FRONTIER: COSTA RICA BIG CATS, PRIMATES AND TURTLE CONSERVATION

Hello, it’s me! A girl who disappears from blogging a lot! Last year was pretty awful on the blogging front, maybe this year will be different? Who knows, but I will try. However, for the last month of 2016 I do have a pretty good excuse for not blogging. Some of you may have seen or read about it on social media that I was in Costa Rica for four weeks doing volunteer work. I will be doing a few posts on what I got up to in Costa Rica, starting with my time on the first project, the big cats, primate and turtle conservation which I booked through Frontier.

Firstly, why Costa Rica? Over the last couple of years Costa Rica has been doing some incredible things for wildlife and the environment, from running on renewable energy to banning hunting. Other than being a beautiful country, it was things like this that instantly drew my attention to Costa Rica. Having a natural interest in conservation and animals, I would have been a fool to not visit a country which accounts for 6% of the worlds biodiversity, especially when you consider that Costa Rica only makes up 0.03% of the earth’s surface.
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The project is based in Osa Peninsula which is on the edge of the Corcovado national park. In this area alone there 2-3% of flora found nowhere else in the world, more than 10,000 types of insects and the largest population of scarlet macaws in Central America, to name a few. The aim of the project is determining the richness abundance, distribution and ecological niche of a wide range of endangered, endemic and ecologically important species on the Osa Peninsula. These are conducted by completing surveys. 

The research camp itself is based amongst dense tropical forest, close to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It is a 45-minute plane ride from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez the closest town, and a collectivo ride away to the camp. You will be met by staff if you arrive before 12pm on a Monday.

Camp Life
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Arriving at camp was a little scary, I had arrived not long after the hurricane although it didn’t hit this particular area I was warned that there was a lot of flooding. Thankfully, the camp seemed to have escaped pretty unscathed from the bad weather with only the toilets and showers suffering. The facilities on camp went well above my expectations, with a lounge area and kitchen with clean drinking water and both having concrete floors, there was three toilets and three showers and several rooms with bunk beds for staff and volunteers. It was an amazing camp, and not quite as wild and basic as I had imagined but the surroundings were beautiful with luscious green trees, a stream and the sound of nature all around.
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Camp life works on a rota, with surveys in the morning and evening, training sessions during the day to provide information on the surveys you will be conducting, activities you can do etc. There is one person a day who will be in charge of cooking lunch and dinner and cleaning the camp, whilst you are in charge of making your own breakfast. The food I had here was incredible, and honestly some of the tastiest homemade food I have ever had with such basic ingredients. There were creations of bean burgers, chips, rice salads and more, it was good and it completely and utterly shocked me.

Due to there being no electricity, you are in bed pretty early although I can’t say I complained about that, I love my sleep!  You also get to spot a lot of wildlife on camp! 


Surveys

So I was the only volunteer when I went, although I was slightly disappointed in that because it felt like I was intruding on a group who were like a little family, it did mean I could go on every survey. When there are more volunteers I was told you choose the surveys you want to go on, due to only a certain amount of people being able to go on each one.  The surveys I got to take part in were:

Sea turtle monitoring.
The species that visit the beach are the green turtle and the olive ridley, due to the nesting natures of turtles this is a seasonal survey. These surveys were conducted either in the morning, starting at around 5am or in the evening starting at any time from 8pm onwards. I took part in two night surveys. The survey consists of walking a section of the beach, getting to one end, waiting and then walking back and so on for the duration of the survey. The aim is to spot turtle tracks and find their nesting sites, if you were to spot a turtle it would be measured amongst other things. In some cases, the nest might be moved to prevent predation. On a morning survey you could see hatchlings and excavation could take place.  Unfortunately, for me I didn’t get to see any turtles! Even though walking on sand with wellies on is incredibly hard, I still enjoyed it despite not seeing anything. The sky always looked incredible, with sparkly stars and a moon that danced on the horizon, one moment bright the next minute dark changing the colours of the sky, the sea and the trees. Fireflies lined the beach letting out little rays of light, that almost looked like a flashlight and best of all there was plankton that lit up green and shiny as you walked parts of the beach.

Primate surveys.

