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Short-term Specials, Conservation in Costa Rica by Tim Burroughs

First Impressions of Costa Rica

Swimming in Costa Rica

I arrived in San Jose in the evening and found it surprisingly hot for that time of night. Outside of the airport was busy and quite disorientating, but I soon found Gunnar, the driver, who was easily recognisable in his Projects Abroad livery. He was incredibly welcoming and friendly and happy to answer all of my questions.

He took me to the hotel Santa Maria, where we would stay the night before going on to Barra Honda. I met the other volunteers who had flown in that day, 3 of which I would spend the next 2 weeks with. We then went out to the local Denys diner for dinner - a new experience for me, being the only non American present. After this we returned to the hotel for the night.

Getting to the National Park

The day started fairly slowly as we prepared to leave for the long journey up to Barra Honda. We travelled up in comfort in a small group in a spacious minibus; we stopped a few times for toilet and lunch breaks. The thing I noticed most was the lush beauty of the landscape and the amazing coastline that we travelled along. The landscape that we passed was so amazing that I was in awe the whole journey.

After several hours we finally arrived at Barra Honda. The air was thick, heavy and humid and it was swelteringly hot. Coming from a fairly cold country it was a huge temperature difference. For the rainy season it was surprisingly dry; in fact it only rained twice the whole trip. Shortly after arriving and being shown to our rooms we were introduced to the staff and read through the safety rules.

The Conservation Project Manager showed us around and introduced us to the work that the volunteers did at the park. Then there was an opportunity to settle in, explore and meet the other volunteers. Throughout my time I made many friends and there was plenty of time to socialise. In the evening we watched a film in the open walled dining area, accompanied by some enormous insects, a first introduction to the varied wildlife at the park. Then it was off to bed for the first night in the bunked dorm accommodation.

First Days on the Conservation Project

Measuring the bats

The first few days went very smoothly, everyone made it very easy to fit in and we all got on very well. The only issue was the large number of insects which liked to bite me to bits. For such a remote location it was actually well supported with a local bar, swimming pool and a wonderful little cafe with wifi that did very reasonable ice creams. I spent a lot of my free time down there getting some refreshments, sending emails and playing with the resident puppy.

Conservation Work

Right from the beginning we were involved in the conservation work. This involved long hikes into the dense jungle. Apart from being very tiring and hot and sticky, the environment was beautiful and lush. Two of the main projects involved setting and collecting the butterfly and camera traps. We learnt about the different species of butterfly and how they camouflaged themselves and set traps using overripe banana so that we could identify the different species and count them. This involved attaching stones to ropes and throwing them over different height branches and pulling the traps up. We left the traps out for a day and then returned to remove the butterflies and record the data.

The cameras were set up to photograph particularly shy, rare or nocturnal animals, in particular the rarer species of mammals of which little was known of their numbers or movements. The collection of photos taken goes into a database which helps to keep track of some of the population sizes and variety of animal life in the park. The camera traps have allowed for the photography of a few very rare species some of which were thought to not even exist in that region anymore.

The cameras are motion activated and are attached to trees at low levels in a square formation, each camera overlooking small clearings in the jungle. This allows for the clearest pictures with a lower risk of something like falling leaves activating the cameras which are quite sensitive.

There is also the more manual tasks, which although less glamorous, are still just as vital to the conservation work of the park. These included clearing the trails using machetes in order to allow easier access around the park as well as easier access for tourists as a way to encourage them to keep to the set paths to cause the least amount of disruption to the environment.

Tourism plays a large role in the national parks in Costa Rica due to the very low level of government funding and so the main source of income is from tourism which is why it is important to make the park accessible as well as to educate people about the park. We also cut down the overhanging branches over some park buildings in order to prevent them from falling down in storms and causing damage.

Other activities

Giant insect

As well as getting involved in conservation work we had the opportunity to try some of the activities that the tourists got to do. One day we visited one of the tourist caves. We had a guided tour and got to see some of the work that some previous volunteers had done in carving out steps in the rock. As well as them being beautiful bits of natural scenery we were also educated on the types of formations and the extreme length of time they take to form.

Another excursion we went on was a 14 kilometre round hike to a waterfall in the middle of the forest. Due to it being an extremely brittle piece of Kast scenery, this part of the park was not open to the public and required a knowledgeable guide to get to. The formations were incredibly elaborate and magnificent looking, especially since it was exposed due to reduced rainfall. We got to swim in the pools which was very welcome after the long hike in the heat.

At the weekends the conservation work stops and the team have a well deserved break. For longer term visitors this often meant visiting the beach. For us on the 2 Week Special, we spent the day on an adventure tour. This helped to maximise the enjoyment of the time and allowed us to experience life outside the park. The tour was amazing and we got to ride horses along rough trails, ride the rapids in rubber rings and go on a canopy tour using zip wires high above the forest floor and waterfalls.

What did I learn?

I learnt about the importance of the conservation work and about the beauty of the natural environment. I learnt about the struggles of the local people to get by and how difficult it was for the government workers at the park and how vital the volunteers were in this work. I also learnt how respected the volunteers were by the locals as we got invited to a local school’s play and were given lunch, although not all the food and drink were to my taste.

As I have had the opportunity to reflect on my time in Costa Rica and have been involved in telling others about the work I was involved in there, I have realised that I really care about social justice and the importance of being able to give something back to society.

What was my best bit?

Setting up the cameras

When I spoke about the conservation work, I missed an important bit out as I wanted to save the best ‘til last. One day, instead of our usual afternoon project, we had to wait until the cover of darkness to hike off deep into the forest and set up nets across the paths known to be frequent flight paths for the bats. We then set up a base camp and did rounds on the nets checking for any bats caught up in them. We untangled them and put them in little bags in order to keep them calm and transfer them back to base camp.

At base camp we weighed the bats, measured their wing span, recorded the gender and species and painted their toe nails in order to record which bats had already been seen! We had an unusually active evening; on average we were told that we might see eight bats but we actually caught over 40 that evening, including two rare species, one of which had only been recorded once before in the length of this project.

Would I go again?

Definitely! I thoroughly enjoyed my time; it was one of the best experiences of my life and I would go as far as to say it was life changing. It opened my eyes and widened my horizons and I would like to thank everyone who I met and worked with over those two weeks who helped to make it so amazing.

Tim Burroughs

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