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Tropical Canopy Access Odyssey

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Hello all. I thought I'd share my experiences of a recent trip to the tropics. I hope it is of interest. 


It has been a 'dream' of mine for a while to use my arb skills to assist in biological research or conservation in one way or another, particularly in the tropics and last year I basically found myself between jobs and with few personal commitments so I decided to save up a couple of grand and fly out to Costa Rica with my climbing gear and a small list of contacts. I ended up spending three months in the country and worked for two different organisations whilst there. 


The first two months of the trip were spent with the Macaw Recovery Network, a conservation organisation that aims to study and conserve the endangered Great Green Macaw. I was primarily hired as a 'canopy access technician' but also spent a lot of time as a research assistant. This is the first season of field research carried out by the MRN and has relied a lot on data collected by other Costa Rican conservationist organisations, particularly for nest locations. This early stage is essentially a natural history study of this largely understudied species to try to further understand the causes of decline and inform conservation approaches. The presence of the organisation also serves as a deterrent against poaching and predation.


The field station was located in the heart of the Green Great Macaw breeding range in northern Costa Rica, on the Carribean slope of the central divide, a mountain range that runs the length of the country. Until 40 years ago the area was almost entirely forested until clearance for cattle ranching and crops resulted in massive fragmentation. 




The Great Green nests almost exclusively in cavities in the mountain almond tree (Dipteryx panamemsis). The timber of the tree is so dense and difficult to process that during the clearance of the 80s, many of them were left standing. It has since become illegal to fell these trees due to their association with the bird and so many relic mountain almonds are found amongst the pasture and plantations. 




I suppose one of my contributions as an arborist was to point out that cavity formation on the trees was accelerated by the stress that they were put under due to surrounding land use changes, root ploughing etc. Many of the trees were retrenching in much the same way that a farmland oak would, growing a dense lower canopy and dying back considerably in the upper canopy, opening the door for termites and fungi to hollow out sometimes the entire tree. There was a big contrast between the amount of cavities seen on the forest trees compared to the ones remaining in the pastures. It seems quite obvious but something that hadn't been considered was that it was ranching that had essentially created an almost artificial breeding ground for the species.




My primary role was to access the cavities and collect data such as dimensions, depth, temperature, orientation, pests and predator presence with a view to better understanding their nesting preferences and quality. Climbing these trees was pretty intense but incredible. Firstly they are massive (sometimes 60m +). I have never worked in Australia, the US or Canada so these were by far the biggest trees I've ever climbed. My VT and wrench worked fine but getting lines in them was the tough bit. It was what might be up there that was most worrying, although this bothered me less the more I climbed. They are also home to an array of pit vipers and killer bees so fully scoping the tree out with binoculars before going up was important. Add the intense heat and humidity and you've got a quite exciting but exhausting experience. The views and the novelty of being up an emergent tropical rain forest tree was well worth it, like entering another world. Huge amounts of the vegetation I found in their canopies didn't belong to the tree but was epiphytic and the phenomenal diversity of birds and mammals that was often baffled and confused at the sight of this hideous, clumsy creature that's just showed up.  







It was a pleasure to be involved with the MRN. They're an incredibly dedicated and passionate group of people living very basic and unluxurious lives for a cause they fully believe in. They could probably do with another climber since I've left if anyone's keen.


I'm tired now but I'll continue shortly with an account of the second project I took part in on the Osa Peninsula. 







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Sounds incredible thanks for sharing, nice pics. Went to Costa rica many years ago, would live to get back one day. Well done for managing to get organised and get out there!

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Also looking forward to more; I'll be there for Christmas!

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50 minutes ago, billpierce said:

Looking forward to the next installment. I take it it was a voluntary role there?

Yes it was unpaid. Well I did get a small stipend at Osa. Food and lodgings were provided at both projects so it hardly cost me anything and will most likely lead to more opportunities. I guess you need to bite the bullet and get a name for yourself in conservation biology or conservation in general. This field of work needs more skilled people than graduates but lucrative its not.

