Showing posts with label conservation projects. Show all posts
Showing posts with label conservation projects. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Galapagos Excursion

Flying into the Galapagos, I quickly realized that it was nothing like I had expected. The landscape was sparse, dry, covered in leafless trees and tree-sized cacti. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations (I try to avoid Google image searching places before traveling), but somehow this still defied any mental image conjured by the word “Galapagos.”

In an effort to make a trip to the Galapagos Islands as affordable as possible, we decided to use the two cheap tourist towns as base camps for a quick visit. This allowed us a glimpse into the ecology of the island system without the price tag of the multiday cruises.

Cemented in history by Darwin’s evolutionary biology discoveries, the history of the one-time home of Lonesome George is one of exploitation and over use of resources. Fun fact: apparently tortoise oil was once considered a resource for use in streetlamps.

As humans have learned more about the finite nature of the islands’ fauna (having pushed a number of species into extinction), the island chain is now home to a plethora of sustainability and conservation efforts. These include efforts to genetically reproduce as closely as possible the Galapagos Tortoise (of which Lonesome George was the last, his death marking the species’ extinction) and to grow, rather than import, as much of the islands’ food as possible.

Seeing the ecology of the Galapagos Islands is a land, air, and water endeavor. A full day snorkel trip (the splurge of the trip) afforded us the opportunity to swim in surprisingly cold water with sea turtles, sharks, and sea lions (which I’m assured are somehow different from seals), as well as a whole rainbow’s worth of fish.

Taking advantage of the numerous free options on both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal provided the chance to see massive century-old tortoises, land iguanas with vaguely prehistoric faces, beaches filled with lounging sea lions, and birds ranging from pelicans to finches.

But, despite the full day of snorkeling and all the various museums and conservation projects, a free hike and a dip in the frigid waters of a tiny alcove provided the highlight of the trip. Donning rented snorkels, we navigated the rocks at the end of the skinny, wooden pier and plunged in. Though the fish life was moderately interesting and we soon became accustomed to the water temperature, the snorkeling was mediocre overall.

However, we were soon joined by a group of the most curious sea lions. Now, we swam with seals in New Zealand and on the aforementioned snorkeling trip, but this was something else. These sea lions seemed almost to want to play with us, zipping right up and spinning away, diving and swirling about our feet. It was absolute magic (and it only cost $5 to rent the snorkels).

Sometimes you pay a great deal of money to observe something unique in nature, and sometimes Mother Nature surprises you instead. Our Galapagos adventure turned out to be a unique, interesting mixture of the two. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Red Head

Native only to the jungles of Sumatra and Borneo, the orangutan is a rare and exotic creature. With a name meaning “forest person” in the local tongue, our distant relative is truly a sight to behold. 

Eerily human, extremely intelligent, and largely solitary, the orangutan spends the first six years of its life with its mother. Much of this time is spent learning how to build nightly nests high in the branches, as well as the ins and outs of the diverse and complicated diet that gives these critters sustenance – primarily a wide range of fruits, supplemented by plants, honey, bark, and occasional bird eggs or insects.

Large, gangly-limbed, with frizzy red hair, orangutans still somehow manage to exhibit grace and ease while swinging from tree to tree high above the forest floor. No easy feat when you weigh up to 250 pounds.

It is a majestic and magical experience to witness such a rare, solitary animal in its native habitat. Perched high in the safety of the trees, the orangutans can be as interested in the people below as we are in it. And with any luck, this interest, this intrigue, will fuel efforts to keep the number of orangutans up, to keep the jungle from reducing in size, and to keep the devastation humans can bring from encroaching farther into the realm of the wild. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hakuna Matata

You can’t go to Africa, particularly East Africa, and not go on a safari. Okay, you can, but really, why would you want to? The practical, grown-up answer is, of course, money; as a general rule, experience-based commodities, especially when the experience is something rare or precious, tend to be either expensive affairs or jam-packed with people.

Luckily for us, Uganda currently falls right in between those two extremes: not the most popular, over-touristed destination in the region (like Kilimanjaro or Serengeti National Park) , but with a newly-blossoming budget safari industry. And by ‘newly-blossoming’, I mean ‘has two reasonable options.

Now, the difference between a budget safari and your other safari options comes down to one thing: number of passengers, i.e. are you willing to risk sharing your experience with a bunch of strangers, potentially putting the fate of your trip in their hands? Some people would rather pay more and keep the whole thing as a private endeavor, since, as we have learned in the past, the group is one of the vital ingredients, with the power to completely sabotage an experience. We got lucky. Not only did we save money, but we ended up with a fantastic group of people, something that certainly augmented the whole experience.

