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A FLASHLIGHT & A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER

By Jack Ewing

Costa Rica was still a third-world country when I first came here over 50 years ago, and part of me wishes it still was. Some of my most treasured memories are from that period in the early 1970s when I worked on a large ranch on the Caribbean side of the country. It was only accessible by a narrow-gauge railroad called the Northern Railway. I hadn’t been there long when I met a great guy, an Englishman by the name of Johnny James who came to Costa Rica in the 1930s, before the concept of the third world had even come into being.

I once accompanied him on a four-day adventure, during which I learned much of what I know about the Caribbean side of the country. It all began in a place called El Cairo in a restaurant owned by Juan Quiros Ching. No sooner had we finished our coffee and empanadas than the owner of the burro carro, our mode of travel for the first leg of the journey, walked in and shouted to Johnny that he was ready to go. The burro carro was a small platform with four railroad wheels. It was drawn by a mule. During the hour it took to reach the creek at the end of the spur, Johnny talked non-stop. “Years ago,” he began, “the immigration of Chinese to Costa Rica was prohibited by law. But what can I say; you know how it works. Laws are for common people like you and me, not for the wealthy, especially not back then. At the beginning of the century lots of Chinese were brought here to work as indentured servants in the households of well-to-do Costa Rican families. After a certain number of years of unpaid service, their debt was fulfilled, and their masters had to free them. Most took the last names of those same former masters and eventually acquired Costa Rican citizenship. Just like Juan Quiros”, Johnny continued. “He and his wife were betrothed as children and came to Costa Rica from China at the age of ten or eleven. To put it bluntly, their parents sold them to a rich Tico. They had to work for fifteen years to earn their freedom. Then they moved out here to the jungles of the Caribbean, along the railroad, and proceeded to make their fortune. They worked their butts off, but today they’ve got the business, a farm, and a pile of money”.

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PLANTS AND ANIMALS KNOW BETTER THAN WE DO

By Jack Ewing

Years ago, I was hiking in the Hacienda Barú rainforest with my friend, Juan Ramón. Though uneducated he had a vast knowledge of the environment, which had partly been passed on to him by his father and grandfather, and the rest he had learned through personal experience. “Juan”, I commented, “I was thinking that earlier we passed through an area where there were lots of gallinazo trees, then there eight scattered ojoches, over there are half a dozen jabillos, and right now we are admiring three big ceibos. I wonder why they grow in the same general area like that”.

“They grow in places they like”, was his simple reply.

His way of putting it was not the least bit scientific, but his answer really made sense. Perhaps certain species thrive in soils with certain nutrients that are abundant in some locations and deficient or absent in others. Different species may need different trace elements. I’m sure that many other environmental factors were in play, but his answer still made sense to me. I thought of people having cravings and remembered a time when Diane and I both were struck with an irresistible urge to eat radishes. For a week we couldn’t get enough of them. We ate them at every meal. We ate them as snacks, whole, in salads, and even in sandwiches. After about a week, the craving simply went away. We figured that our normal diet must have been lacking some essential nutrient that was readily available in radishes.

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Frijolito, The Killer Squirrel

While sitting at my computer one day, a woman’s scream jolted me from my train of thought, brought me to my feet and hurried me off toward the call of distress. In the living room I found Cecilia, our housekeeper, wringing her hands, blood running down both sides of her face, and tears streaming down her cheeks. She didn’t have to say what happened. It was obvious, but she said it any way. “Fue el asesino,” The killer squirrel had struck again.

My wife Diane and I both love animals. I love seeing them in the wild, and Diane loves keeping them as pets and caring for them. So, when one of Diane’s dogs found a helpless baby squirrel, about the size of a bean-shaped egg, it promptly became part of her menagerie. Small and black, the name “Frijolito,” meaning “Little Black Bean”, fit him perfectly. Diane nurtured and fed him with a tiny baby bottle and nipple. He grew like wildfire and soon had his eyes open. Later he climbed over our arms and shoulders, and even got up on top or our heads. He was a real charmer, and everyone came to love Frijolito.

