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Forest Monster

danta tracks“Besides the lions and tigers and other animals which we already know, or which have been described by illustrious writers,” scratched Peter Martyr with his inky quill , “the native forests of these countries”, (referring to the dark space that became Central America), “harbour many monsters.”

Martyr, an Italian writing in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, was the greatest of all correspondents. He never travelled to the new world, but he is responsible for De Orbo Novo, the best and most exciting book about discovering it. His role, at the behest of the Duke of Milan, the Pope, Queen Isabella of Spain and various other highly-placed political players of the day, was to debrief explorers on their return to Cadiz, and to send detailed accounts. His long letters caused a considerable stir at the time; not only were they highly entertaining and evocative tales of derring-do, but they also contained  intelligence that was key to political domination. De Orbo Novo covers three decades of correspondence.

Martyr was an astute and well-connected player, (he helped build interest and support for Colombus’ early expeditions), but also the archetypal Renaissance man, thirsty for knowledge, fascinated by interesting facts, gossip and drama. He provides vignettes of indigenous Indian society, the latest on the power struggles between rival leaders – or caciques, physical descriptions, information about medicinal plants and the custom in some parts of burying a favourite widow alive with her late husband. He keeps up with pirate activities and, of course, the endless wild goose chase for gold, as well as the fortunes (misfortunes) of the early settlers. He makes a special note of anything with potential scientific value and takes great care with his descriptions of flora and fauna. His is the first published description of both the potato and the pineapple. He liked the potato, however, he notes regretfully, he never actually got to try a pineapple himself, the only one that hadn’t rotted on the voyage back to Spain having been eaten in its entirety by King Ferdinand, but he has it on good authority from sailors that they are delicious.

He interprets the information he gets to make a good fist of describing the new world mammals. Of course there aren’t lions or tigers, so he got that wrong, but it’s fair enough to say there are ‘monsters’.

“One animal in particular” he continues in this particular bulletin to Pope Leo X, “has Nature created in prodigious form. It is as large as a bull, and has a trunk like an elephant; and yet it is not an elephant. Its hide is like a bull’s, and yet it is not a bull. Its hoofs resemble those of a horse, but it is not a horse. It has ears like an elephant’s, though smaller and drooping, yet they are larger than those of any other animal.”

I could add “it is there yet it is not there, it is endangered yet it is common”. This is the tapir, or danta. The population of tapir, specifically the Baird’s tapir, native to Central America, is in decline, but the population in the Osa seems to be healthy and rising. Every morning their prints are all over the beach. Everyone from the park rangers to the guides at the hotel has seen at least one – and often. And I know there is a tapir that totters north-south past the house on the beach  every night between 6.30pm and 7pm, because I hear it, but never see it, and one night it ate all my bananas. But this elusive (yet not elusive) animal joins the puma on my ‘seen by all but me’ list.

I made a concerted effort to find one a few days ago, leaving at first light and following fresh tracks in the sand and through the plantains and then the forest into Corcovado National Park. Ending up in a swampy, muddy, dark place, I found something amounting to a tunnel through the foliage. At the end it widened out into an area of flattened leaves, and a muddy chute led to a small stream. There was a horsey smell (tapir) but also something else. I was quite happy thinking this was a tapir’s lair, and then I got to thinking how similar it looked to a puma’s lair, and how pumas had also been spotted along here, and decided to back out, at which point the skies opened and it got dark again and poured with rain, and I had to run back through the sea because the tide had come in.

But I have seen a tapir in Costa Rica. It was in a shallow concrete bunker, completely exposed behind railings, a shy and pathetic animal trying to make itself invisible while people threw Coke cans at it. This was Simon Bolivar Zoo, back in 1995. I loathe zoos. I’ve heard the self-serving good for education, breeding and research spiel numerous times.I find it extraordinary people still use it or believe it given that you can learn an infinitesimal amount more about an animal from a well-crafted wildlife film, and breeding programs are being carried in-situ all over the world using frozen sperm, dart guns and chicken basters.

It is possible that San Jose’s zoo might have improved over the years, but I found the experience so repellant I never went back. Like many people, I was amazed to discover there was a zoo in that congested, polluted corner of San Jose. Given the country’s much-touted wildlife protection record, the bunch of cages and their miserable occupants have been a bit of a dirty secret, an anachronism. However, good news: the Simon Bolivar Zoo along with the Santa Ana Conservation Center (‘home’ to around 400 animals, 60 species) is finally going to be closed down, and the date set for early 2014. “We are getting rid of the cages and reinforcing the idea of interacting with biodiversity in botanical parks in a natural way,” environment minister, René Castro, is reported as saying. The zoo still holds a tapir. It is possible, but unlikely, it’s the same one.

