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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Reforestation III: Saving the planet, one tree at a time

Any well-grounded person would agree that saving the planet is a goal beyond our reach. No one reading this blog controls enough resources to dream of something so big. But it is not beyond our reach to plant a tree in a place that once was a forest and could again return to the wild.
reforestation
Gapforce volunteers planted dozens of trees in a reforestation plot. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
For most folks in most circumstances, several factors inhibit their capacity to make a lasting contribution, however small, to the forests as they rapidly vanish before us. We all recognize that the issues facing our forests are far greater and more complex than simply taking a sapling and sticking it into the ground. Resolving the fundamental issues behind the disappearance of trees from a site is almost always difficult or impossible. Planting trees in a rapidly deforesting world may be of no more benefit than that of Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill.

reforestation in Nicaragua
Volunteers work among trees planted earlier, already reaching some six meters height. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Our reforestation activities aim for a high survival of trees to reach maturity, by taking a series of steps to get stakeholders interested, involved, and committed. GAIA reforests lands inside the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, through commitments from the individual landowners, or when land is not privately held, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment and the municipal authorities. Our contribution to the forest cover within the protected area is relatively small, with a total of some 8,000 trees planted to date. Many of these trees have survived and some have already reached at least eight meters height, and howler monkeys have been observed climbing in them, demonstrating a very important level of success.

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Gapforce volunteers taking care of saplings in the garden. We grow trees from seeds harvested from the forests of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo Psblo Somarriba. 
There is another good reason for conducting our reforestation project. Others see what we do, and little by little, people begin to appreciate the value of their own energy and effort in a collective force to save the wild areas in Nicaragua. Teachers and their students from schools come to participate, adding their efforts, of a a few hours or a few days, to bring more wild nature habitat to this area. Individuals and even families come and spend a day, a week, or even a few months as reforestation volunteers.
Seeds are gathered in the forest, and then processed by hand, as part of the reforestation activity. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
Spending a couple of hours once in a while to make the world a better place is not just an idea among the foreigners here. Our own neighbors have become environmentalists. When we organize a tree-planting activity, some neighbors want to be involved. Nicaraguans are increasingly finding ways to make their environment greener and cleaner.

Tree seedlings are planted in reforestation plots during the rainy season. Photo Michael Lowery
Seeing the reactions of so many people toward reforestation convinces us that growing, planting, and caring for trees is one of the best ways we can work in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. We feel validated by the people who join us and we think they do, as well.

Reforestation volunteers process seeds and share good times together. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
It is easy for one who visits Nicaragua to think that people are pessimistic or indifferent to environmental matters. We have found quite a different reaction from the Nicaraguans who live in and around Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Many people want to be involved, to have their desire for a green nation to be taken into account. The following photos show how locals came to help plant trees with us. 

A new reforestation area is getting its first trees, with collaborations including GAIA, Cooperativa Ebert Silva, MARENA, and members of the local community. Photo Pablo Somarriba. 
On a recent day in the 2017 rainy season, we carted trees into a new reforestation plot, and the local population joined in to lend their effort. The first trees were placed in the ground in an area that has resisted the return of forests for years.
Members of the local community in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve prepare holes for planting seedlings. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
There was a time when people seemed more pessimistic and skeptical of any request for help from the government or any group for effort in environmental protection. Today, however, more people think they can make a difference.
Park guards and the community prepare the site for planting trees. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
The idea that physical work such as planting trees is not for women, is pretty much a thing of the past, as well. Women participate in all kinds of activities in the local community. To see women digging and carting trees is not at all unexpected.
Trees are on their way! Photo Pablo Somarriba.
You can help to save the planet, one tree at a time, too. Just like the people in these photos, you can help to plant trees and make monkeys and other wildlife have bigger and better habitats, while protecting the water of Laguna de Apoyo. If you would like to be an Eco-Warrior Volunteer, please contact us.

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Golden-Mantled Howler Monkeys in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, Nicaragua

In most of Nicaragua, the most abundant and visible of the three primate species is the golden-mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata palliata). Howler monkeys have always been found in the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, but their populations have increased dramatically in recent years. Years ago, howler monkeys were heard from Estación Biológica Laguna de Apoyo, at distances of up to a kilometer to the south. Today, they are within sight at least half the days of the year.
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This baby howler monkey seems to be holding on to its mother as if on a roller coaster. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
We think this special population of howler monkeys in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve merits a lot of attention. The species is protected by local law from hunting and capture for purposes such as the pet trade, and the populations are very sensitive to habitat destruction. They may never touch ground during their lifetimes, making arboreal connectivity vital to their habitat. In areas where the forest is used for fuelwood, pasture, or other purposes, entire areas may be blocked from access by them. 

