In 2018, my students and I deployed 15 trail cameras (camera traps) in the cloud forests of the Talamanca mountains as part of a collaborative project between PLNU and La Amistad International Park. As we reviewed the photos sent by our Tico collaborators Roger Gonzalez and Junior Porras in the months that followed, we realized that this area is occupied by a high density of felids, including jaguar, puma, ocelot, and oncilla.
We determined to return in 2019 to gather DNA from scat samples for genetic and dietary analysis, known as ‘genetic scatology’. We enlisted the assistance of a scat sniffing conservation dog named ‘Tigre’ and gathered an international team that spent the summer climbing four of the highest peaks in Costa Rica in search of wild cat scat to gather clues about the status and vulnerability of these remote populations of threatened predators. In this article, I will share some details of our fieldwork on the Cerro Kamuk trail and the ascent of Mount Chirripo, and then my student research assistants will reflect on the impact that these treks had on them personally. I believe you will find their stories eye-opening!
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- Mike Mooring, Ph.D., Professor of Biology
- Abby Wagner, Biology student
- Sierra Ullrich, Environmental Science student
- Steven Blankenship, Environmental Science student
- Amy Eppert, Biology student
For the trek to Cerro Kamuk, the team consisted of my four Biology research students and myself (the authors), Tigre, the scent detection dog, with trainer and handler Stephanny Arroyo-Arce and Ian Thomson of Panthera, and our guide, Roger Gonzalez, administrator of La Amistad International Park. Over six days, the eight of us trekked the 55 km (34 miles) round trip to the summit of Cerro Kamuk and back. We were joined for the first day’s journey by Fredy Quirós and Yendry Rojas from the local community of Tres Colinas, who hosted us in their cabina and served a delicious traditional casado dinner. We headed out at 6 a.m. on Monday with 50-lb packs on our backs, inching our way up the very steep slopes of cattle pastures until we reached the park limit. Then we entered the montane oak forest and crested the first peak, Cerro Kwakwa. Tigre was in working mode, with his orange ‘Working Dogs for Conservation’ vest on, excitedly sniffing the trail and traveling back and forth many times beyond the distance we humans traveled. Along the way, we added a second camera to the camera stations where we had recorded jaguar to better identify individuals from their unique rosette patterns. We reached Camp 1 after passing kilometer 10 in the afternoon; after eating our staple of strong Costa Rican coffee made in a chorreador (coffee sock) and mac ’n’ cheese with salchichón sausage for our dinner, we climbed into our sleeping bags as darkness fell for a much-needed sleep.
On Tuesday, we said goodbye to Fredy and Yendry and continued uphill, traversing the innumerable cerros with indigenous Bribri names like Cerro Dudu and Cerro Nai, alternating between montane forest trees covered with hanging moss and boggy tubera habitat with fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. Tigre had a good day of scat detection, finding many of the feline samples that we had come to collect, and did not stop energetically bounding up and down the trail all day long. Despite all the uphill climbing, there was enough downhill to add variety and the scenic views kept us in good spirits. We finished the second day at Camp 2 and enjoyed a rousing bath in the ice-cold waters of the adjacent stream – screams of joy (or shock) could be heard throughout the camp as each of us took our turn bathing at the “swimming hole”!
As we made our ascent, we were glad to be wearing calf-high rubber boots that kept our feet from sinking into the deep mud that made up much of the boggy trail.
Day 3 brought us out of the montane oak forest and into the high elevation paramo, a tree-less landscape dominated by Chusquea bamboo and the strange shapes of the alpine vegetation. As we made our ascent, we were glad to be wearing calf-high rubber boots that kept our feet from sinking into the deep mud that made up much of the boggy trail. From time to time, we encountered the distinctive three-toed tracks of an endangered Baird’s tapir, the largest mammal in Central America, which were abundant at this elevation. It was raining when we arrived at Camp 3 and having already hiked 25 km up and down rugged terrain with heavy packs, we were glad to eat our food and fall asleep in our tents. The rain continued through the night and into the morning but had relinquished by mid-morning when we departed in the fog for the summit of Cerro Kamuk. When we finally crested the peak, we spent about a half-hour on the summit taking photos, writing in the logbook, and basking in the triumph of our successful ascent. Roger, who had wheeled his yellow measuring wheel along the entire length of the trail to mark the kilometers, was finally able to fold up the wheel and put it in his pack. The rest of the day was spent at camp to let Tigre (and us) recover. The return trip took us two days, and we did 20 km on the last day, returning dead tired to Tres Colinas in the late afternoon. Roger and Steven, who had run on ahead of the rest of the group, were all smiles since they had already taken showers at Fredy and Yendry’s cabina. We quickly followed suit with a cold shower and a hot meal before driving to the Altamira ranger station for our next adventure. By the end of our time at La Amistad, the team had collected 54 scat samples. These samples and others would be sent to LabGenCon (Wildlife Genetics Lab) at the University of Costa Rica for genetic analysis.