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Every Good Idea Has A Downside – Wind Power

I am old enough to remember when the Sandhill Crane was an endangered species. There were less than 1000 left in the wild. Due to lots of hard work and diligence from a lot of nature lovers, there are now close to 100,000. Many of these beautiful stork-like birds with a distinctive call migrated every year to the Rio Grande Valley in Southeast Texas. Then, along came the wind turbines. My friend and fellow environmentalist Pamela lives in what used to be one of the best birding spots in the US. She still lives there and can tell the story better than I.

The Rio Grande Valley is in the world’s greatest migratory flyway. We have several sites labelled as the World’s Birding Center because of the number of migrants that pass through each winter. Birding has been the largest source of income for the area. Each year one of my greatest joys was the migration of the Sandhill cranes. They flew over my house in such huge flocks that my windows vibrated with their calls. I would stand outside and watch them fly overhead so close that I could look into their eyes. I would drive down the roads that have now been taken over by wind turbines and follow the flocks. I’d sit in my truck with my binoculars and watch them.

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Every Good Idea Has A Downside

Back in the 1970s and the early 80s, before we got electricity in our Hacienda Barú home, Diane and I often lamented the lack of hot water in the shower. Cold water was okay on a hot day, but it was bad news on a chilly, rainy evening with a cool breeze blowing outside. One scorching summer afternoon I returned to the house from work and stuck my head under the faucet to cool off. The water wasn’t very cool, but I was hot and sweaty, and it was still refreshing. Without warning, it turned scalding hot. Letting out a yelp, I jerked my head from beneath the tap. After a short time, it cooled down enough that it again felt good on back of my neck. “Now I know why all of our neighbors leave the water running 24 hours a day,” I bemoaned. Very few people lived in the area, and each household had its own source of water, usually a creek or a spring. There was never a shortage of water, and it didn’t cost anything, so there was really no reason to turn it off. All of our neighbors left it running all of the time. Many homes didn’t have faucets and couldn’t stop the flow even if they wanted to.

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Survival of the Fittest

Somewhere between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago we humans decided that we were superior to Mother Nature and were no longer subject to Her laws. As our intellect grew, so did our ability to harness energy and bend it to the exclusive use of our own species. Our numbers burgeoned while countless other living beings on Earth paid the toll. Few humans in this day and age realize that we are still, and always have been, subject to the whims of Mother Nature. In the wilds, species that become too numerous or that capture too large a share of the available resources eventually become victims of some sort of calamity that extinguishes their numbers entirely or severely reduces their population. It is obvious that humanity has been capturing a grossly disproportionate share of the earth’s resources for the exclusive use of our own species and continue to invent methods to capture an even larger portion. One day we will add that proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back, and Mother Nature will unleash her power on humanity. At the moment she is just setting us up. She is smiling while we turn ourselves into a bunch of weaklings. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

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The Bare-Throated Tiger Heron & the Snake

I had lived and worked on Hacienda Barú for 23 years before sighting my first bare-throated tiger heron, so called because of the featherless, yellow skin on its throat. Today, 30 years later, with much more natural habitat and less hunting, we see them on a daily basis.

First day out of the nest

Earlier this year, Diane and I noticed that a pair of tiger herons were carrying sticks, twigs, and other nesting material to a tree near our house, but the branches were so thick that we couldn’t find the nest. About two months later, a ball of white fluff could be seen moving around in the part of the tree where we suspected the nest was located. It grew rapidly to near adult size, molted, and one day fledged, now with the speckled plumage of a juvenile. I took lots of photos that first day as the young heron explored its new world. I had seen adult tiger herons in many different positions, hunched over, stretched up, neck twisted or arched, or feathers ruffled, but this youngster took the tiger heron’s shape-changing ability to extremes. The photos tell the story.

Adult with a big snake

Trail cameras are lots of fun because when you insert the memory card from the camera into your computer, you never know what is going to pop up on the screen. About a year ago a camera near the house captured an image a large adult tiger heron, wings spread, with a snake’s head in its mouth, and the body dangling down in an S-shaped curve all the way to the to the ground. I stared in amazement at the photo. Herons can’t chew, and I doubted it could swallow a snake that size 60 to 70 cm (25 inches) and as big around as a broomstick. “Maybe it’s just killing the snake”, I thought, “and is going to leave it for the scavengers”. Then it occurred to me that maybe I had it backwards. Maybe the snake was biting the heron. The photo wasn’t clear enough to be sure. I posted it on Facebook, and a couple of the viewers thought the snake had bitten the bird just above the beak and gotten its fangs stuck. “We’ll never know for sure,” I decided.