Howler monkey. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
The howler monkeys of Laguna de Apoyo, are doubly protected, as species occupying a protected area where fauna, flora and other aspects of natural habitat and landscape receive some measure of protection. Beyond these justifications for lending special attention to the howler monkeys of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, exists yet another important reason to focus on this population. The visible success of this species as a population during the past years, in a context of diminishing populations in most species and locations in the country,

Howler monkeys often are easily seen from the patio of Estación Biológica. Photo Andras Dorgai.
The dramatic increases in the howler monkey population in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve has meant that monkeys are found in places and circumstances that present new challenges for coexistence between humans and nature. Most of the homes along the shore now find howler monkeys in their yards many days of the year. The electric wires running through the populated areas present yet another challenge to them. Several electrocutions of monkeys have been documented over the years.

What can we do to make monkeys a priority in natural areas? Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
Howler monkeys are classified as folivores, that is, they tend to eat leaves as their sustenance. During the dry season, when leaves are scarce, or old and dry, they may consume larger amounts of fruits. There have been notable occurrences of monkey mortality in other parts of Nicaragua, where the dry season can be quite marked, so monitoring of the monkey populations is quite important.

Juvenile golden-mantled howler monkey. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
There are lots of reasons to be studying the monkey populations. One is to ensure that the populations remain abundant and healthy, with adequate numbers of juveniles that reflect a population in constant reproduction. The quality of a healthy environment for monkeys is also important to know and understand. One aspect of a healthy monkey habitat is a selection of trees that provides year-round food in adequate amounts. The species of trees preferred as food items by howler monkeys can provide indications for reforestation activities in the area.

Howler monkeys eat leaves of Bursera simaruba, a locally abundant tree species. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
Anyone visiting Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve may want to spend some time finding and watching howler monkeys. If one exercises common sense regarding the respect that monkeys deserve, it can be easy to enjoy watching them without causing them any distress. One should remember always that the monkeys deserve to live in peace without any distress caused by humans.

The howler monkeys of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve are easy to find and admire. Watch them with respect. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
When the howler monkeys decide to come to our patio, we are always happy, and we are careful to give them the as much private space as is necessary. They are not here for our entertainment only; they exist for their own reasons, and they should be permitted to come and go as they deem appropriate, without feeling bothered by humans.

Baby rides while mother searches for food. In the dry season, monkeys tend to eat more fruits than leaves. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
Our concern for wildlife and the habitats they use and require is not shared by everyone, but many people agree that wildlife should receive a greater priority than people in areas designated as wild space such as the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. There is a growing number of hotels and other spaces where the environment is completely incompatible with wildlife such as howler monkeys. At Estación Biológica Laguna de Apoyo, we stand for wildlife.

This baby howler monkey is still breastfeeding. She observes as her mother eats a mango. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
GAIA has conducted surveys and studies of the monkeys and other wildlife in the forests surrounding Laguna de Apoyo. If you are interested in helping to protect monkeys, study them, or just watch them, Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is among the most ideal of locations.

A baby monkey watches us as her mother is relaxing. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
Volunteers and interns can arrange stays to help with our conservation projects and to study the relationships between wildlife and the environment in our area. We gladly receive guests and visitors any time, as well. Please come to meet us, discuss what is the latest happening in conservation in the area, and stay as long as you like.
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An adult female golden-mantled howler monkey scales a tree. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
If you are interested in getting involved in the protection or study of these magnificent animals, please contact us.

howler monkey
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Monday, July 3, 2017

Scientific Tourism in Estación Biológica Laguna de Apoyo

For the second time in a week, Estación Biológica Laguna de Apoyo has received reportage in the edition 3 July, 2017 of El Nuevo Diario. Our research station is a point of participation for the protection of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, through activities in scientific research, environmental education, and conservation activities. Click on the link above and take a look!

scuba dive Nicaragua
GAIA scientist Jeffrey McCrary conducts underwater monitoring in Laguna de Apoyo. Photo Garey Knop.

How to make a center for research, conservation, and education work, we have found, is not easy. We often are in debt, but we carry on. There are plenty of gratifying moments and activities for all of us, which is why we continue. We get to help in small ways to cure nature of the ills caused by humans, through rescue of wild animals, planting and caring for trees, recycling, organizing, educating, coordinating with communities and the government, studying the issues facing the continued protection of the area, and developing policy recommendations. One of the many examples of our success is found in the long list of publications in which we have been involved.

