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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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WATER, THE FLUID OF LIFE: The Rivers of Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor

By Jack Ewing

Portalón

Portalón

I used to think of geology as the study of rocks and geologists as scientists who sit in laboratories looking at rocks with a magnifying glass.  Sound boring? I used to think so until found out how much geological events have influenced my life. One day I got interested enough to dig a little deeper and found that geology, rather than being boring can be fascinating, especially when we consider how much certain geological features of the region around Dominical have affected the way that the area has developed. I am referring primarily to coastal ridge, that small mountain range that parallels the coast from the Savegre River to the Térraba River. In the not too distant past — less then 100,000 years ago — a collision between two tectonic plates caused the earth’s crust to buckle and jut up 300 to 500 meters in the air. This probably wasn’t a cataclysmic event that took place one afternoon. It was more like a series of relatively small collisions that took place over several thousand years. Nevertheless, in geological terms we can consider that it happened in the blink of an eye.
Hacienda Baru
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Has the Time Come to Say Good-bye to an old Friend? – I Hope Not!

By Jack Ewing

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 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 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.

River Otter eating fish

River Otter eating fish

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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What goes “CHRIT-CHRIT-CHRIT”, Licks its Eyeballs, & Gives You a Stinky Piece of Tail Whenever You Try to Kill it?

By Jack Ewing

Most people don’t like bugs. The term brings up negative images of all sorts of undesirable things, both living and not. If there’s a bug in your computer program, some obscure little quirk is making your life miserable. “Don’t bug me!” means don’t annoy me. A bug can be a germ, vermin, flaw, wiretap, defect, fault, or problem. It can mean to pester or bother. My thesaurus lists only one synonym with a positive connotation, the word enthusiast. In Spanish, the word for bug, “bicho”, is often used to mean a very undesirable person.
Hacienda Baru
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Everybody Loves Toucan Sam the Fruitloop Bird…Or do They?

Maybe We Should Ask Woody Woodpecker
By Jack Ewing

Guiding visitors on ecological tours can be very rewarding. Showing guests their first monkey, sloth or toucan is as gratifying for the guide as it is for the visitor. Birds and animals aren’t usually obvious to the untrained eye, and it is often difficult to explain or point out to people the exact position of wildlife within the dense vegetation of the rainforest. A typical conversation might go something like this: “See him? He’s right over there.” “Right over where?” “Look, just follow that trunk up to where it forks off to the left…” “Wait a minute, which trunk?” “That big one just to the right of the one with the vine.” “Oh yeah, that one. Okay now, I follow that up to the fork, right? Then where?” And so on, and so on. Once the bird or animal has been spotted with the naked eye, the next step is to find it with binoculars. Some visitors are practiced in the use of optical equipment, but many are not, and it is sometimes difficult for them to locate the wildlife. I have noticed that visitors will sometimes say they see something even if they don’t. However, there is never any doubt when the person encounters their first toucan. When the large yellow, black and red bird with the enormous beak comes into their field of vision, the visitor’s reaction can range from a simple, “Oh, my god,” to something resembling a low-level orgasm. Nowadays all of our guides have telescopes which they can quickly focus on the wildlife, eliminating all that foreplay and getting right down to the nitty-gritty.

Hacienda Baru

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