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Agoutis: Precocial Rainforest Rodents

William Faulkner once said of Ernest Hemmingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”. Though I certainly don’t pretend to place myself in the same class as Hemmingway, I readily admit that the same criticism could be leveled against my writings. I try to use words that people use in everyday conversation, not words that will send you to a dictionary. But here I am going to make an exception. I’m sure that many readers have never heard the word precocial, or its opposite, altricial. Most farm animals are precocial like a colt, lamb, or a calf for example. All of these are born with their eyes open and can stand, nurse, and follow its mother shortly after birth. Puppies and kittens are altricial, born with their eyes and ears closed and helpless for days after birth. Most rodents are altricial, but agoutis are an exception to that rule, being the only precocial rodent I know of, though there are likely some that I don’t know of.

Biologists often compare agoutis, who are diurnal, to their larger nocturnal cousins, the pacas, and often to rabbits, excepting the long ears. Agoutis hop like a rabbit when startled, and even when not startled they are impressive jumpers. I once set a trail camera near a pool in hopes of getting a video of otters, which to my delight, came to the pool daily. In addition to the otters, the camera captured many videos of pacas and agoutis, who came to the pool to drink, and several species of wading birds that fed in the shallows. One day a mother caiman moved in with about a dozen babies. None of the wading birds would go near the water, and the two mammals kept their distance. One brave agouti walked to within a meter of the pool, which was about two meters wide, leaped high in the air and all the way across the water, landing safely on the other side, a jump of about three meters (almost 10 feet). I’m not sure a rabbit could jump that far.

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The Nature of Mother Nature

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I have never written a book. The two that have been published with my name as author, Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate, and Where Tapirs and Jaguars Once Roamed, are collections of articles that were previously published in local magazines, mostly Quepolandia. So, when I decided to write a book, I was in for a new experience, and like all new experiences, it didn’t go as smoothly as I had imagined. It is moving forward, albeit slowly, and I would like to share a couple of excerpts with my readers.

monkeyI am not a biologist or any other type of scientist, but I have the good fortune to have lived in or near a tropical rainforest, the habitat that contains more biomass and biodiversity than any other on the planet, for the last 50 years. I learned to love what I call the jungle and have spent a good deal of my time within its embrace. Incidentally, the word “jungle” is looked down upon by most biologists, but I love it and will use it often. To me “jungle” is synonymous with “rainforest”.

I think my love affair with Mother Nature began with my first sighting of a monkey in the wild. A movement caught my attention as I was hiking by myself, and there it was, a monkey in the middle of the jungle. A storybook animal in a storybook setting. For me, a novice, the sighting was so extraordinary that it didn’t quite seem real. I had seen monkeys in the zoo, but this was different. It turned and looked at me. For one fleeting moment our eyes met and held. Then the monkey scampered on up the tree and disappeared within the leafy fronds at the top. That was the beginning of a life-long relationship, and it has been growing and evolving ever since. It has now reached the point that I feel compelled to write about Mother Nature, and what She is to me.

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Monkeys are Made of Mangoes

Jack holding two big mangoes, header

Hacienda Barú, where I live, was roughly half rainforest and half cattle pasture when we first moved here in the early 1970s. Today it is much different, mostly rainforest and is a well-known destination for ecological tourists and biological researchers. Living with the transformation of the land from cattle ranch to nature reserve has given me a wealth fascinating experiences, one of which I will share with you here.

variegated squirrelIn 1979 we planted about 10 hectares of cacao, the stuff chocolate is made with. The uphill side of the plantation was adjacent to a rainforest and the lowland side bordered pasture and rice fields. After six years just when the plantation reached full production, the price of cacao plummeted to the point that cacao beans cost more to harvest than they were worth on the open market. We abandoned the cacao and the white-faced capuchin monkeys from the rainforest moved in and added cacao to their already hodgepodge of a diet. They don’t eat the cacao seeds, only the sweet-and-sour tasting syrup that coats them. That story is told in my first book, Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate.