A few areas in which we have worked are mentioned in the cited article. We were involved in getting motorboats and jet skis off the lake permanently. This has been a great advance in the protection of the nature inside the lake, and also makes for a much more pleasant and safe experience for all. Boats have meant ugly noises and danger from constant encroachment onto the spaces of swimmers. Everyone, except the few boaters, are glad they are gone. There are plenty of places to take motorboats, such as Lake Nicaragua, so all people win by the elimination of motorboats from Laguna de Apoyo.

Laguna de Apoyo
The chancho cichlid, Amphilophus chancho, is one of five fish species from Laguna de Apoyo discovered in studies coordinated by GAIA. Photo Adrianus Konings.
Our group has discovered five species of fish that are only found in Laguna de Apoyo. All of these species are descendants of the parent fish of the so-called Midas cichlid (Amphilophus citrinellus). Research coordinated by GAIA demonstrated that the five species in Laguna de Apoyo are genetically distinct from forms in all the other natural areas inhabited by the Midas cichlid.

Scuba divers can join us in monitoring activities on the fish populations in the lake. We are the only approved dive center in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, and we conduct all our activities in cooperation with the local municipal authorities, MINSA, MARENA, and INTUR.

GAIA maintains the costs of operation of Estación Biológica Laguna de Apoyo through visits, donations, sales of lunch and coffee, hostel stay, and training activities such as intensive Spanish courses. We hope you visit us and get to know what we do. Please come by or write us.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Animal Rescue XXIII: Variegated Squirrels

Some wild animals can be cute, at least at a distance, under controlled conditions, or perhaps just when they are juveniles. Most wild animals, however, demonstrate at some moment that they are wild by acting aggressively, or by feeling depressed or stressed in conditions of confinement. The cuteness and uniqueness of an exotic animal can seduce the most logical of people into thinking that they can provide adequate conditions to a wild animal so that it will actually be happy and willing to act like a domesticated animal, by showing attachment, obeying commands, and generally acting in a safe manner.

An entire genre of movies has recently emerged, showing wild animals acting in human-like ways, sometimes in Happy Feet-style fantasies. A common theme among them is the connection between humans and the animals. The wildness of the animals is almost always conquered by the goodness of people.

The best term for this sentiment is hubris.

One of several variegated squirrels taken from the pet trade and brought to Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo to transition back to the wild. Photo Andras Dorgai. 

This hubris is multiplied when a poor animal is placed for sale at a street light in Managua. So often, we see wild animals such as parrots, toucans, monkeys and even an occasional feline for sale, all bidding to enchant someone enough to plop down a little money and take the animal home to convert it into a family pet.

Purchasing wild animals as pets presents a terrible threat to the populations of animals in the wild. Captures of wild animals for use as pets have decimated the populations of animals such as Scarlet Macaw and the white-faced capuchin monkey in almost all areas throughout the country.

Once wild animals have been made into pets, they may face a difficult transition back into the wild. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
But the impacts humans have over wild animals because of the pet trade does not stop with the placement of animals who were once wild into cages and forcing them to live in captivity. The habitats where these animals lived is often ravaged to get the animals out. Fire is an effective hunting technique, driving animals from holes in the ground or in large trees. These sites as effective refugia for wild animals are lost, and often, the fires rage onward because the hunters rarely make special efforts to put out the fires they started.

Juvenile squirrels sleep as much as twenty hours per day, in confined spaces in nests, which can be imitated by a bundle of cloths. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
We do get a particular pleasure from the rehabilitation of variegated squirrels (Sciurus variegatoides). Baby squirrels are often captured by animal traffickers by knocking down nests from the tops of trees, and picking up the baby squirrels that survive the fall. The adults, strong and hostile with sharp teeth, are much less interesting as potential pets than the docile and dependent babies. Once in our hands, they must be handled to give the animals the social interactions they need and to assure that they are feeding well and getting sufficient stimulation and exercise.

Squirrels adapted to humans may even prefer to climb on them over scaling trees. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.

Little by little, squirrels can be reacquainted with their natural habitats. This species of squirrel rarely comes to the ground, finding plenty of bark, small insects and other fauna, fruits and nuts, year-round, high in trees. By coming and going from the security of a well-equipped cage, with a door open, the squirrels can choose to sleep, play, feed, and so on, all through the day. Juvenile squirrels can develop their interest in these foods and habitats little by little, until they may lose their interest in humans entirely.