The last time we had worked in Chirripo National Park in 2016-2017, our research team worked effectively with Carlos Orozco and his detection dogs, Charlie and Viper, to successfully collect 64 felid scat samples. In 2016, we collected from the San Jeronimo alternative route, and in 2017 from the El Uran route. On the El Uran ridge, we noted a large number of feline feces that we were unable to collect because of pouring rain, and I promised to return to collect the remaining samples. We determined to return to Chirripo in 2019 to retrace both the El Uran and San Jeronimo routes with our collaborator and guide, Enzo Vargas, research officer of Chirripo National Park. At an elevation of 3,821 meters (12,536 feet), Cerro Chirripo is the highest mountain in Costa Rica.
Following a 12-day rest-and-recovery period at the QERC field station, the PLNU and Panthera teams reassembled at San Gerardo de Rivas for a 5-day trek of Chirripo National Park with Enzo. We started out at 5 a.m. on Monday with a bouncing ride in the back of a park truck to the Herradura trailhead of the El Uran route. Similar to the beginning of the Cerro Kamuk trail, the Uran route traversed up steep cow pastures for the first few kilometers until we entered the park boundary and the shady cover of montane forest. After a 16 km grueling uphill trudge, made worse by biting tabanid flies, we arrived at the “shack,” a corrugated tin shed built by the Herradura community association when it operates guided hikes along this route. It had rained throughout the afternoon, and we were all wet, tired, and miserable when we arrived. Before long, dripping wet clothing was hanging from every available nail and hanging spot in the shack. We drank copious amount of strong coffee, filled ourselves with calorie-rich mac ‘n’ cheese and sausage, grabbed mattresses, and prepared a place to spend the night in our sleeping bags. Before it was even dark, we were all in our sleeping bag getting some much-needed rest for our tired muscles! Even Tigre was completely exhausted and retreated beneath a blanket!
We drank copious amount of strong coffee, filled ourselves with calorie-rich mac ‘n’ cheese and sausage, grabbed mattresses, and prepared a place to spend the night in our sleeping bags.
We awoke to the morning of the second day with overcast skies and a cold, foggy drizzle in the air. We could see the peak of El Uran in the distance far away as we started out, and little by little we got closer and closer to the peak until we finally reached a massive pile of rock slabs that we had to clamber over with our heavy packs. The majority of the day was spent getting over the El Uran ridge to the peak of Cerro Chirripo, which was much farther away than it appeared. Each time that we thought we were getting close to Chirripo, we were disappointed to discover that we had reached another “false summit” and were still hours away from our goal. The weather shifted from calm to windy to drizzling to raining, and then the rain would stop and we would start the cycle over again. At many points along the way, we had to heave ourselves over massive granite boulders, and Tigre had to be pushed and carried over some of the very steep rocks. At last, toward the end of the day, in drenching wet and foggy rainfall, we crested the summit of Chirripo, quickly took some group photos at the summit sign, and headed briskly down the trail to the Base Crestones hostel over an hour away. At Base, we got into dry clothes, had hot food and drink, and then settled into our bunk beds, which were far more comfortable than either the tents of Cerro Kamuk or the floor of the shack!
We were three nights at Base Crestones, during which time we collected more scat samples at Sabana de los Conejos and Laguna Ditkevi in this eerie, treeless landscape on top of the world. On Friday, we packed all our gear and headed down the San Jeronimo alternative route, checking and changing cameras and collecting scat samples as we went. The sky was clear, the sun was hot, the trail was long, and some of us got sunburned. We hiked through Sabana de Leones, a vast high elevation grassland, and into the montane forest. For the last few hours of the hike, we descended continuously downhill and by the time we arrived at the park boundary in the rain and mud, our knees were finished from all the downhill. We gratefully bounced in the back of the truck with Enzo at the wheel for about two hours before arriving back at the San Gerardo park station. Altogether, we collected 29 samples during the 5-day trek in Chirripo, giving us a total of 83 scat samples during our two weeks on the trails of Costa Rica. Now my collaborator Gustavo Gutierrez at LabGenCon would take over the genetic analysis of our scat samples – we hope that this information will open up new opportunities to protect and conserve the wild felids of Costa Rica.
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