When Animals Don’t Care About Conservation

For the final stop of my last trip, I brought my group to my old haunt of the Osa Peninsula where we took a daytrip along the coast into Corcovado. There, they were treated to the usual stunning visuals: whitesand beaches, waterfalls, and plenty of animals. Scarlet Macaws were out in force, we got to see three different species of monkey, and were even treated to a good-sized boa constrictor crossing the trail right in front of us.

Parrots on the beach–too cliche?

Later, walking back along the beach, we saw movement just under the treeline. It was a band of coatis–the females and young ones–and they appeared to be rolling and playing together in a big pile in the sand. We approached and saw they were eating something. We crept even closer and saw that they were eating turtle eggs.

Really, coatis? Really?

Sea turtle eggs, to be precise. They had discovered a nest buried just beyond the high-tide mark, and were currently in the process of digging up and devouring the entire thing. I can’t be sure which species of turtle it belong to, but every sea turtle species in Costa Rica is threatened and protected. The very same eggs that were disappearing down sandy snouts were the very same kind that are carefully observed, protected, and even collected and incubated by conservationists elsewhere along the coast.

This? This is why herpetologists are so ornery.

The coatis were loving them. I got within maybe three meters to watch them stick their long noses into the wet sand and emerge with leathery eggs. They snarled and squealed at each other, squabbling over choice spots to dig up their buried treasure. They stuffed themselves until their bellies were full and then lay, bloated, in the shade. I lost count of how many they ate, and they were hard at work already when we got there, but I think it’s safe to say that several dozen potential endangered turtles were lost that morning.

Yeah? Proud of yourself?

It can be frustrating when it seems that an environment is undoing the steps we take to conserve it. People work hard to save the few remaining sea turtles, and the very same conservation laws that protect the turtles were also preventing me from interfering and scaring away the coatis. It can be even more frustrating when the offending animals are just so darn cute and hard to stay angry at.

“What, me furry?”

But this is something to keep in mind: Sea turtles are endangered because of humans, not coatis. Coati egg predation is natural. Coatis have always eaten turtle eggs. People have not. In fact, the conservation laws and efforts exist not only to save the little turtles, but to provide food for the coatis as well, restoring both to their respecting roles in the ecosystem.

It’s just that, I bet if I were a working in turtle conservation right now, I would have sprouted a few gray hairs over all the turtle eggs lost. I mean, come on, coatis. You’re omnivores–you could eat anything else! So I probably would’ve cursed them a little more too. Only, not so much. They really are just too darn cute.


Nasal Sensitivity

Capuchin monkeys tend to spend a lot of time in the canopy, high up where the fruit and bugs are. In the wet season, when most of the trees are in full leaf, this makes them awfully hard to spot or watch. It’s even harder in heavy rain, when looking straight up gives you an eyeful of drops. You can try to keep track of them by sound, following the characteristic “swish-crash” they make as they jump between branches, or the frequent screams and calls they make to each other. But again, this is difficult in heavy rain, when it’s hard to hear your own coworkers yelling in you ear about how someone’s stuck in quicksand or drowning in a flood or whatever.

All of this means that I usually rely on another sense to follow monkeys, the tracker’s secret weapon: scent. Many’s the time I’ve stood perfectly still and silent, deeply inhaling through my nose in an effort to locate our targets. Or I’ve stooped low to the ground and  run my face inches over crushed stems and turned-up earth, trying to pick up traces.

Just as often, however, I’ve been informed that this is not normal human behavior. It’s confusing or even worrying to a tour group or intern to see their guide or mentor suddenly stop moving and starting sniffing the air like an animal. Some point this out to me. Some just stare, or trade looks with each other.

Part of this is because–in our culture–scent as a characteristic is practically ignored. It’s almost taboo. Scent is either purely negative (body odor, sweat, animal dander) or else provocative (perfume, cologne, food). It’s natural and repugnant or artificial and overpowering. Suppressive. Extreme. There is no nuance, and little information. Thus, our sense of smell is never exercised. As a species, we’ve selected against the ability to consciously pick up and identify specific smells. And there aren’t nearly enough words in English–or any other written language as far as I know–to describe the various odors out there.