Whenever safe to do so, juvenile squirrels are allowed to enter and leave their cage at will, so they can get exercise, explore, and socialize with wild squirrels nearby. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
Whenever squirrels or other wildlife have lost their fear of humans, the dangers they face are abundant. First, they may wander into the hands of people who will capture them all over again and carry them back into the pet trade. Second, they face dangers from domestic animals, cars, and even the risk of being stepped upon can be high. Third, pets may also carry viruses that can affect them.

Squirrels quickly learn whose hand does the feeding. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.
Once a squirrel has become accustomed to humans, it must learn to find food, socialize with wild squirrels, and stay away from danger. Perhaps the single most difficult barrier to returning to the wild, however, is to have a shelter in which to sleep. Young squirrels may make a shelter on their own, without the help of other squirrels, or they may be allowed to enter into the nests made by other squirrels.

Even though Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is a protected area with priority given to native species, cats abound in properties controlled by foreigners. This squirrel, once free and living in the trees above us, was caught by a cat from The Peace Project, and did not survive its wounds. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.

Sometimes, a wild animal is successfully reintroduced into the wild. Squirrels will sometimes survive, and their wild character may return, and they may reintegrate into the community of squirrels in the area. When this happens we are always grateful for all the efforts of so many people who participated in bringing food, spending time to provide care, clean cages, and even provide logistics. Each successful reintroduction into the wild results as the culmination of the efforts of many people.

Socialization from humans may substitute for the relationships lost from the members of their species for social animals such as squirrels. Eventually, however, they must develop relationships with their own species in the wild setting, to prosper in the wild. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.

These squirrels are beginning to learn to spend their days foraging in trees. They are still returning each night to sleep in their cage. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.

Variegated squirrels may lose their fear of humans after being caught, so that they may actually prefer to be with people to spending their days in the trees. But little by little, with encouragement, they learn skills for feeding and socialization in their arboreal environment, eventually to never return. Photo Jeffrey McCrary.

Would you like to help us rescue and rehabilitate wild animals in Nicaragua? Please contact us to find out how you can help by donating food, a cage, or by giving your time as a volunteer.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo in El Nuevo Diario

The volcanic crater lakes of Nicaragua were once again the subject of a news article in El Nuevo Diario this week. Anyone who has visited the volcanic crater lakes of Nicaragua would agree that they are quite unique. As a group, they are isolated lakes, without any open water channel connecting any of them to any other water body. Their connection through the water table, with slow filtering of water through the sediments and rocks which eliminates the passage of animals and even microorganisms to and from each lake.

GAIA has been active in studying and protecting the fauna and flora of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. 
It is precisely this isolation that makes the volcanic crater lakes of particular importance to the study of biodiversity and evolution, and consequently, gives them priority as objects of protection for the conservation of the unique fauna in each lake. The majority of the volcanic crater lakes in Nicaragua have been studied to determine what fish species are found in them. The principal study which documented these lakes was conducted by our group in eight of the volcanic crater lakes, resulting in twenty new distributional records for fish in the country. Prior work had been performed by Jaime Villa, Padre Ignacio Astorqui, and George Barlow, all of whom had conducted some amount of fish studies in one or more volcanic crater lakes.

Each of these eight lakes that have been studied contain unique fauna. Laguna de Apoyo, for instance, is the only wild habitat in the world for six species of fish; Laguna de Xiloa, for another five species. The other, less well-studied lakes on this list, definitely contain unique fish species, as well.

A former employee of our group has more recently sounded the call to name the volcanic crater lakes, collectively, a World Heritage Site, through UNESCO. This idea is not new; in fact, it has been floated repeatedly for the past twenty or so years. While some people host press conferences to hijack ideas for their personal aggrandizement, we are busy doing the things that protect the natural areas of Nicaragua and the biodiversity at risk found in them. For years, GAIA has been on the front lines of defense of the lakes from senseless destruction of the natural resource base in these fragile ecosystems. Although many of the actions go unnoticed by the public, a few have had a larger profile. For instance, GAIA director Jeffrey McCrary served as the coordinator for the development and approval of the official management plan for the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. The majority of the entries in this blog deal with the activities of GAIA inside that protected area, although several entries deal with other volcanic crater lakes, as well. In summary, we have been there, advocating for the protection of each of these jewels, with real actions resulting in new knowledge and better policy and protection.

