This past week I traveled to a remote part of Costa Rica to look for one of the world’s largest vipers, the bushmaster. The trip was primarily to familiarize myself with the forest and to meet the people working to conserve this animal. A brief summary of my trip is as follows:
I was excited about my first trip into the rainforest to look for one of its largest and most iconic predators, the Bushmaster. The small Cessna I flew in on was in the clouds the entire trip until we were a couple hundred feet off the ground. I loaded into a 4-wheel drive Toyota and began the 1 hour drive to the research station. As we crossed the last bridge, we could see that the rivers were abnormally high even for the heart of the rainy season. Crossing the next five rivers was an adventure with the water from one engulfing half of the vehicle. I looked out the window watching the water only feet away wondering when the vehicle would stall, but it never did.
That night Guido (research coordinator at the station) and I hiked to a remote swamp. In the span of a few hours, I saw more than 20 species of frogs and lizards that I had never seen, including a red-eyed tree frog, her eggs, and a Jesus lizard clinging to the trunk of a small tree 20 feet above the ground. Later that evening, I saw first-hand why the lizard had its name, as I watched one run effortlessly across the surface of the water. Hidden in one corner of the swamp we found an aggregation of 11 musk turtles. But the highlight of the evening was when we captured a baby spectacled caiman. It immediately began to call out for help and the other babies around the swamp began to respond. We could see the mother’s eyes reflecting reddish-orange light from our headlamps. As her baby continued to call, she swam directly towards us. We wanted to catch her but we had to give our ground and get out of the deep water where she had the advantage. We moved closer to shore hoping to get a chance to grab her as she entered the shallows but at the last minute she turn and swam back into deeper water.
We decided to take the second day and bushwack through a remote section of forest in search of snakes. As I slowly searched the crevices around the buttresses of every large tree, I finally saw my first viper. A terciopelo with half its body just outside a mammal hole at the base of a giant tree. Terciopelo are impressive animals and closely related to the bushmaster but they are not the viper we were in search of. We continued on and Guido made a diving catch on a 2.5 meter Oriole Snake or Mica. These are large black and white snakes that are rarely seen in these forests. We had lunch on a large tree with howler monkeys bellowing and dropping fruits and nuts on us from above.
Later that evening, I went out with a field crew to patrol the beaches for nesting olive ridley sea turtles. We had two goals, first to continue the long-term monitoring project underway at the station and two to deter poachers that frequently patrol the beach in search of eggs. The eggs are dug up and sold as aphrodisiacs. We watched the first turtle crawl out of the surf and make it way up to the high tide line, just at the edge of the rainforest. First, she made a false nest (perhaps to deter predators) then began to dig a chamber for her eggs. I was amazed at how well she could scoop out flippers full of sand and place them neatly to the side. Once the chamber was built she went into a sort of trance and began to lay her eggs. While she was in this trance, we went to work measuring, tagging, and examining her. Once she was done laying her approximately 100 eggs, she rocked the weight of her body back and forth for 5 to 10 minutes to pack down the sand over her nest. She then turned and made her way back into the ocean. Over the course of the evening we had the chance to collect data on five more nesting turtles, watch two nests of hatchlings make their way from the nest to the sea, and encounter a poacher. We were standing in an area where one turtle had just nested, a second was currently nesting, and a third was in the process of making a false nest, preparing to make her actual nest, when we saw a headlight coming through the forest. As the light came closer the person realized we were there and turned around and disappeared. On that night we deterred one poacher and likely saved some turtle nests but every night these poachers patrol the beaches search for nests so they can excavate all the eggs and sell them. Coincidently a few days later while sitting at a restaurant in town as I prepared to return to the States, I was approached by someone with a cooler full of turtle eggs asking if I would like to buy.
We continued to search two more days for bushmasters, we saw many great species of wildlife (scarlet macaws, poison dart frogs, tapir tracks…) but could not find a bushmaster. We also spent a great deal of time the last night discussing bushmasters with a group of local ecotourism guides that frequently searches for the snake. While there are a couple scattered rumors of the snake being seen every year even some of these ecotourists that have been searching for them for 15 years still have not found one.
I have been here for just a few days and am already amazed by the diversity; jaguars dragging sea turtles off the beach, tapirs running through the forest, and the world’s largest viper, the Bushmaster, hunting mammals in undisturbed forest. This is one of the last great places on the planet and the bushmaster is one of its great icons. We, as citizens of this planet, need to do everything in our power to make sure this placed is preserved. After this initial trip we at Project Orianne are developing strategies to return and develop a project to determine the status and conservation needs for this icon of the Central American Rainforests.