Guest Blog by Anne: The Tasks of a Wildlife Ranger

My name is Anne and I am a 22 year old student of environmental engineering from Germany. My adventure as a wildlife ranger started in May 2016. I spent 4 weeks at Aiko, an area of 330 acres in the rainforest of the Caribbean Lowlands of Costa Rica.

As Aiko’s main goal is nature protection, most parts of the area are primary forest and in its natural state. This offers great opportunities for wildlife monitoring, scientific research as well as reintroduction of animals into the wild.

In between this diversity of animals and plants there are three platforms providing the possibility for everyone to spend time in the jungle.

 

Gazing at the flora and fauna surrounding me

Three platforms providing the possibility for everyone to spend time in the jungle

Visitors can not only benefit from the spectacular view over primary rain forest, observing the natural wildlife and attending guided tours but also enjoy the great variety of fruit and vegetables grown organically near the platforms.

A great variety of fruit and vegetables grown organically

During the four weeks of my time at Aiko I got the opportunity to find out a lot about the tasks of a wildlife ranger.

First of all it is necessary to keep an eye on everything that’s going on in the area. Equipped with binoculars and machete these regular expedition tours usually started early before the heat came up. The tours where not only for controlling the borders of the area but also a great opportunity for me to encounter the enormous amount of flora and fauna the Costa Rican jungle has to offer.

Equipped with binoculars and machete

Another task came up during the last years through the cooperation with the Jaguar Rescue Center. They rescue animals for diverse reasons with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. During the time of my stay three rescued animals were released successfully at Aiko into their natural habitat.

The first of them, a neotropical bird snake (Pseustes poecilonotus) was a victim of a very common problem with snakes. It was encountered by locals in their house and accidentally confused with a venomous snake. After calling Jaguar Rescue Center they picked the snake up and then had to find a place to release it within a short period of time. In the end this was possible at Aiko. Snakes play an important role in the ecosystem, neotropical bird snakes for example are the natural predators of some venomous snakes.

Successfully released northern raccoon (Procyon lotor)

The next animal successfully released was a northern raccoon (Procyon lotor). As civilization grows, cities expand more and more and the natural habitat of wild animals decreases drastically. A few animals adapt to the new circumstances in order to survive, those are called synanthropes, such as northern raccoons. The one released at Aiko was found in a hotel kitchen and so had to be resettled again as soon as possible to prevent it from getting too used to humans. It was possible to release it at the same day at Aiko.

In this way a lot of different animals found a new home at Aiko. But the release of the third animal was something new. As well as the northern raccoon the common opossum (Didelphis marsupialis) is a synanthrope. This certain one was found as a baby of 20 grams, with the mother presumably killed. After it was raised at the Jaguar Rescue Center, it was quite used to humans and could not be released like a wild animal. So a step by step release was necessary. The first days the opossum lived in a cage right next to the jungle to get used to the new surroundings provided with different kinds of fruit, eggs and water. The next days the cage door was left open and the food supply slowly reduced to force him to get out of his safety zone to find food by himself. For two nights he came back in the morning and slept during the day in the cage. But after about a week he obviously found another place to stay at Aiko.

After a week the opossum found a place to stay at Aiko

My whole time at Aiko was full of new experiences, a whole load of new knowledge but also very relaxing in the middle of tropical rainforest gazing at the flora and fauna surrounding me.

Muchas gracias por todo y pura vida! 

Anne

What do rainforests have to do with cashback online shopping?!

We were asking the same thing when two of our costumers visited last month: Matthias and Andreas of the young German cashback startup link-o-mat came to wind down in our rainforest from their jobs for a couple of days. After a great day of hiking in the forest and bathing in waterfalls we were relaxing in the base camp with a couple of beers – basically we were pretty much “offline”. The conversation drifted towards internet topics nevertheless and we learned that the two are currently working on how to earn money while shopping online or booking flights and accommodations.

Basically we were pretty much “offline”

The concept is simple and easy: Many online shops are willing to pay commissions for recommendations:

Here’s an example: When you book your flight to Costa Rica online, you can look for a cheap booking website on link-o-mat’s cashback shops selection. If you visit this website via link-o-mat and then book your flight there, link-o-mat is getting paid a commission for the recommendation. This commission is handed back to you. In this way a lot of money can be earned. At the end you can decide what you’ll do with this money: Buy yourself yet another TV or donate it to a good cause! ;-).

Matthias went on telling us, that he considered our conservation project to be quite a solid example for said “good cause” – and we were happy and proud to hear it!

Here’s the two founders of link-o-mat Matthias & Andreas

Long story short, link-o-mat and Aiko are partnering up: You can now help us plant trees when shopping or booking online. There’re only three steps to do good: Register for free on link-o-mat.com, earn cashback for your shopping and then decide to donate your cashback money to Aiko for planting trees.