Of the two most impressive national parks in Uganda, we opted for Murchison Falls National Park as it is the cheaper of the two and home to the country’s only giraffes, both equally important in my book. It is also home to one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls, where the entirety of the Victoria Nile squeezes through a tiny 6-meter-wide space, making for some mighty impressive views.

But let’s get to the important part, the reason we’re all here. Wildlife.

Seeing exotic creatures at the zoo is lovely, a glimpse into another world. Seeing those same creatures in their own habitat, roaming free, is absolutely beautiful. Breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Surreal. An experience unique unto itself.

Over the roughly six hours spent on game drives, bouncing down dirt roads perched atop an open-roof van, we spotted a wealth of wildlife strewn about the park’s vast, lush landscape.

The elegant Ugandan Kob, the befuddled-looking Jackson’s Hartebeest, the stockier Waterbuck, all dot the horizon, grazing wherever you look.

Warthogs trot past, tails skyward, trailing their tiny wart-piglets.

Water Buffalo stand stock-still, only their jaws working away at grass, staring as we pass, birds comfortably hitching a ride on their back.

It’s a wonder to top a verdant hill, coming several feet from a herd of elephants, ears flapping, wrinkles mud-caked.

Hippos bob in the Nile, ears and eyes visible, cool in the midday heat. The males viscously assert their dominance in splashing, open-maw bouts. At night they roam our camp, grazing in the cover of night.

The vibrant flutterings of color that make up Murchison’s birdlife runs the full spectrum of the rainbow. Greens, blues, reds, oranges, and yellows, each shade is represented with a flapping of wings, a making of nests.

But for me, it’s all about the giraffes. Their unique markings, like no other creature on earth, pale in youth and darkening with age. As they run, it is as though they are moving through a viscous liquid, like the tape is played in slow motion. Graceful, majestic, and magnetic in their beauty; to witness numerous giraffes, reaching with ease into the tallest of trees to pluck a snack, towering over even the elephants, sauntering about without a care, is an experience unlike any other.

And, yes, these are animals we’ve seen a thousand times, in zoos, on nature specials and in the pages of National Geographic. But there is nothing that can take your breath right out of your chest like the beauty of seeing them carousing in their natural habitat, miles to roam, nothing but ground underfoot (or hoof or paw) and sky overhead.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Making Macaws

Traveling through Central America is making one thing very clear: I am a sucker for a conservation project. Full to the brim with so-called ecotourism options, Costa Rica has more than its share of ecological options.

The problem comes down to one of choice. But, without an overarching standard, governing body, or way to realistically cross-compare, it becomes immensely difficult to tell what is a genuine, eco-friendly, positive impact project and what is just plain old, money-hungry tourism. Faced with such a choice, I was relieved to find a project that seemed like it was focused solely on the creatures it is meant to help, rather than trying to turn a profit.

Tucked away in a residential corner of Alajuela, The Ara Project, or Finca Hatched to Fly Free, is a macaw conservation effort to rescue, breed, and re-populate Costa Rica’s resident species. It’s basically what you get when you add a couple of expats with a passion for birds and zoology, sufficient acreage, and a government with a large number of  rescued native macaws and no place to put them.

Scarlet and Great Green Macaws, the two indigenous species in Costa Rica, have suffered incredible loss in population. Deforestation, poaching, the exotic pet market, and the price the feathers alone can receive, all combine to severely threaten these magnificent birds.

Making matters worse, the great greens’ lifecycle revolves solely around one tree.  It is the only place they nest; the nuts are the only food they will eat. Thanks to the tree’s value for hardwood furniture, these once migratory birds are stationary, their population has dropped to only 200, and only enough trees remain for 30 nests.

Beginning in the 1980s, Costa Rica’s macaws in need of help, those rescued from poachers, injured, or no-longer-wanted pets, were sent to this property. Naturally curious, incredibly intelligent (think 5-12 year old child), social creatures, macaws need contact with other macaws. So, once rehabilitated, health checked, and approved, the birds were put into communal cages. And, due to proximity and natural desire, the birds started pairing off and decided it was time to start up the breeding portion of the project.

Thanks in part to the birds (and their libidos), a handful of volunteers, and some biologists, the project has a full, healthy population in captivity and are slowly introducing the macaws back into the Costa Rican ecosystem. And, the Ara Project has been wildly successful. The birds have started mating in their natural habitat. The great greens released have acquired a more diverse feeding and nesting palate. Education programs have cut down on poaching.