There are four primate species found in Costa Rica, these are the squirrel monkey, mantled howler monkey, Geoffroy’s spider monkey and the white-faced capuchin monkey. The aim of the primate surveys it to estimate the density of these species outside of the Corcovado National park.  
Again, I did this survey twice on two different trails. Walking slowly with your head up towards the trees, observing and listening closely for any signs of these primate. On one survey we spotted three species, counting them all and trying to identify the sex and on the second survey I did we didn’t spot anything. It is crazy how every little noise you hear you instantly grip onto it wondering if it could be a spider monkey swinging through the trees or a howler monkey eating leaves.
On one occasion we heard a lot of noise, we all thought it was a troop of monkeys and it turned out to be a very noisy pale billed woodpecker hacking away on a tree. Although surveys may be unsuccessful I would like to say you are guaranteed to see all four species near camp, from little squirrel monkeys jumping from trees to waking up to the quite terrifying sound of howler monkeys in the morning. 

Bird surveys.
There are so many birds in Costa Rica, birds with all shades of colours, of all sizes and a variety of calls. Frontier focus on a select few, you are given the chance to be able to memorise a few of these. I was given a group of birds to identify the names of by looking at a photo of them, honestly I enjoyed doing this so much and I shocked myself at how quickly I managed to pick up and remember the names of so many birds. The aim of this survey is to study the diversity of the birds in primary and secondary forests. I only did one of these surveys and thankfully it was on the easiest trail, so no running up hills in the morning for me! The bird survey involved walking to different markers and listening to the sound of birds for several minutes, so learning the calls is pretty helpful.  There are so many beautiful birds, too many to name them all but my favourites have to be the Scarlet Macaws or the hummingbirds (even if I couldn’t identify the species I saw!)

Amphibian and reptile surveys.
This study aims to collect baseline data on the different species that live within primary and secondary forests. These surveys are conducted at night, and they were my favourite surveys out of all the ones I did, I managed to go on at least four of these.
I am terrified of frogs and toads so I was pretty nervous at first, thankfully they must have known I was going because we only saw a few, a cane toad and a few species of tree frog. Other finds included a Northern cat-faced snake, basilisks and a variety of anoles. I loved exploring the jungle at night when different animals came out to play, we saw so many spiders just sitting on leaves. In Costa Rica they have one dangerous spider called the Brazilian wanderer, a way to identify this is via the stick test. The stick test means prodding the spider with a long stick, if the spider reacts defensively with their legs up in the air then it is a Brazilian! We also encountered some mammals on the night treks; an eventful night walk saw us first encountering a skunk who became aware of our presence and ran off in the opposite direction. Five minutes later we heard the loudest crashing, of what sounded like a large animal running through the water. We all stopped and grabbed onto each other, whatever it was walked straight in front of us and appeared to loop back, before disappearing for good. It was too dark to identify the animal in question.

Mammal tracks.
The first survey I took part in was mammal tracks, which I only got to do once. This involves staring at the ground looking for any signs of tracks from deer to tapir. It was interesting but I can’t recall the particular aim of this survey. Once we found tracks we identified them, noting the animal and the direction they were heading
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Sadly, due to the weather we ended up encountering many dead spider monkeys all in various stages of decomposition, it was sad but also so fascinating to see the skeleton of a spider monkey. 

Social life
So, since the surveys are conducted during the morning or at night, that leaves you with a lot of free time! Almost too much, being so isolated there is little to do. At camp, I spent time reading and painting, since it was near Christmas we also made a few decorations! In my spare time I also went on walks, ones in the jungles and others to two waterfalls located close by.
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I also spent time on the beach which also has a reservoir which is perfect for bird watching. There is also a inn which can be used for Wi-Fi, to get drinks and a perfect place to watch the sunset with incredible food. I also ended up at a Costa Rican party, something I didn’t see happening and I shamelessly got pretty dam drunk… There was also a circus.

My overall thoughts.
My main reason for doing this particular project is because I want to go into conservation one day; doing volunteer work is a perfect way to get an insight and practical experience. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the project and learnt many different techniques on monitoring and surveying animals; I didn’t really feel I made a difference. Although this is something that might have an impact in the long run, speaking to a staff member who had previously done this project three years ago, she herself said that nothing had changed and the surveys were pretty much being done in the same way. I know that collecting research and results can take time, so maybe one day I will read all about it…  There is room for improvement on the project BUT the experience was absolutely incredible and I don’t think I could have picked a better country to do volunteering in for the first time.

If you haven’t any questions please feel free to post them in the comment section, I will either reply there or in an FAQ once I have finished all my Costa Rican post! 

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