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Protecting Caņo Negro Wildlife Reserve

by Richard Garrigues

"Magnificent, epiphyte-laden, towering forest trees . . ."

That passage, from the introduction to Paul Standley's Flora of Costa Rica published in 1937, was used to describe the rain forest habitat that covered large expanses of the country's northern region. Sounds impressive, doesn't it? And I'm sure that it must have been.However, a drive through this region today in search of those vast tracts of towering trees will produce mostly scenic views of citrus groves, pineapple and sugar cane plantations, bean fields, a variety of root crops, and, of course, the ever-present pastures.

"Maybe what's left is protected in a national park somewhere," you might be thinking. Well, go ahead, pull out a map of Costa Rica and see how many national parks, biological reserves, or wildlife refuges you can find in the north central part of the country.

Not many, right? In fact, unless your map shows something mine doesn't, the only protected area in the entire northern plains area is the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge—and this refuge was established to preserve an important wetlands habitat, not rain forest!

Okay, so sadly those great forests are a write-off. At least we still have a fantastic place to witness one of nature's most bountiful wildlife displays.

From December to March the seasonal lake and surrounding marsh areas of Caño Negro are the wintering grounds for countless thousands of migrant ducks, coots, herons, egrets, and rails. As the local dry season progresses, the lake dries up. By April, all that is left is the main channel of the Río Frio (Cold River). Just about the time the situation might really reach the critical stage, something innate stirs deep in the shafts of their flight feathers and the migrants take to the wing and use the return portion of their tickets.

The marsh at Caño Negro is likewise an important piece of real estate for many stay-at-home species such as wood storks (Mycteria americana), white ibises (Eudocimus albus), glossy ibises (Plegadis falcinellus), anhingas (Anhinga anhinga), black-bellied whistling-ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis), snail kites (Rostrhamus sociabilis) and white-throated crakes (Laterallus albigularis). Also in residence at the 10,000-hectare wildlife refuge is Costa Rica's largest breeding colony of neotropic cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus).

Apart from the impressive waterfowl spectacle, perhaps the one species that most inveterate bird watchers come to Caño Negro hoping to see is the Nicaraguan grackle (Quiscalus nicaraguensis). No, not because it has anything redeeming about either its plumage or its song—after all, it's a grackle—but simply because this species' entire range is confined to marshes and lake shores from southwestern Nicaragua to just across the border in north central Costa Rica. So if you want to say you've seen it (without venturing into Nicaragua), then Caño Negro is your best bet.

As a result of the aforementioned regional deforestation, wildlife viewing opportunities (aside from birds) are somewhat limited. Nevertheless, troops of mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) still manage to hold out in the narrow strip of trees along the approximately nine miles of the Río Frio between the refuge and the town of Los Chiles. Some white-throated capuchins (Cebus capuchinus) can occasionally be found, too. And if you're coming up the river by boat, you'll likely encounter a roost of long-nosed bats (Rhynchonycteris naso) hanging single-file along the underside of a tree trunk leaning out over the water.

The most commonly seen scaly creatures in the region are green iguanas (Iguana iguana), emerald basilisk (or Jesus Christ) lizards (Basiliscus plumifrons), black river turtles (Rhinoclemmys funerea) and spectacled caimans (Caiman crocodilus). Caño Negro is likely the best place in the country for finding caimans.

And of course, with so much water around—at least seasonally—there's plenty of fish life in the area. Most notable, in terms of the unique and curious, are bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) and gar (Atractosteus tropicus). Tarpon (Megalops atlantica) and snook (Centropomus undecimalis) also show up in this water system, which drains into Lake Nicaragua (which in turn flows into the San Juan River and out to the Caribbean Sea).

As with tourism everywhere in the country, visitors (Homo sapiens) to the refuge have been increasing annually, with most coming from hotels in the Arenal and San Carlos region and driving to the town of Los Chiles, near the Nicaraguan border. Here at the town dock a number of boats can be hired for the approximately 15-kilometer sightseeing trip upriver to Playuelas on the northern edge of the refuge.

A newer alternative has made it possible to drive directly to the village of Caño Negro in the heart of the refuge. About 10 kilometers before reaching Los Chiles, take the left hand turn to El Jobo and continue straight until reaching the new bridge over the Río Frio. After crossing the bridge, turn left and continue on to Caño Negro.

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