In places like Nicaragua, it is easy to find people who want to be in the spotlight, especially foreigners who jet around from country to country, who talk about peace, or saving children from poverty, or the environment. Sometimes, such as in this example, there is not much behind their grandstanding. The real struggle is not about press conferences with grand proposals, but rather, in the trenches, building schools for poor people, spending countless hours dedicated to community involvement in the decision-making processes for natural resource use and protection, and sleepless nights in the thankless job of making a few hours in the forest or under the water turn into peer-reviewed, accepted research publications that provide meaningful justification to protect special places such as the volcanic crater lakes of Nicaragua.

Estacion Biologica
GAIA is present and active in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. 

It was not lost on us that someone would discuss the volcanic crater lakes of Nicaragua in the press as if there were no current and historic initiatives to protect them, and even less surprising that it would come from a foreigner who feels the need to plant himself as protagonist in an effort that needs him to accomplish something that no one in Nicaragua could accomplish without his grandeur. It is absurd to think that someone would propose research stations in these natural areas, as if no research had ever been conducted and published already. We have come accustomed to this type of attitude, and we continue to do what we do, as small as it may seem at times. Our organization, unlike other supposed organizations, is real, solvent, and active. We are in constant communication with the communities where we have alliances and with the relevant institutions of government to assure that what we do is appropriate on all levels.

We invite you to visit us at Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo or write us and get to know us. We seek alliances of all kinds, to work hand in hand wherever possible, to keep nature wild and free in Nicaragua. Please contact us!

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Paris Disagreements

climate change
What planet are we leaving for them?

Nicaragua is self-described for decades as the country "where lead floats and cork sinks". The country has steadfastly defied the conventional wisdom generated, promoted and supported by the rest of the world. Whether on the national, political level, or in the barrio, Nicaraguan thought has tended to take turns that did not always come from the playbook provided.

Recent world events have once again brought the country into the forefront of the news. Nicaragua shares the dubious honor of accompanying two other nations that are not united in the recent Paris accords regarding climate change. The accords were uncharacteristically broad and bland that virtually every nation signed on, even the stubborn government of North Korea. Syria, distracted by a bloodbath within its borders, did not sign, nor did it protest. The nation which aspires and daily claims to be the greatest nation on the planet, the United States of America, signed, but its new leader, Donald Trump, declared the agreement to be inequitable toward the USA. His opposition to the agreement and intention to depart from it was declared recently.

It has been said that politics makes strange bedfellows. With the dismaying declarations of the President of the United States, Nicaragua is strangely united into a unique club of those outside the Paris accord, this space with a failed nation and a tragically misguided empire.

All this is important to note, because of the gravity of climate change on human life and wild nature globally. Paleontologists have declared the current times a new geological epoch, in which the human influence on the climate becomes indelible. The effect of modern society, in these terms, on temperatures, atmospheric composition, and weather processes, has become paramount. Among the few decision-makers who dare to question that humans are provoking long-term impacts on the climate which threaten even the survivability of our own species on this planet, are only those who are in position to benefit directly from its negation, such as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

An anthropological analysis of the government of the USA and the sides of the debate regarding climate change belies the self-interest of individuals who gain from pretending that the obvious is happening. In contrast, the government of Nicaragua has taken a posture which can be criticized and discussed, but its relevance to history is indisputable. Climate change is real, it affects the quality of life of humans, and the distribution of impacts among humans is unequal. Poor people, worldwide, bear the brunt of the negative effects of climate change. Unlike the USA, the government of Nicaragua has not sought to negate the relation between human activities and the environment, but rather to accentuate that poor nations are victims of a kind of climate-imperialism imposed by the richer nations, especially those set in the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere.

As Gaia director Jeffrey McCrary, states in a recent essay published in El Nuevo Diario, the posture of Nicaragua regarding the accords sets the country far apart from that of the USA. The government of Nicaragua has made deep commitments toward the environment, particularly regarding greenhouse gas emissions, whereas the government of the USA is backpedaling. We need urgently to establish what climate change will mean to Nicaragua, in terms of shorelines, ecosystems, habitats for fauna in both the land and in the waters of the country, the impacts on populations regarding agriculture, vulnerability to storms and drought, livability regarding temperatures.... so many things!

Monkey die-offs, water wells going dry, lake levels dropping, crop failures, floods, hurricanes that flatten areas. The rapid advance of the agricultural frontier. Median temperature rise. What more evidence do we need?

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