Here are some examples where you can get cashback for your bookings or shopping: hostelworld.com, expedia.de, edreams.de or booking.com. Have a look on your own: link-o-mat supports more than 10.000 websites worldwide. By the way, they also offer a handy cashback browser tool as well. Once installed in your favorite browser, this tool alerts you every time you visit a website on which you can earn cashback.

Let’s turn the tables: Let us have nature take advantage of the capitalism for once and not the other way around like it normally happens! Yes, we do like that a lot! 🙂

Have fun & take care!

Who are you?

So I bought a piece of rainforest I couldn´t find nor did I know what to do with it.

The only logical next step was to get to know it. And I wanted to get to know it well.
In order to do that – I was already back in Munich/ Germany at that time – I decided to find a few adventurous co-explorers to accompany me. I put up a few ads in local adventure stores:

“Looking for team to explore rainforest in Costa Rica.
I have no idea what is expecting us.
I have no experience with the environment.
I do not know if we will come back.”

AikoCostaRica_blogHorse

Interestingly, three people actually replied and joined me:
Carol – mid-40s, programmer and motorcycle and car enthusiast
Chris – partner of Carol, similar age motorclycle enthusiast (after her husband had died in a motorcycle accident)
Rainer – late 30´s, very down-to-earth, working as a grave digger – no shit!
(if you are reading this, I would love to get back in touch and catch up!)
So I had my team and a destination. And to tell you the truth, I was a bit scared, too. But I warned Carol, Chris and Rainer… so I did not feel bad about dragging them with me.

When we arrived in Bribri, the capital of Talamanca near Puerto Viejo and Cahuita, Gio, my Costa Rican partner in the undertaking, had done his homework and guided us to the cabin we had built as a base on the land. It consisted of two bedrooms, a small kitchen and an open living room with an ample terrace for observation. About 10m away, we had an open rainforest shower with running water and a basic “toilet”. The cabin was situated near one of the numerous streams on Aiko with a natural pool and picturesque waterfall ideal for getting rid of the sweat from hiking around.
This all seemed much less adventurous than I had imagined. A nice cabin in the forest. No noise, no cars, no internet or phone… perfect place to disconnect, relax, read, talk, think and hike around. We prepared our first dinner on the gas stove with food we brought from town accompanied by a few still cool beers. I almost felt sorry for my guests who were prepared to go through hell.

AikoCostaRicaCasa_mecedes   AikoBlogFoto3   AikoBlogFoto2

During dinner, things started to turn. Well, the sun set. It got dark. Really dark. And suddenly it wasn´t all that silent anymore. The light of millions of stars and the moon with a circular rainbow around it formed by the humidity added to a few candles we lit on our dinner table. Curious insects from out of space came to see us and we spotted a rather large spider whose eight eyes reflected our flashlight. We called it Karl, he came by every night and much later we learned he was of the most venomous species found in this area – not lethal though. Hours passed by in a blink as we were consumed by this flood of new impressions. And to be honest, despite all tiredness I did not really sleep much that night. Sometimes it´s more scary what you imagine around you based on unknown sounds than actually seeing what´s there.

AikoCostaRica_candleBug   AikoCostaRicaBlogChris   AikoCostaRicaBlogRainer

Just on time around six in the morning, the rising sun and howler monkeys heralded our first fulll day in the rainforest and we were ready to explore the area after a plentiful breakfast. Armed with boots and machetes, we took off in one direction. Any direction, as we didn´t really know anything yet. Apart from a suttle Indiana Jones feeling, however, there wasn´t much of a thrill about walking through the jungle at first. It wans´t until we learned some basics about the flora and fauna and how the forest works, that we started discovering amazing trees, flowers, amphibians, birds and all that lives and coexists within.

We spent the following two or three months exploring, reading, building things and learning – about the forest, ourselves and each other. This first potentially lethal visit to Aiko  turned out to be an overwhelming experience we would never forget. We learned a lot about the rainforest first hand. We also learned a lot about ourselves and us as a group. We had a lot of fun while being completely disconnected from our usual environment with all it´s amenities and discomforts. We adopted new perspectives and priorities during our visit, some of which would stay with us after returning to our “normal” lives.

AikoCostaRica_blogBoa   AikoCostaRica_blogSnake   AikoCostaRicablogTrail3   AikoCostaRicawaterfallJump

In the end, this trip was our first Aiko-logi-Tour! Little did we know how fulfilling, exciting, relaxing and inspiring a stay at Aiko would be.

The Beginnings of Aiko

Aiko started with a gut reaction to a crisis. No calculations, no profound studies nor plans.

The primary goal was to save the rainforest from being logged – period. This goal has remained the same since 1996.

But let me take a step back and tell you the whole story so you can get a feeling for who we are and what motivates us as a team:

What does a German do in Costa Rica?

 AikoCostaRica_blog03

When I was 16, I moved with my parents from Germany to the US. Two years later, I decided to go to Boston for my studies rather than return to Europe. And no, I didn´t study biology or anything like that, although I was close to entering for a physics degree. I studied management and business. After three and a half years in the New England setting, I finished my degree and longed for something new, something warmer than Massachussetts or Germany. Remembering that I also wanted to learn Spanish, I enrolled in a language school in Costa Rica. The plan was to stay for 1 or 2 months. One thing led to another and 2 years passed studying the language, getting my MBA and travelling extensively through Costa Rica.

