A New Crocin’ Direction in Nicaragua

This month’s blog is written by CRC’s Research Coordinator Miriam Boucher, recipient of a National Geographic grant to lead crocodilian research in Nicaragua.  

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The CRC often talks about wildlife champions, and how engaged and passionate members of the community can make incredible differences in conservation. This month’s blog post is a testament to the commitment and dedication of a wildlife champion in Rio San Juan, Nicaragua. Two years ago, Dr. Marisa Tellez contacted Mr. Ronny Zambrana as part of her IUCN/SSC-Crocodile Specialist Group networking in the Central American and Caribbean region.  Speaking with Ronny, he asked for assistance in learning more about the crocodiles and caiman present in his community. This January, his project was finally realized. With the help of a National Geographic grant awarded to CRC Research Coordinator Miriam Boucher, Miriam, and with excellent field support by Belizean citizen volunteer Noel, the CRC jetted off to Nicaragua to kick this exciting new partnership off.

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Rio San Juan is the Nicaraguan department (state) that borders Costa Rica to the south, and extends from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea. Unlike Some of Nicaragua’s dry and volcanic areas, Rio San Juan is lush, green, and bursting with life. The largest lake in Central America, Lake Nicaragua, extends almost all the way to Costa Rica, and the Rio San Juan (river) empties the lake into the Caribbean Sea. The region has a unique history of foreign politics and pirates, as before the Panama Canal, travelers used to cross the Americas by cutting through an Pacific channel into the lake and traveling south to Rio San Juan, using the river to cross over into the Atlantic side of the continent. The lake and river teem with fish, and cormorants and herons use every shoreline and eddy to stalk fish hiding in the shallow waters. Fish are one of the biggest commodities. They drive the tourism market with trips to fish for the huge sabalo (tarpon) that live in the river, they feed the people living in the towns along the river and lake, and they keep the fishermen endlessly busy, day and night, trying to eke a living and keep up with the demand. There is also an amazing tour guide base that offer nighttime caiman tours. This is where our work started.

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We began our work with captain and guide Julio in the town of Boca de Sabalos. He is a quiet and soft-spoken young man who has been working for about 10 years with ecotourism and caiman. Our two nights with Julio led to one of my most cherished memories from the trip. We often speak about how our attitude and behavior are reflected in the animals we work with. On our second night, we came across a large caiman poised high on a bank. As we approached it made it’s way closer to the water and then just relaxed. We pulled the boat right up beside it and I was thrilled to have such a close and personal look. I got out of the boat and walked around behind the caiman, giving it lots of space. I was in awe of how calm it was, and it had settled down in the grass and did not seem to feel put off by our presence. So, I joined it! I got down in the grass beside it (still keeping my distance) and took a moment to really appreciate these amazing animals. It was a breathtaking experience, and one that really cemented further my love of crocodilians. After covering almost 50km of river with Julio we made our way downstream to take a tour with our next captain and guide, Mauricio.

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Mauricio was a much different experience. He is loud and energetic, he gestures frantically at certain spots in the river making sure we don’t miss the resident caiman he knows that live in the area. This is one of the benefits and fantastic things about working closely with local guides and boat captains. They know the area and the KNOW the caiman! Every captain we worked with has fantastic stories and knowledge about the caiman, and sometimes crocodiles, that live in their part of the river. It was with Mauricio that we got our first glimpses of the rare American crocodiles that sparsely inhabit the upper reaches of the river. We came across the first croc in a pile of dead limbs. Myself and Noel found ourselves blinking confusedly and looking at each other to make sure we were actually seeing right. After hundreds of caiman, it’s hard to convince yourself you are seeing something different. Sure enough though, it was a very darkly coloured American crocodile juvenile. After a minute we went to head back up river and spotted a second juvenile croc in the same spot. Seeing crocs out on that river really got my blood pumping, this little burst of adrenaline got a huge bump though when we rounded a corner and got a good, but short, glimpse of a 3 meter adult half a kilometer up river from the others. These turned out to be the only crocs we encountered, but consistent reports from the communities we visited told of massive crocs further downriver heading to the Caribbean coast. Even without crocs, the non-stop caiman action and other wildlife cameos had us running ragged in the second half of our research.

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We spent a considerable amount of time using the small city of San Carlos as our home base. This is the hometown of our amazing guide Ronny, and the hub for fishing in the area. We covered over a hundred kilometers during our time in San Carlos because we surveyed both the river, and parts of the lake. It was during our time in San Carlos that we had another magical wildlife moment. “Is it a log? Is it a duck? It’s a sloth!!!”. Not only were we thrilled by the caiman population, we had the luck to catch a sloth trying to cross the giant river. After getting the go-ahead from the wildlife officer on the boat, we got the little guy situated on the side of our boat and gave him a lift to shore. It was a once in a lifetime experience for Noel and I, and one I will cherish for the rest of my life. In addition to our amazing experience with the sloth, we also had a few not so positive run ins with fishing gear. As mentioned in our background information, the local fishermen use gillnets, set at night, to catch fish in the lake. However, there is illegal setting of nets both in the lake and in the river, which is a protected area. One of the first caiman we captured owes Noel a sincere debt of gratitude as he was suffering from an embedded piece of gillnet slowly cutting into his abdomen. Thanks to Noel, we captured him and removed the netting, hopefully ensuring his survival! During our time in San Carlos we also had many community members (guides, students, fishermen, wildlife officers) come join us on our surveys. Across the board, people in the communities were extremely interested and encouraging the work we were doing.

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Our last community stop was Los Guatuzos wildlife refuge. Los Guatuzos also boasts the only caiman hatchery in Nicaragua. Although a very small facility, just 4 small enclosures, they have been releasing caiman yearly for over a decade. With the downturn in the local economy we were some of the last people to see the place before it released its final caiman and shut down. As a protected area, and partial caiman refuge, Los Guatuzos made for an absolute caiman bonanza when it came time for our surveys. The river itself is very small and highly vegetated, but in just 7 short kilometers, covered by both boat and kayaks, we saw well over 200 caiman. This was the part of our trip that we really saw what the potential for the caiman populations is. It gave us some perspective on where appropriate conservation programs could lead for the caiman populations in the rest of Rio San Juan.

Our time in Nicaragua was a hectic, non-stop, amazing research experience. Both Noel and I felt very at home and welcomed in all of the places we visited, from Managua to Rio San Juan. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we feel encouraged by the support and interest in caiman conservation shown by the communities we interacted with. Now, back in Belize, it’s time to put our heads together and start working on the next round of planning and fundraising to continue this new work, in a new direction, in Nicaragua.