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Interesting & thanks for sharing. Well if this your thing I am sure there are lots of other opportunities.....but as you now know it's hot work! As for what is in those holes.....I remember being on the walkway at Kakum National Park in Ghana with the Park Manger who warned me off putting a stick into a hole....very likely a large snake which would have come and said hello. It's a little more serious if you are tied to the tree!

About ten years ago I met someone called Barrell who was involved in getting film crews into tree canopies https://uk.linkedin.com/in/andrew-barrell-54117643 …..looks like he has moved on, but he might be able to give you a few pointers.

There are a whole range of US conservation bodies involved in tropical forest work varying from the Smithsonian to Conservation International so I would get in touch with them if you want to see more of the world.....& try to get paid for it!

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It was a shame to leave the MRN but I couldn't turn down an offer to go and work on the Osa Peninsula.


Osa Conservation (https://osaconservation.org) is a large research and conservation non-profit based near Puerto Jimenez on the peninsula. My time there was divided between climbing (installing owl boxes and camera traps in secondary and primary forest canopies and helping National Geographic camera people get up the trees), teaching people how to climb and assisting with a rewilding/reforestation experiment. 


Since the 90s secondary growth and plantation forest cover has increased in Costa Rica which is unusual for a tropical developing country. The reason for this is the abandonment of farmland and an increase in ecotourism together with a very environmentally minded government. Reforestation efforts are widely visible have but are often focused on using exotic pioneer species such as teak, creating a monocultures with very little structure or diversity. Osa conservation was well funded enough to purchase large plots of abandoned pasture on the peninsula and so able to carry out a long term reclamation experiment using different combinations of species and other variables such as proximity to existing old growth forests. The Central American equivalent of birch and alder is balsa and cecropia species which were planted in combination with a selection of other native species (around 40 other species, often leguminous). The abandoned land was divided into plots and the density of planted balsa varied from 75% to 0%. Other plots were left entirely unplanted. Ideas such as translocating spider monkey latrine leaf litter were used to enhance soil nutrients, mycorrhizal systems and fruiting tree seeds. At three years old the experiment was still in its infancy but my role was to assist with a plot inventory survey, monitoring mortality rates and observing which species combinations have so far been successful. It was quite heart breaking but recent droughts as a result of El Nino had resulted in high mortality rates, particularly within the plots with low balsa density and those located further from existing forest. 




It was great to see the involvement of local people in both the MRN and OC. The majority of the staff at Osa Conservation were locals and were some of the most humble, knowledgeable and environmentally conscious people I've met. One bloke who had spent his entire life on the peninsula, had never had any education past high school but his knowledge of the local tree species (some of which are undescribed) probably surpasses anyone in the world. The organisation had taken him under their wing and he is being trained up to be their chief botanist. It was great to have the chance to show him some climbing techniques; I don't think I've ever seen someone suss out a rope wrench and hitch system so quickly.




If you ever get chance to visit this part of the world then grab it. Although not as diverse as the Amazon, it is classed as the most biologically 'intense' place on earth, that is more diversity within a smaller area. There was something new every day and as tree enthusiast it is like being a kid in a sweet shop. The Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) was one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen. Gutted I didn't get to climb one. They are endangered and there was talk if a seed collected expedition being organised in the future. 




Although Costa Rica is known as having a very environmentally conscious government they were certain things I saw that were quite alarming, pineapple production in particular. From what I saw and was told, pineapple growing has boomed in the last 30 years and for some reason is dangerously unregulated. The result is significant deforestation and local poverty. Costa Ricans rarely benefit as extremely cheap labour is used, mainly migrants from poorer neighbouring countries and often the plantation owners themselves are not nationals. Pesticide use has resulted in whole towns being unable to drink their tap water. Forests that have taken millions of years to evolve have been destroyed within a few decades or fragmentation has massively hindered their ability to function as the ecosystems they once were. This is all so a very small number of people can get very rich and we can enjoy Hawaiian pizzas. Grim. Don't eat pineapples.




Anyway, a fun and fascinating few months. It would be nice to chase more of this kind of work on the side and try and work out how to make a living from it. Back to climbing to slimy sycamores for now. 















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Pah! That's a titch......here we are in Bia national park in Ghana....oh yes & there is a lot more upwards! The gun is for forest elephants....we didn't see any.




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