Anyway, having seen a pathetic tapir that couldn’t hide, I very much like Peter Martyr’s wild monster description (he’s rather overdone the trunk part). And I’m thankful that these Osa tapirs aren’t exposed but, 500 years after being described in De Orbo Novo, remain mysterious and harboured in the native forests, even if this means they’ll always give me the slip.

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After Africa, I found it hard tuning into the life around me in a Central American rainforest. These might be some of the most biodiverse places on earth, but for the first few months here, all I could see was a wall of green. Reporting on tourism and conservation put me in contact with some of the region’s finest researchers, biologists and guides, and with their help I finally managed to reset my focus and really start seeing what was in front of me. Through that process I got a better idea of the intricate chain of dependencies running all the way up the life scale, started thinking of plants as clever, and developed a fascination for insects, their cooperative communities, and their survival mechanisms. The best and most widespread survival mechanisms are camouflage and mimicry (which explains why I saw nothing on my first hikes). This praying mantis gave himself away by flying in and clinging to the inside of the mesh screen of my room where he was conspicuous, (on other occasions I’ve heard their scratchy fake leaf scraping across the floor, and a walking leaf in a bathroom is guaranteed to draw attention). I found a plant outside that seemed a good match, and put him on it.

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Coatimundi Day

This Coatimundi – pizote – spent a month watching me from behind a frond on the forest edge before coming to investigate. He now passes daily on his way to the palm nuts or carambola trees.  Males are solitary and territorial; there’s competition for this patch, and he’s the underdog.

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Osa Cookery Book: Banana Ice Cream

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It’s a curious truth that banana-flavoured food tastes and smells more authentically banana-ry than bananas (good work, ‘flavorists’!). But here’s the exception: banana ice cream that tastes and smells 100% banana-ry despite not having a single e-number or dash of isoamyl acetate in it. Like everything in the Osa Cookery Book – a niche work in progress – this recipe has been created specifically for the hot, jungle-dwelling, non-shopping, not particularly hungry, non-cook. It does require a freezer. Until recently, what we had was ice in a cool box, but Fitz has had a fridge with a functioning freezer compartment sent down on a small boat. I share it with William and Carmen, and because it uses solar-generated power, it isn’t on all the time, but it works which is very exciting (as anyone who has read Paul Theroux’s great book, Mosquito Coast, might imagine). Anyway, after months of fishing about in the tepid melted ice water of cool boxes for slices of ham and cheese that have slipped out their battered plastic packaging, I’m well into the whole business of freezing things.

So, now for the recipe: Select your banana. Put it in the freezer. Some time later, take it out. Peel it. Use a knife to shave off banana strips. Allow them to fall elegantly into a bowl. And eat.

Fair enough, there’s no cream in this, (I refer you back to banana ice cream with no bananas) but it does taste creamy. Further recipes to follow.

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Snakes Where You Can Tread on Them

Late at night in a tent in the African bush, my mother felt a muscle twinge which turned out to be a snake unfurling at the bottom of her sleeping bag and sliding up her leg. We were always finding them inside things – boxes, beds, toilets, and the main culprits were mambas.

Costa Rica has over 135 species of snakes, some 7.5% of the world’s snake fauna. Inevitably some make their way into houses where they look odd and incongruous (I found one between the mattress and bed base in San Jose), but the majority are perfectly content to remain hidden on the leafy forest floor and the semi-cultivated areas on the fringes. The fecund Osa is snake nirvana, and although almost every species is well-represented, the two families I like to keep an eye out for are the pit-vipers, of which the fer-de-lance or terciopelo is the most troublesome and venomous, and the Elapidae or coral snakes.

Aside from having no legs and injecting deadly venom, the fer-de-lance and coral snake couldn’t be more different. The first is perfectly camouflaged in the green, brown, grey leaf litter, has a mouth like a Pez dispenser, and (cue complaints from herpetologists) lies in ambush, proactively attacking innocent passers-by even if it means pursuing them through rivers. I have anecdotal evidence from a man with a disgusting-looking shin. The coral snake is gaudy and more laid-back with a mean little mouth, and it bites fewer people. Having said that, it is known as the 20-minute snake because if it does inject its neurotoxic venom that’s all the time you’ve got left before you die from paralysis and suffocation. Apparently.