Prior to the arrival of the monkeys, variegated squirrels were the only wild animals that ate our cacao. They didn’t eat much, so we didn’t worry about them. When the monkeys began frequenting the plantations on a regular basis, the squirrels disappeared. We could see them at the ecolodge and in an area that was planted with teak trees, but they were absent from the cacao plantations and forested areas.

Hacienda Baru

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Strange Creeper Cats

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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 of his novels it 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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WHAT ON EARTH IS A CHIROPTEROLOGIST?

The Bat Guys header

“Would this be a good place to put the net?” I asked Otto. “You said you wanted an open path through the jungle.” I stepped into the shallow water of the narrow stream. “I can take one end of the net to the other side and hold it while you secure this end. Then you can join me.”

Otto hesitated. “Is there anything in this water that will hurt you,” he asked in heavily accented English.

“There are caimans and crocodiles” I replied, “but with all the noise we’ve been making they’re probably all gone by now.”

“No, no,” he exclaimed, “I mean little animals that live in the water.”

“Not that I know of. We walk through this water all the time and have never had any problems.”

Bat caught in a netFinally, he agreed to string the mist net across the stream, but was extremely careful not to get water inside of his rubber boots. The natural corridor formed by the stream was a good choice. Over the next hour we captured five different species of bats in the net, including one bulldog bat.

One evening several days earlier I was returning to Hacienda Barú from San Isidro just before dark and noticed three men at the side of the gravel road near Tinamastes extending some very fine nets. I wonder what they’re doing, I thought. They look like foreigners.

Two days later a familiar looking rental 4WD drove up to my house at Hacienda Barú. Three men got out of the car, and I recognized them as the men at the side of the road with the nets. The older man introduced himself as Otto. The other two were Fabio and Gunther. They were chiropterologists he explained from Erlangen University in Germany.

“What on earth is a chiropterologist?” I asked.

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The Story of Land and Sea in Costa Rica

The Story of Land and Sea in Costa Rica header

Costa Rica is best known for its lush tropical environment and conservation ethic: monkeys, sloths, toucans, peccary, iguanas and agoutis all in a rainforest setting, in addition to whales, dolphins, and underwater wonders. This is what the visitor to Costa Rica will see and tell about. This is ecotourism at its best.

Those of us who live here love seeing the flora and fauna, both terrestrial and marine, but by virtue of being here all of the time we have the opportunity to see a deeper picture of our environment. We are able to see the environmental gains and losses, problems and solutions. Let’s have a closer look.

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50 MARVELOUS YEARS IN COSTA RICA

Jack and Diane

On December 13, 1970 when my wife Diane, our 4-year-old daughter Natalie, and I, accompanied on our flight by 37 head of cattle, arrived at El Coco International Airport (SJO) on a DC 6 four-engine propeller plane, we thought that we would be staying for four months, the duration of my work contract. We never dreamed that on December 13, 2020 we would be celebrating 50 years in Costa Rica.
The country where we had landed had a population of less than two million and was considered to be part of the Third World. The Central Bank had reserves of less than one million dollars. The exchange rate was ¢6.63 colones per $1.00 dollar. Not knowing anything about the money, or anything else, I went to a bakery to buy a loaf of bread and paid with a ¢50 colon bill, but they didn’t have change for a huge bill like that. The price of the bread was 50 centimos. To make a call from a public phone, you had to put a peseta, a 25 centimo coin, in the slot, dial your number, wait for the peseta to drop, and start talking.

Hacienda Baru

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Payments for Environmental Services

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Incentives for People Who Plant Trees and Protect Forests

Primary forest

Primary forest

Many years ago, when I was still in the cattle business, I visited the San Carlos ranch of a cattleman I knew. “We’ve cut all the trees”, he proudly declared. “Trees attract bot flies, so we cut them all down. Every single one”. His ranch was a totally desolate landscape. At that time I didn’t yet consider myself to be an environmentalist, but even so, just driving through his property and seeing those barren pastures gave me an uneasy feeling. Hacienda Barú was a cattle ranch too, but we still had trees on some of the fence lines and small copses within our pastures as well as a mangrove forest in the estuary near the mouth of the Barù River, and primary forest in the highlands. When I left that treeless ranch, the uneasy feeling stayed with me all the way home.

Hacienda Baru

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