Human / Nature

Human Impact and Wildlife on the Brink in Central America

Photos and stories by Trevor Ritland

(click on a photo to view it individually)

The Boon

Bocas del Drago, Panama

I met this young girl on a trip through Panama; she lived on one of the islands not far from the tourist hub of Bocas del Toro, and she was well-acquainted to the gringo visitors coming through with their cameras. She’d been sitting on her porch for a few hours watching the student group that was staying on the island, and she momentarily disappeared into her mother’s kitchen to reemerge with a juvenile Basilisk lizard, which she was keeping as a pet. Raquel tried to reason with the girl to let the lizard go, but she had no intention of relinquishing the object that had so enamored the attention of the visitors. 

Two days later, she would display a juvenile Caiman in a similar fashion; her family had been keeping it bound inside a water barrel beside their home. Moncho attempted to convince the father to release the animal, but he came back to the group disheartened. 

“He says they’ll release it tomorrow,” Moncho told me. “Which means they’ll probably eat it tonight.”

I have spent two years considering the motives of the two opposing parties; as conservationists, Moncho and Raquel wanted to see the animals go free— for the sake of the individuals and for the sake of the ecosystems they supported. The island family, on the other hand, possessed two clear motives: the lizard, they wanted to display in hopes of impressing the visiting biologists; the Caiman, they simply wanted to eat.

Here, the girl proudly poses with her boon. 

Splendid Leaf Frog

Sarapiquí, Costa Rica

In his amphibians guide, Leenders calls the Splendid Leaf Frog "a Holy Grail," and after encountering one in the wild on Costa Rica's Caribbean slope one warm April night, I am inclined to agree. These frogs are rarely seen because they make their home in the canopy of undisturbed forest, only sojourning to the forest floor for purposes of reproduction; at these important times, they are known to glide from the treetops using the webbing between their fingers and toes as an air brake. 

The most important word in the lines above is "undisturbed." These frogs cannot survive in heavily impacted habitats, which makes the discovery of this individual significant. The Sarapiquí region of northeastern CR is a hotspot for agriculture expansion; pineapple is pushing in, and the pesticides and runoff threaten the surrounding forests. But the presence of the Splendid Leaf Frog offers hope. I found this frog on private land owned by a Tico named Geovanny. If he wanted to, he could sell his plot of forest to Del Monte and retire young; instead, he's chosen to protect his land and all the pieces of the puzzle that exist there. I've followed water snakes along the riverbanks and taken tree boas out of student cabins here; glass frogs dance among the leaves at night.

One man protecting one patch of forest allows one leaf frog to lay fifty-four eggs. One individual can positively impact the planet. One of the most important things I learned in the jungle is the small things that we do spark evolution on a broader scale. But I also learned patience. The Splendid Leaf Frog did not learn to fly in just a day; it took a couple hundred million years or so to get it right. We've emerged as the top predator of our time; it is up to us what we will do with our power over nature. I hope, like Geovanny, that we can find our place, and live among the leaf frogs.

Fruit of the Vine

Rincon de la Vieja, Costa Rica

I encountered this Green Vine Snake in Costa Rica’s Rincon de la Vieja National Park, deep inside the dry Gunacaste region where volcanoes dot the landscape and disappear like Mount Olympus in the clouds. These snakes are expertly adapted to their environment, often disguising themselves as twisting vines and creeping slips among the branches and brambles, disappearing from the predator’s gaze and the scanning eyesight of their prey. 

Rincon de la Vieja is a bastion of biodiversity, providing food, water, and shelter for hundreds of unique and threatened species that make their home in the dry uplands of Costa Rica. The volcano and its surrounding slopes, hot springs, mud pots, and rich primary dry forest is a vital piece of the biological corridor utilized by charismatic species like tapirs and jaguars, and significant alterations to the intact forest could spell their untimely demise. For years now, there has been talk of the construction of a geothermal plant within the bounds of the National Park; while this proposed new exploitation of Costa Rica's renewable energy could bring us closer to a world without fossil fuels, one must also consider the precedent that this construction would set in stone. If the legal boundary of this protected wilderness is breached, where will the compromises and amendments to the protected status end? These are the important questions that the next generation has to answer as we move forward in pursuit of a sustainable future and the conservation of our planet's keystone biodiversity.

For now, the vine snakes watch the tourists as they pass along the park’s new trails, rarely ever noted to be anything except another bramble in the bush, and when night falls, slink back into the forest and are gone. 


Monteverde, Costa Rica

I encountered this Periphoba moth on a hike through the cloud forest just a few minutes after it emerged from its chrysalis. At 1500 meters, the continental divide traces the spine of the mountain peaks in Monteverde, creating a unique and temporal habitat unlike anything else in the world. These are the same ecosystems where the Golden Toad once made its home, before the changing climate warmed its world and drove it to extinction. 

As the town of Monteverde warms, the endemic species will not be the only things to feel the heat; with an economy propped up by ecotourism, the human residents of Monteverde, too, will soon have to confront the realities of their changing world. 

Crouching in the early morning darkness of the forest, chased by swirling mist and the rain that was making its way slowly up the mountain, I watched the young moth’s wings unfold and then I left it to whatever future it might find. 

The Night Patrol

Nicoya Gulf

In Costa Rica’s Nicoya Gulf, a few dozen kilometers off the coast of Pájaros, the fishermen of Isla Chira are just beginning to pull their old boats in to the mangrove-speckled beaches on the Palito shore. Night is descending; a storm is coming in. The low rumble of a motorcycle breaks the silence of the cool waves lapping on the beach, and soon all the men are gone, but two. 

Gabriel Cruz is preparing his boat to ride out into the storm with his younger nephew. They will spend the next twelve hours on patrol for poachers, moving up and down the clock of night and listening eternally for the casting of a net; enforcing the laws of the protected waters. They tell me this storm won’t be enough to stop the poachers, so they must honor their agreement. I ask the men the most difficult part of this responsibility, and they both reply, without any hesitation, “the loneliness.”

Years ago, over-fishing in the Gulf drove the fishermen to establish regulations for themselves— they banned trawling nets and committed to using small size seven hooks to avoid catching juvenile fish. Their foresight and tireless protection of the imperiled fisheries has allowed the aquatic populations to begin a slow recovery. 

“But,” Gabriel says, “there are always people who don’t go by the rules.”

Now Gabriel is bringing the gas can down to the water’s edge, where his boat sits tilted in the mud waiting for the tide and for the veil of night to fall. I will go out with him tonight to comb the bruisey darkness for the lights of poachers, to listen for the spray of water from the casting of a net. We will drive the line between the buoys of the past and I will lose the count of hours, until he lets the engine die and runs his boat aground onto a sandbar in the middle of the Gulf, the spine of some submerged and unseen creature. The fisherman will leave the boat and I will follow him, not knowing where he is going, where I am going, where we will end up. Then he will point down at the water moving at his feet, and I will see the sparks of bioluminescence glinting in the surf— thousands of microscopic glowing creatures filling the water with the light of existence, and I will understand why the men agree to spend these long nights patrolling in the cold; what they are protecting; what they have to lose. These fireworks will go on bursting in the cool swells of the ocean long after we have gone, and that night we will find no poachers, but in a few hours the sun will rise and the fishermen will take their boats out once again, and the air will fill with the sound of many hooks—size seven— hitting the water as they cast their lines.