Imagine what you smell like to them.

I may have a naturally overdeveloped sense of smell. Maybe it’s genetic. But maybe it’s just more practiced. I’m more with the latter. But either way, I’ve trained my nose to be able to pick out and key into smells that most people can’t or don’t. Especially when it comes to animals.

Large mammals, especially hoofed herbivores, have a musky odor. It lingers for several days, especially on tree trunks where they scratch themselves. Pigs, like the peccaries here, have that smell turned up to 11. It’s almost sulfurous.

Snakes have a strong musk as well, but it’s more bitter and doesn’t last as long. They usually release it when they’re alarmed, but I also pick up traces around where they shed skin. Other reptiles have less smell in general, except for turtles. They smell like algae and mildew, but with a slight sweetness as well.

None of this is meant to be flattering, by the way.

Cats–as many pet owners will agree–have a sharp, noxious scent that they leave in carefully chosen places to mark territory. It’s usually accompanied by scratches in the ground or on trees, as I’ve mentioned before.

The list goes on, and just as long are the number of smells that I can’t describe with words. I’m stuck with comparisons. Butterflies smell like dust. Most birds smell like moldy bread. Weasels and kin smell like ammonia, molasses, and spoiled meat, so strong it’s like being punched in the nose. Termites smell like menthol and turpentine, and anyone who smells like that has clearly just brushed up against a nest.

Whereupon they will immediately receive a good scrubbing to remove the offending insects. Strangely, I’m rarely thanked for this favor.

As for monkeys, white-faced capuchins leave behind a telltale trail of wet black turds that reek like a compost pit emptied into an overchlorinated swimming pool. That’s the best I can describe it. It can vary depending on what they’ve been eating, but is usually overpowering when freshly dropped and tenacious when dropped onto clothing.

Howler monkey poop is more fruity and not nearly so bad, but it’s usually deposited directly on your head. Intentionally.

As I said, all of this is hard to explain, and doesn’t exactly make for polite conversation. Except among biologists. As far as culture and scents go, we’re a lost cause.


Transplanted Again

I missed my last chance to post from Monteverde, so we’ve already moved sites to Guancaste, Costa Rica’s northernmost province.  Back in a field station–a proper one this time, complete with rickety bunk beds, no hot water, and a regular assemblage of clumsy insects circling the lights at night.  None of these are complaints, by the way.  I’m not upset, just nostalgic.

Anyway, our drive here took us about half an hour on the highway and a full hour on an access road that covered about a quarter of the distance.  It was more ruts than road, and wound through a relatively cleared section of tropical dry forest.  The environment was pretty typical until we heard thunder and the rain opened up.

Rain?  In the wet season?  Who would’ve guessed?

There’s a proverb in the Pacific Northwest that it will not rain as long as you wear a raincoat.  Rain waits for you to be unprepared and take off your waterproof gear before coming down.  If that is the case, then drought-afflicted Guanacaste can thank this unwise bunch of soggy gringos who waited too long to cover the bed of their truck with a tarp, and packed their raincoats at the bottom of their bags.  It dropped a true, honest-to-god tropical downpour on us, turning our already primitive road into a slurry of red clay and debris.

We bounced along in our cab, packed in with groceries and whatever bags wouldn’t fit under the tarp, alternating between AC and lowered windows to stay cool.  It was during one of these latter periods that we brushed past a lowered branch that scraped into the open window frame and deposited a dozen angry cicadas into the cab.  We bottomed out several times on exposed rocks and flooded creekbeds.  But the only time we stopped was when we spotted a tortoise crossing the road.  Then, of course, we had to pile out to take photos.  Typical biologists.

It wasn’t like either of us were in a hurry.

But we eventually made it to the field station, an open hacienda-style affair near the base of Volcano Orosi.  It was getting dark when we arrived, but I had a chance to take in the view in the misty twilight—a long, flat expanse of reclaimed forest.  No doubt full of damselflies.