Why Talamanca?

 

Aiko Costa Rica by motorcycle

During one of my trips by motorcycle, I came to Puerto Viejo, Bribri, Sixaola… Talamanca. And I just loved it. My university friend, Gio, remembered that his uncle, Luis, had escaped to the area years ago and we decided to find him. And we did. He had lots to tell us. Stories about his farm, sustainability, politics, his time in Cuba, ecological agriculture, fish farming, his dogs and the biodiversity surrounding us. I was overwhelmed by the plethora of “stuff” that at first glance just seemed “green” around us.

So how did Aiko become Aiko?

As Luis noticed my sincere interest in our green surroundings, he told me about his neighbor´s land. 29ha of primary rainforest. Paths were already made for tractors and trees were numbered with red spray-paint for logging. The owner, Doña Mercedes, had sold the wood because she was under pressure from the bank to pay back loans.
Yes, cutting these rainforest giants was already illegal in 1996, but truckloads of valuable timber left Talamanca to the port of Limón every night anyway.

The only way to save the rainforest was to buy the finca and throw the logger off the land.

Now I was lucky enough to have a somewhat adventurous father. When I asked him if he would be interested in buying the land, he called me back 24hrs later to tell me: “I think it´s a good idea. But since I don´t know Costa Rica nor speak the language, buy it under your name”. 23 years old, how could I have said no. I admit I didn´t sleep for a few nights and I had no idea where this would lead. But it felt right and I named the land after a cute cat back in Boston named Aiko, which means “love-child” in japanese. Pretty corny, isn´t it 🙂

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GPS Rainforest Field Mapping Project

Moving beyond sole conservation intentions at our rainforest at Aiko towards ecotourism it quickly became obvious that a detailed map of the terrain needs to be created to answer a bunch of important questions – like “where exactly is Aiko?”, “what are good trails through the forest?” and “where are points of interest?”.

Our forest engineer Manuel searched at his former university – the University of Applied Sciences Weihenstephan – for the right man and would function as a mentor for the project. He found Matthias Maier, who wanted to do an abroad internship at that time for his final degree, so the GPS field mapping project of our rainforest was just the right thing. The guys are well tough and really had to be because they had to chart this for around 3 months:

Hired the right guy for the job

Apart from the coordinates of the trails we also needed to document rivers, natures pools, other points of interest and borders to our neighbors. When mapping a rainforest one has to often leave the maintained trails and basically walk about the whole terrain. With Aiko consisting of very different landscapes, Matthias and Manuel had to struggle through quite some things:

Parts of Aiko are primary forest, where mapping is more or less easy because it consists of big tress with not too much other stuff growing on the ground. Some other forests are of secondary nature where a new forests grow – in vegetation like this you have a lot of thick “jungle” on the ground and definitely need a good sharp machete to be able to move forward.

Thick & pathless rainforest

They also had to be really careful when working in the field and respect a couple of ground rules like always wearing boots that cover the ankle to prevent snake bites or being really aware of what to touch and what not. Have a look our blog post on How to behave in Rainforest for more information.

Poisenous coral snake & spikes on a tree

GPS stands for “Global Positioning System” – it consists of 3 separate systems: 1. In outer space 24 satellites circle the earth at an altitude of 24000 km in exact orbits. Of those you need 3 to determine the position – with measurement errors like the barrier of the canopy and ionospheric effect a minimum of 4 is required. 2. There are several ground stations distributed of the globe for monitoring purposes 3. Finally there’s the GPS devices. For our project we used the “Megallan MobileMapper 6” for the gathering of the GPS data.

The flow of work during the project looked like this: They would get up at sunrise at 6 o’ clock and begin immediately because at that time the interferences of the ionospheric effect are least. First they would record the outer border of Aiko to basically define what inside this border has to be mapped.

The first overview map

During the recording of coordinates it is important to have the GPS set to automatically determine the position every 10 meters. Every time an obstacle was “hit” in forest – like an abyss or deep stream, they had to create supporting points before and after the obstacle and connect them later on the computer. If the satellite reception was to low, and that happened a lot under the forest canopy, they had to locate and visit the next clearing and start over.

Bit by bit the map the developed and finally a detailed map with all frontiers, trails, streams, waterfall and point of interest is now available. Have a look below:

The finished map – ready to use

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Base Camp

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Volio Waterfall

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Lookout Point over the Vally

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Big Trees

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Nature Pools

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Nature Pools

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Waterfalls

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Hiking Trails

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Frontier

This map is also available over at Google Maps. When you come for hiking to Aiko we recommend to stay on our well maintained trails. Ask your guide for directions on those trails!

If you want to read more on this project, the German nature magazine Geo did an interesting interview with Matthias on the project.

Happy hiking!

Florian