Ridley Turtle

Turtle Season 2012 Is Here

Laying Eggs

Laying Eggs

By Jack Ewing

Beliefs are often formed on the basis of a combination of myth and wishful thinking. Since the first pioneers began to settle the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica they have exploited the marine turtles, patrolling the beaches during turtle season, and digging up the freshly laid eggs. They have always done this not because their families are under nourished and need the eggs for their nutritional value, but rather because they believe the myth that turtle eggs will increase their sexual potency. This is ridiculous, of course, but it is, nevertheless, what motivates people to dig up the eggs and consume them. For this reason populations of marine turtles are diminishing.

Hacienda Baru

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Fat-Handed Cats

Caged Chicken Killer

Caged Chicken Killer

By Jack Ewing

The sleek, spotted cat rested with her chest and thick front paws on the log, her eyes peering over the top, waiting patiently for a spiny rat or some other small rodent to scurry along the other side. She had been there since moon rise, but so far no prey had ventured past. An uneasy feeling enveloped her body like a mist that penetrated to the very core of her being. She waited and watched. A faint sound reached her ears, and she became aware of the source of the unpleasant feeling, dogs, their distant howls drifting on the cool night breeze. The unwelcome wail was not new to her ears; it signified the most fearful thing in her environment. The thought of climbing a tree briefly flickered across her mind, but if the dogs caught her scent and found the tree, she would be trapped, an easy target for the humans that always come with the dogs. The other choice was to put distance between herself and the howling dogs, but the forest wasn’t that big, and she could only run so far. The female ocelot decided to wait and listen. Maybe the feared canines would go a different dirección. She crouched down as if to make herself smaller. But the sound kept coming closer, and the moment arrived that she had to make a move.The beautiful spotted feline sprinted through the forest keeping well to one side of the approaching dogs’ path. The terraine was familiar and she moved quickly and easily, making a wide circle around the oncoming dogs. She crossed their path well behind the excited howls, the area still strong with the dreaded scent. She headed for the stream and the one tree that meant safety. Crossing the swift current she came to a the giant fig with the buttress roots on one side reaching into the water. She climbed the trunk to an opening far above the ground, crawled into the hollow core, lay down on a ledge, and remained still, waiting, listening. After a time the baying of the dogs turned to a frenzy. They had probably cornered a paca in its cave. The sleek, spotted, female ocelot relaxed; she was safe until another day. — Crouched in her hiding place vivid memories flowed through her mind of another night long ago when her mother had hidden her and her brother in another hollow fig in a distant forest, and had then run away from the hiding place intentionally leading the dogs astray. She remembered the three loud bangs that had reached her ears, the bangs that only came from humans. Her mother never returned. The following day she and her brother had ventured down from the tree and into the forest. They were old enough to make it on their own, but life wasn’t easy. They had stayed together for a short time, and then each had gone its own way.

Hacienda Baru

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