More importantly, macaws are once again part of Costa Rica’s present, as well as its future. Grandparents who watched the macaws slowly disappear have seen them returned in large numbers. Children who have never had the opportunity to see such vibrant displays of avian plumage are given the opportunity. And in nature no less.

Now that’s something I’ll donate money to. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Conservation, Captivity

There is something about zoos that is at once inherently sad, yet touches on our most basic curiosities. For many people, a captive environment is the only place they will get an up-close view of certain animals. It gives us a glimpse of their otherwise mysterious behavior, sounds, and activities – bewildering, endearing, dangerous, intelligent.

A tapir’s searching snout, the rambunctiousness of baby raccoons. Jaguars stretching in enlarged mimicry of the average housecat, the familial resemblance in the depth of primate eyes, the familiar fingers. The elegant span of a peacock tail, a toucan’s splendid multi-colored beak, iguanas lounging in streams of sunlight. Without seeing this beauty, would we have the desire to preserve it, to ensure its continued existence? Would it be vital, or merely background noise, the faraway cry of something disconnected from our selves?

Zoos educate visitors and can provide a sometimes necessary tool for conservation, protection and propagation of species, provided that there is adequate space and cleanliness, as well as proper treatment. But, when does our innate curiosity and desire to help cross the line from conservation and education into the realm of mere captivity and entertainment? What is protection and conservation? How little space is too little, how many animal roommates too many?

In El Valle’s Nispero Zoo, as in many zoos across the globe, this fine line is walked. However, tucked away within the zoological property, and funded in part by visitor admission fees to the zoo as a whole, resides a conservation project absolutely essential to the survival of some of the country’s most emblematic and endangered amphibian species.

The area surrounding Panama’s El Valle provides the habitat for an astounding (but dwindling) variety of amphibians, including the national symbol for conservation, Rana Dorada, or the Golden Frog. However, due to an invasive fungus that has been wiping out the area frogs, the number of species has dropped from 68 to 40 in recent years.

In an attempt to stem the losses, the fine folks at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center have taken to rescuing infected frogs, toads, and salamanders and treating them with an anti-fungal solution. This led to the development of a clean room atmosphere in which to house the amphibians, as well as an education and exhibition room, at least until some sort of solution to the spreading fungus is discovered and the frogs can be released back into their natural habitat.

Frogs, particularly the tropical variety, are infinitely variable and fascinating. Such spectrum of color, from vibrant and dangerous to subtle, earthy disguise. Massive, bulbous eyes and globular fingers and toes hide within their environment, tucked away in leaves, blending in or providing sharp contrast.

I, for one, am proud to visit the local exhibits, the fruit of conservation efforts to protect native creatures. But, without the surrounding zoo, and the ethical dilemmas that go hand-in-hand with a zoo’s existence, would the conservation center remain afloat?

Without a simple answer, I will at least try to direct my money in the way of conservation rather than entertainment, preservation rather than exploitation. Because, should we deny our animal brethren a helping hand, their entire future could be in peril.

Monday, November 12, 2012

From Rich Soil

El Valle de Antón, a quiet town just off Panama’s well-worn tourist track, has unique geological roots: a volcanic caldera, which filled over time to form a lake, which sprung a leak and drained, leaving behind a valley full of nutrient-rich volcanic soil.

In addition to the soil, a horticulturalist’s dream sold as ‘tierra negra’, the area surrounding El Valle is home to a wealth of flora and fauna, making it a vital piece of Panama’s ecological bounty, as well as a lovely stopover for several days of conservation-related activities.

El Valle’s Orchid Nursery is essential in maintaining the more than 1300 species of orchids, some 200 of which are endangered, native to the area around the valley. Thanks to concerted efforts from volunteers, funding from Panamanian and Japanese orchid growers, and helping hands from local farms and residents, the Nursery is able to propagate, relocate, and protect the local orchids.

When I think of orchids, I typically think of the two or three varieties I am used to: white or purple, sometimes pink. And even if the color varies, the shape is typically similar. I had absolutely no idea of the plethora of shapes and size, the sheer variety that’s possible in the world of orchids.

From as big as the palm of your hand to tiny as the head of a pin, in colors vibrant and muted, the orchids provided visitors with a visual feast. Sprouting from mossy trees, growing nestled in the earth, or being cultivated and tended in pots, El Valle’s orchids displayed deep, flamboyantly-colored throats and lush petals with a dramatic flair. Well worth the donation to see to it that these bold actors of the floral world flourish.