So I was depressed at my own stupidity the other day when I almost trod on one while striding vacantly along a path wearing flip flops. And I have to say for a supposedly laid-back snake, he was pretty zippy, snapping back and forth, which is why the video footage is jerky, truncated, and cut to remove the various expletives.

Naturally, I considered what might have happened if I hadn’t retracted my foot before it made full contact with the snake’s tail end. It was getting dark which would have made a boat trip problematic; the nearest clinic was 90-minutes away, it wouldn’t be open, and there was no guarantee a doctor would be in town, or that anyone would have the anti-venom, and anyway the captains were listening to the football. On the positive side, half the coral snake’s strikes are dry. Still, I resolved to wear boots and pay more attention to where I was stepping in future.

The distinctive red, yellow and black bands of the venomous coral snake are a flashy warning to predators to stay well clear. So effective is that message, that a host of non-poisonous snakes – the false corals – have jumped on the bandwagon and adopted the same sort of look, a ruse that completely interferes with normal, intelligent human behaviour. Instead of stepping away from snakes with stripes, everyone hangs around, involved in heated debates and reciting mnemonics in order to work out whether it’s one of the four species in Costa Rica with a fatal bite or not.

Among the most popular are:

“Red touches yellow, kills a fellow. Red touches black, venom lack”, or “Red with black, you’re okay Jack”

“Red on black, friend of Jack, black on yellow, kill a fellow”

“Red into black, venom lack; red into yellow, kill a fellow”.

If you get a whiteboard and a set of coloured pens you’ll see that they basically say the same thing.  As does my own personal favourite for of I.D-ing true corals, R.A.N.A: Rojo, Amarillo, Negro, Amarillo, which translates as F.R.O.G: Red, Yellow, Black, Yellow, which of course makes no sense at all unless you are a Spanish speaker, and just confuses the issue in a stressful situation.

Anyway, it’s all irrelevant in Costa Rica where the various different species and subspecies, true and false, don’t necessarily conform to the rules of the rhymes. Some do; some don’t. The Central American coral snake, the most common here, has a number of sub-species that don’t even sport three colours – they’re bicolour. Just give banded snakes a swerve (“Say bye-bye, you won’t die”, “Stay away, live next day”, “Don’t be green, they’re all mean” – these need a little work). Obviously, I mean green as in naive, rather than advocating lifting the green policies that protect all rainforest snakes (along with scorpions, ticks, crocodiles and thorny palms).

Although in a sad postscript I have to reveal that this particular snake got himself in a bit of a pickle some days later, accidentally slithering through open doors across the floor towards a cook’s foot, and, in the panic that ensued, he lost his life. Shame.

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The Osa Oh ****!s

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Here in Costa Rica, the scientists are dreamers, and most dreamers natural scientists with an instinctive grasp of the stuff that governs their days – meteorology, seismology, tropical ecology, and so on. All conversations in the Osa move back and forth between observation and imagination, and from objective to subjective without warning, the result, I think, of being ensnared in the rhythms of the natural world while having the time and intelligence to think. Park guards will reveal a deep-held belief in the guiding hand of a capricious higher power; cooks, captains, farmers, fishermen, bar staff will predict and explain the weather along with the behaviour of snakes, whales and pizotes using a fusion of facts and folklore without adding more weight to one or the other, or even seeming in any way conscious of a distinction. There are people who hold conversations like this on the London underground, but here it’s usually illuminating and charming, rather than extremely irritating.

I’ve been reading Reflections and Studies of a Biologist in the Jungles of Corcovado by Alvaro Wille Trejos, a national classic up there with Dan Janzen’s Costa Rican Natural History, and most books by Alexander Skutch. Ostensibly a biology text book, its main thrust is philosophical, eccentric, meandering and sentimental. It could only have been written by a Costa Rican – possibly only a Costa Rican who had spent a year waking up to noises in the night and lying awake until dawn. Dr Wille (who went on to write about yogis) ponders altruism and spirituality, along with man’s search for contentment, while identifying complex rainforest ecosystems and patterns of animal behaviour.

It’s a heady (airy) mix that I’d find totally unreadable if it wasn’t all presented as a boy’s own adventure story in which the self-deprecating Dr Wille, and his luckless research assistant, Enrique, find themselves tackling the complete set of Osa ‘Oh ****!’s from capsized boats, storms, fallen trees and collapsed tents, to close encounters with fer-de-lance, peccaries, jaguars and crocodiles. If he was writing it now he’d probably need to include a run-in with a droguero guarding a stash of coke on an isolated beach, but aside from that, he faces every possible misfortune with great cheer.

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