Reporter's notebook: A Costa Rica journal
Monitor contributor Moises Velasquez-Manoff set down some on-the-spot observations as he and Monitor photographer Andy Nelson traversed this tiny Latin American country investigating the effects of climate change.
(Editor's note: From turtles to toads to migratory birds, the rich ecosystem of this tiny Central American country is sending an early warning signal on how global warming is affecting animal life. Monitor contributor Moises Velasquez-Manoff set down his on-the-spot observations as he and Monitor photographer Andy Nelson traversed Costa Rica investigating the effects of climate change. A sample of those scribblings is collected here.)Skip to next paragraph
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May 12: Turtles nests and poachers
Today, Andy and I walked the beach with Emma Harrison, director of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) in Costa Rica, which monitors sea turtle nesting at the Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast. Every three days, the CCC conducts a census of recent turtle nests. Several species of sea turtle nest in Tortuguero's black, volcanic sands.
Right now, we're at the tail end of leatherback nesting season and the beginning of green turtle season. Leatherbacks, which have leathery dinosaurlike ridges running lengthwise down their backs instead of a hard shell, are the largest marine turtles, commonly weighing half a ton.
While the green turtle population has rebounded since conservation efforts began around the Caribbean, the leatherbacks have seen a slow but steady decline since the mid-1990s, when the CCC began counting.
We begin early on a bit of land just south of the national park. Rangers don't patrol here, so there's much more poaching. Jungle comes right up to the beach. Jaguars, which take the occasional nesting turtle, roam the seemingly impenetrable mess of trees, fronds, vines, and shrubs.
Crocodiles live in the brackish rivers that snake down to the coast here. There are even rumors of tapirs, South America's biggest land animal related to the horse and rhinoceros, sloshing about the lowland swamps.
It is an incredibly lush landscape, but at the mouth of the river where we begin our trek, piles of human trash greet us. Dolls' heads, plastic gallon containers, and many cheap flip-flop sandals are heaped on the beach. (For some reason, the majority of flip-flops are lefties – an enduring mystery, Emma says.)
Some of the trash washes up from the river that empties here, some floats in from neighboring countries in the Caribbean. It serves as a reminder of humanity's impact – intended or not – on the natural world, a kind of tangible parallel to the invisible heat-trapping gases spewing out of tailpipes and smokestacks thousands of miles away, but which nevertheless affect this place.
The beach becomes cleaner as we progress. We see 13 nests, many from the previous night. That's a good sign. But of those, eight have been poached. That's a bad sign. In Costa Rican culture, a myth endures that the eggs – often eaten raw – are an aphrodisiac. This drives much of the poaching business. But such a high percentage of poaches is not the norm, Emma says, calling it "heartbreaking."
The CCC educates the village children about the importance of the nests. But many poachers come from other areas during nesting season.
When facing such immediate threats, conservationists often can't begin to consider long-term threats like those posed by global warming, Emma says. If there are no turtles because the eggs have all been harvested, who cares about the potentially skewed sex ratios caused by a warmer climate?
And this speaks to what's fast becoming the mantra of our trip: The best way to prepare a species for the effects of global warming is to make sure the population is healthy and thriving: that it has the habitat and genetic diversity it needs to adapt and evolve to changing conditions.
May 13: When jungles spew carbon
Biologist Deborah Clark works in Costa Rica studying how tropical forests respond to fluctuations in climate.
Today as I talk with her during a break at a symposium on climate change's impact on La Selva Biological Station and Reserve, an old-growth jungle here, she says something rather profound: