Field Report: Assessing Conservation Tourism Potential in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua with Trail Mapping and a Howler Monkey Census

While we were in Playa Gigante in June this year assisting with the construction of the new Gigante Community Health Center, we wanted to see if there were any eco-tourism opportunities in town to assist the local women getting vocational training and education assistance through our friends’ humanitarian non-profit SweetWater Fund. We wanted to support the community-driven development efforts of the group of international surfers who helped the local people realize their dream of local medical care with the Gigante Community Health Center, Project Waves of Optimism (also known as “Project WOO”).

Part of KIRF’s mission is to help communities undergoing social and economic change through education—including vocational training programs and conservation education.This field report is about my attempts to assess local conservation tourism opportunities in Playa Gigante during the week I spent there in June 2013. Since I didn’t have enough time to foster new relationships in the community or conduct extensive interviews–things more fitting for a person trained in cultural anthropology, I decided to use my GIS skills to map some scenic trails I had discovered in my previous visit and locate the group of howler monkeys I observed earlier and hopefully find any other groups of wild primates in the area. 

Playa Gigante's rainforest patch
Seeking mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) in Playa Gigante’s rainforest patch. Photo: AR Kirwin

After reviewing the literature on howler monkeys before the trip and interviewing a primatology graduate student with field research experience, the simple task of “locating the local monkey groups for a future guided nature tour” conservation tourism assessment project morphed into a larger project that included a formal primate census of the local mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata palliata) population. Fortunately for me, I had a Spanish-speaking volunteer who grew up in Mexico with a great sense of humor. The local people are friendly to outsiders in general and were pretty tolerant of us: two foreign women armed with binoculars and other equipment (with an occasional family member in tow) walking along their town’s dirt foot paths and tromping through the rainforest behind their small farms looking for monkeys. “¿Dónde están los monos, por favor?

This tourism conservation feasibility assessment ended up with five research questions related to mapping the local scenic trails and doing a census of the local wild howler monkeys.
  1. What species of howler monkeys live in Playa Gigante?
  2. Where do the howler monkeys live?
  3. What are the demographics (number of individuals, sex and age categories) of the observed monkey troops?
  4. What do the monkeys eat (which tree species should be protected)?
  5. Where are some scenic hiking and running trails in Playa Gigante that are publicly accessible?

But before I give a summary of the results of our findings for those questions, I will give a brief background on the social and economic changes that are challenging the local residents of Playa Gigante–-the reason why we were there in the first place.

Playa Gigante: Recent Social and Economic Changes

A typical neighborhood street in Playa Gigante. With three chickens in the path.
A typical neighborhood street in Playa Gigante. Photo: AR Kirwin

 “Giganté”  as Playa Gigante is known by the locals, is a small town carved out of the rainforest along its northern and southern dirt access roads. In a U shape with the short bottom part of the “U” being the town’s short coastal road paralleling its beautiful crescent-shaped bay.The north and south sides of the “U” are 5 to 7 km from the town’s coastal road connecting to the Salinas-Tola Highway. The center part of the U, in between the roads and the bay, appears to be mostly secondary (previously developed) rainforest patches in between developed properties approximately 1 kilometer from the beach. In 1991 a tsunami destroyed the buildings for about a kilometer inland of the low elevation coastal areas of the town. Old home foundations and other pieces of torn up buildings are still under the canopy trees in the secondary forest fragment in town in between its two access roads. Further inland are corridors of primary rainforest along the town’s two creeks and along the steeper parts of the mountainsides. In the flatter areas, small family homes with agricultural plots are along the access roads and, increasingly, vacation homes with ocean views can be seen on the forested hillsides.

A few years ago Playa Gigante was a remote fishing village of several dozen families who caught, grew and raised much of their food and lived in modest hand-built homes under the tall rainforest canopy. In addition, to the local natives, there were visiting backpackers and surfers who stayed for several weeks to several months at a time and rented rooms at the local surf lodge and youth hostel. The town was surrounded by rainforest with only year-round access being by boat.The dirt road that connected the town to the main highway that is now being paved, used to be 100% dirt and pot-holes and was known to wash out three months of the year during the rainy season. Named after “Giant’s Foot” (Pie de Gigante), the rocky foot shaped prominence jutting out on the south side of the bay, Playa Gigante is about a three and a half hour drive from Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua. When the town was small and relatively isolated from the rest of Nicaragua, everyone knew everyone else, most people fished for a living, and crimes such as burglary or assault were rare. 

Two long boats with people surrounding them on the beach.
Some people still fish for a living in Playa Gigante but surf tourism and land development are taking over. Photo: AR Kirwin

But Playa Gigante is changing fast. From a former small fishing village and agricultural community in the past few years it has morphed into a popular surf tourist destination.The average native in town, skilled in fishing, agriculture or simple construction, that only makes about $5 to $7 a day. This is not enough for a new tourism economy with higher prices for food, less land, sea access, and a labor market that favors those with more education.   

Each year a few more property parcels are sold to outsiders and new vacation rentals, restaurants or other tourism-related businesses are being built and staffed. These changes are being accompanied by a local population surge as outsiders come to Playa Gigante looking for jobs and a safer place to live than the urban areas. According to a census taken by local non-profit organization, Project Wave of Optimism (“Project WOO”), the population of Playa Gigante has grown to 481 people in 2011–-a 13% increase since the last census in 2008. During this time tourism related employment had shot up 400%. Playa Gigante’s traditional economic foundation of fishing had seen a decrease in employment by 30% during the same period (Fox 2011).

According a 2011 survey by Project WOO, the top five priorities for local residents during this time of dramatic social and economic changes included two things related to our conservation tourism assessment project:
  • The need for more formal education opportunities for local children and for adults in the form of vocational training programs (including conservation education, English and entrepreneurial skills) so they can work in the new service-based tourism economy
  • The need for more tourism activities in town that provide local residents with more tourism jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities

With these needs in mind and my experiences during a previous visit to Playa Gigante, I wanted to help Playa Gigante remain a safe and beautiful place for the local families and visitors.The town is a place where you see piglets grazing under the trees in a patch of rainforest across the road from the beach and a great beachside café. It’s mornings offered a new great trail run to explore it’s scenic coastline through the rainforest over a rocky prominence on the coast to a another crescent-shaped pristine bay with coral sand beaches, over-head surf and not a soul around. It’s family-owned cafés on the sand offered visitors simple meals of gallo pinto (Nicaraguan beans and rice) with fish caught that morning off the coast and served with locally grown salsa or salad ingredients on homemade tortillas. These restaurant owners “served local” not out of choice, but because that is all they had to serve. 

Map of Nicaragua
Playa Gigante is about an hour’s drive north of San Juan Del Sur on the southwestern coast of Nicaragua

On my last visit it occurred to me that the charm of Playa Gigante, being such a new town is that it wasn’t on any of the road maps we purchased, was not it’s great tourist amenities or surf (though the surf is awesome), it was it’s lack of formal development and its small town feeling. Next door to the popular Dale Dagger’s Surf Lodge, where we were stayed on our first visit, a family’s laundry was drying on lines strung over the sand next their small fishing skiffs. Chickens pecked around in the sand and between the homes and everyone knew the black’n’white floppy eared dog who patrolled around the fishing boats for scraps. I remember jogging under the canopy trees on an old dirt trail by the beach in the bay just south of the town called Playa Amarillo. As I cautiously skirted around a herd of grazing cattle (being careful to avoid getting too close to the big one with horns) and stopped in awe as a troop of wild howler monkeys casually moved over my head through the trees, making their soft warning vocalizations “Woo! Woo!”  Another magical moment happened during my last trip: While waiting for the several dozen local volunteers to organize themselves to raise the water tower for new Gigante Community Health Center (about a mile from the ocean up the dirt road towards the highway), I saw a horse galloping towards us.On it’s bareback were two smiling and laughing little girls in simple dresses and wind blown hair holding on the obliging pony’s rope halter and being followed by a bunch more little kids and dogs running after them. 

This may sound naïve, but I think that both people and the environment can be helped at the same time. Since the town was united enough to get land and labor to build its new health and community center we were funding, I felt that they would unite together to control growth and protect the natural resources with protected rainforest areas in Playa Gigante if they could.They already had regular trash disposal and recycling programs initiated in the last few years and the town temporarily halted the construction of some new vacation rentals until the owners built a proper sanitation system. I was hoping that a conservation tourism program would make the magic of this place that I was experiencing last longer.

Photo of a local Maasai surveying the Ngorongoro Crater NCA in Tanzania
Photo of a local Maasai surveying the Ngorongoro Crater NCA in Tanzania

Researchers have long documented how environmental conservation initiatives in poor rural areas where people are dependent on natural resources (such as fishing and agriculture), have reduced poverty through an increase in education and capacity building. In places famous for their natural biodiversity such as Tanzania and Costa Rica, with “green” development, conservation tourism initiatives, and local capacity building through education and vocational skills training, poor people who live in areas close to ecologically protected areas, in general, have benefited from new revenue opportunities if they are allowed to provide services in the growing tourism economy. Also, as recent reports from Costa Rica and other tropical areas suggest, the poor enjoy greater security and quality of life in rural areas near ecologically protected areas than in urban areas (Estrada 2013; Hoffman 2013).

I knew that wild monkeys are popular tourist attractions due to the popularity of Ometepe Island and its Biological Field School and wildlife sanctuary with pricey ecologically built tourist lodges in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. According to the multitude of fliers advertising “rainforest tours” that I have seen at the airport and in local hotels, and our own enjoyable experience exploring the rainforest and cacao plantation on the ChocoMuseo (Granada’s Chocolate Museum’s) Plantation Tour just outside of the Spanish colonial city, it seemed probable that a rainforest eco-tour business could work in Playa Gigante. That is if there were wild primates left in the local rainforest patches and corridors and publicly accessible scenic trails to hike on and to observe them. 
Trail Mapping and Primate Census Research Parameters

The tourist and expat center of town with people seated and drinking
The tourist and expat center of town: Party Wave (11°23.374’/86°02.965′)Photo: ARK Kirwin

I defined the trail mapping and primate census research area as a two-mile radius from what seems to be the tourist center of town: a beachside café with WI-FI called Party Wave(11°23.374’/86°01.965’). Since I was only going to be in Playa Gigante for a week, I would attempt to locate at least one new troop each day during our early morning searches from 5:30 AM to 8:00 to 9:00 AM (depending on primate activity). Locations of wild primates would be documented by taking a GPS waypoint of the tree they were feeding or resting in. Abiotic data such as air temperature, humidity, and altitude was collected with an Altimeter/Temperature gauge. Time of day and number of monkeys, sex and age categories were determined via the naked and eye and aided by viewing through binoculars and the telephoto lens (70-200mm) of my Canon SLR.  The times of sightings were noted, photographs of the trees were taken and leaf and fruit samples of the foods the monkeys were eating were taken and later photographed for identification.

I knew that wild howler monkeys lived in Playa Gigante because I heard their howls every morning and I observed a troop of them in the trees about two miles north of Party Wave in the next bay called Playa Amarillo. When I described their appearance to a local resident, he told me in Spanish that “los monos” (“ the monkeys”) that I saw were monos aulladores (“howler monkeys”). Even though they are called “howler monkeys,” their loud vocalizations in the dawn and dusk hours sound more like guttural roars of very loud and very disgusted primates: “ughhhhh!”.

After I go over my background research on howler monkeys, I will summarize what we found out for each of the five research questions I mentioned earlier. Finally, I will conclude with issues we discovered and recommendations for future research. 

In follow-up field reports I will go into more detail on our research methodologies, lessons learned and equipment we used to help future researchers and people who want to help.

Conservation Tourism Assessment Preparation

The goal of this conservation tourism assessment project was not to generate new scientific data on social change, land use or the local wild howler monkey population in Playa Gigante. It’s goals are simply practical ones: assess the natural resources of tourism potential in the area and publish our data in the hopes of protecting them and providing a means for local residents interested in protecting the local environment to earn a living.

Research tools included a Garmin GPSMap 62, Bushnell binoculars, a humidity/temperature gauge, Canon RebelXS  SLR with 75-300 telephoto lens, waterproof WetNotes, ziplock bags, a pair of rainforest worthy Clarks leather flip-flops, Sherpani  fanny pack, and a lot of 3M UltraThon Insect repellent. Photo: AR Kirwin
Research tools included a Garmin GPSMap 62, Bushnell binoculars, a humidity/temperature gauge, Canon RebelXS  SLR with 75-300 telephoto lens, waterproof WetNotes, ziplock bags, a pair of rainforest worthy Clarks leather flip-flops, Sherpani  fanny pack, and a lot of 3M UltraThon Insect repellent. Photo: AR Kirwin

I began to prepare for the primate census endeavor in the six months leading up to the project in June 2013. I took two courses at the local com   munity college on using a GPS receiver to mark waypoints (GPS locations) and GIS (Graphical Information System) data analysis systems such as ArcGIS and Google Earth. I refreshed my Spanish language skills with Rosetta Stone. I interviewed a primatology graduate student friend on research tools and methods she used while working at a research station in the rainforest in Ecuador. I memorized the basic taxonomy, physical traits, ecology, social behaviors and research methods for studying Atelids (the family of New World monkeys that includes howler monkeys and spider monkeys that live in Central America) that I found in my former graduate advisor’s textbook called Primates In Perspective (Campbell 2010). I also reviewed everything recently published (in the last 10 years or so) peer-reviewed research article that I could find on mantled howler monkeys in English on the Internet (about 34 articles). Good sources of free scientific research articles I found including the IUCN/SCC Primate Specialist Group website, Tropical Conservation Science website, Biodiversity Science website and the National Center for Biotechnology Information. I tried to follow the best practices for primate research and minimize my ecological impacts by abiding by the recommendations in “Reducing the Ecological Impact of Field Research” published in the American Journal of Primatology (Bezanson 2013).


Tourism Assessment Research Status and Outcomes (so far):

1. Species of wild howler monkeys that live Playa Gigante

Two monkeys in the secondary rainforest patch behind the Blu Sol Guesthouse
Alouatta palliata family in the secondary rainforest patch behind the Blu Sol Guesthouse. Photo: MR Kirwin

The species of wild monkeys we observed were brownish black mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata paliata). The adult females appeared to have darker pelts than some of the older adult males who had a lighter brown saddle of fur on their backs. These monkeys are native to the southwestern coastal areas of Central America according to my sources: several primate research articles, Campbell’s Primates in Perspective, and The Mammals of Costa Rica: A Natural History and Field Guide by Mark Wainwright (Arroyo-Rodriguez 2011; Campbell 2007; Chavez 2013; Graaf 2913; Wainright 2007).

About Mantled Howler Monkeys
Mantled howler monkeys are named for their mantle of fur around their neck that distinguishes them from other species in the howler genus Alouatta.Their genus name means “another that moves using the tip of its tail” in Greek and their species name palliata is Latin for “mantled” (Wainright 2007). As primates they are in the Atelinae subfamily which are a monophyletic group (descended from a common ancestor) and are known for having muscular prehensile tails which they use like as a fifth limb to grip branches and move through their aerial pathways in the high rainforest canopy (Campbell 2010). Howler monkeys are sexually dimorphic in that males are significantly larger than females, they are the largest atelines with adults about 50 cm long (20 in) and weighing 3-5 kg (about 8-11 lbs) (Wainwight 2007). Mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta paliatta) live in cohesive groups of usually 10-20 individuals led by an alpha male with usually one male and one female of reproductive age in the group. Both male and females typically disperse from their natal groups with more females more often dispersing than males. Juvenile males live alone until around four years of age or until they can evict a resident dominant male and take over his group. A lot of lone males in an area may indicate a declining howler monkey population due to loss of habitat or predation (Campbell 2010; Chavez 2013). Reproducing female howler monkeys have one offspring about every 22 months and are in reproductive maturity in about three years. Their lifespan in the wild is 20-25 years (Schoville 2013). Howler monkeys are ecologically important for rainforests due to their roles as seed dispersers and nutrient cyclers for dung beetles which help renew nutrients in rainforest soils (Schoville 2013)

Two howler monkeys getting ready for their all day nap in Playa Amarillo.
Two howler monkeys getting ready for their all day nap in Playa Amarillo. Photo: Christina Rust

Unlike other Atelines, and all other New World monkeys, howlers are folivorous—they subsist on a diet of mostly leaves. Since leaves are difficult to digest for mammals with their high cellulose content and relatively low nutritive value per weight, howler monkeys take a long time to process their food and spend a large portion of their day resting (66-80%) (Campbell 2010). As primates go, they are relatively slow moving and mellow animals unless threatened and sleep most of the day in between their early morning and dusk feeding times. This may be because they must first ferment the leaves in their hindgut before they can digest them and then access their energy. While watching the howler monkeys in Playa Gigante socialize and feed in the canopy each morning and then slow down to nap the rest of the day until dusk, their daily schedules reminded me of the visiting surfers and their early morning and dusk surfing and eating schedules with the rest of the day spent mostly lazing around. I could go on and say that their fermented plant-based diets are similar too– except the howler monkeys brew their own in their hindguts. 

The howler monkey’s capacity to sustain themselves on a wide variety of plant species and on such an abundant resource as leaves seem to explain their resilience to human development and their ability to survive in smaller fragments of rainforest than other wild primate species (Chaves 2013; Wainwight 2007). The IUCN Red List designated howler monkeys as “Least Concern” (Schoville 2013). However, howler monkeys do not build nests, or need a large enough range area to support their metabolic needs of average troop sizes of 10-20 individuals and need to rest in a different tree every night. Each group is dominated by a single alpha male, who is obvious to see by his larger size and conspicuous white testicles. 

Mantled howler monkeys live in dry deciduous forests to moist tropical forests in a range that extends from southeastern Mexico (the states of Veracruz, Campeche, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco), throughout Central America to Colombia and northern Peru west of the Andes (Campbell 2010; Wainwight 2007). They live in primary and mature secondary (formerly developed but recovering) tropical forests from sea level to around 3,000 m (8,200 ft) (Schoville 2013; Wainwright 2007).

I determined the species of the monkeys we observed by observation and matching their appearance to descriptions found in primate research journal articles and a regional mammal field guide) as well as asking local people in the area what kind of monkeys they thought were living in their trees (Campbell 2010; Wainwight 2007). In my interviews with English-speaking expats, surf tourists and local Spanish-speaking children in Playa Gigante, almost everyone I spoke with told me that the local wild monkeys were howler monkeys.The exceptions were the reports by expat residents of Playa Gigante and Aqua. A surf lodge manager in Playa Gigante told me that she saw a lone spider monkey while she was running on the dirt easement road in between Playa Gigante and Aqua Resort about two weeks before we arrived in Playa Gigante on June 25th. A tropical wood craftsman who lives near Aqua told me he used to see a “huge monkey with red fur” in the rainforest near Aqua Resort about three years ago. He hasn’t seen anything but howler monkeys in the same forest for the past few years though. Finally, one of the staff members at Aqua Resort told me that there used to be spider monkeys in the forest a few years ago but now they are gone.
2. Locations of howler monkey groups in the Playa Gigante area
Locations of howler Monkeys in Playa Gigante

We found three different groups of howler monkeys within two miles of the center of Playa Gigante (Party Wave Café): the “Giganté Group” in the secondary rainforest fragment behind the Blue Sol Lodge, the Playa Amarillo’s “Amarillo Group” in the forest about 100 feet elevation above the north end of the beach over the dirt road to Playa Colorado, and Aqua Resort’s “Aqua Group” located exactly one mile from Playa Gigante in the trees on the north side of the road before the Aqua Resort and in the trees above the cottages of the resort itself. I hope to post a map of the gps locations of the howler monkey groups on an aerial photo in a follow up field report.

Here are the GPS locations where we observed each howler monkey group:

  • Giganté Group (11°23/86°01) In Playa Gigante, they were in the trees behind (west) of the Blue Sol Lodge above two concrete abandoned home foundations in the secondary rainforest in the center of Playa Gigante’s U. I observed the same group again on two later days further inland: About 100 meters south and across the southern access dirt road behind the new lime green house and the flooded pond in between it and the beach road; and further inland about 100 meters northwest in the trees just behind the row of houses across the street from the white church along the northern access dirt road.    
  • Amarillo Group (11°24/86°02) At the northern end of Playa Amarillo, we found this group above the trail that goes over the hill to Playa Colorado. Six months earlier I saw what seemed to be the same group about 200 meters south in the flat secondary rainforest fragment along the dirt road, about 100 meters inland from the sand.
  • Aqua Group (11°/22/86°01) On the northern side of Aqua Resort, we observed this group on two successive days at the end of the dirt easement road where it connects to the road towards Aqua Resort’s beach. The dirt easement road is open to foot traffic and connects the two bays: Playa Gigante and Aqua Resort’s bay.

Finding and identifying howler monkeys was a tougher project than I expected. Other than the tropical heat of the rainforest (it was in the mid-80’s by 8am), the rain, and the squadrons of mosquitos waiting to swarm us as soon as we set foot in the forest (when it wasn’t raining), I was unprepared for how fast the monkeys would disappear into the upper reaches of the rainforest canopy. Also, from 10-20 meters away, identifying each of the dark brown furred monkey’s age and sex category was a challenge. Especially, when they were silhouetted against a bright morning sky in the tree branches. My camera’s telephoto lens became an essential tool in howler monkey sex determination. By the second morning of the howler monkey census we knew we had to be quieter and faster in order to get more certain age category and sex identifications. By the third morning of the census project, we quietly stalked the monkeys once we located them in their trees, trying to get a count of the number of individuals in each tree before they started moving away. Once the monkeys started moving into each other’s trees and climbing towards higher branches, it became difficult not to accidentally count an individual twice or get the wrong sex and age category.

A juvenile moving from one tree to another about 10 meters above my head in Playa Gigante. Photo: AR Kirwin
A juvenile moving from one tree to another about 10 meters above my head in Playa Gigante. Photo: AR Kirwin

The last two days of the census project I did alone. The disadvantage was that I didn’t have another person to confirm the monkeys counted in each tree. The advantage was that the monkeys seemed less alarmed and didn’t flee the area when they saw me. I also felt as though, I could observe their more naturalist behaviors alone. On the second to the last day, in the Giganté group, I saw a few juveniles engaged in what appeared to be a game of chase above me. This went on for a few minutes until what appeared to be the group’s alpha male cruised over and told them to stop rough housing and then left. The two juveniles stopped playing their game. 

On the following mornings, we found the howler monkeys by following the sound of their characteristic howls each morning and asking local construction workers and residents where they had seen them (Buenas dias! …Señor, estamos buscando para los monos. ¿Dónde están los monos por favor?”)
3. Demographics (number of individuals, sex and age categories) of the observed howler monkey groups
The “census” part of this project was more challenging than I expected. It is not easy to gauge the sex and age group of dark-brown furred silhouetted monkey climbing through the top canopied branches 10-15 meters above your head. I considered tracking 12 age/sex categories or five age/sex categories that were used in research articles I found, but found it too difficult due to the similar dark brown pelt color of adults and juveniles of both sexes (Juarez 2005; Pavelka 2003). The categories we ended up using were three: Adult Male, Adult Female, Juvenile [of either sex] and Infant. We made contact with the troops for approximate 2-4 hours each morning for 6 days. 

The first day we located the Giganté Group in Playa Gigante we counted 12-13 monkeys, the last two days in the same area I counted 14 and 6 monkeys respectively. I estimate that 12-14 howler monkeys live in the secondary forest fragment in the center of the “U” in Playa Gigante.
We searched for monkeys in the forest in Playa Amarillo one morning. We counted 12-16 monkeys in the Amarillo Group: 1-2 Adult Males, 3 Adult Females, 6-7 Juveniles, 2 Infants. The count this visit seemed consistent with the number of monkeys I first saw in this forest six months earlier when I was on a trail run.

Adult male mantled howler monkey at Aqua Resort. Photo: AR Kirwin
Adult male mantled howler monkey at Aqua Resort. Photo: AR Kirwin

Our two mornings searching for monkeys in Aqua Resort yielded 19 monkeys and 25 monkeys counted respectively for the Aqua Group. The first morning we identified 1 Adult Male, 8 Adult Females, 4 Juveniles, and 6 Infants. The second morning we came up with these demographics: 3 Adult Males, 10 Adult Females, 6 Juveniles and 6 Infants. 

Aqua Resort has probably the nicest field conditions any primate researcher could ask. The local howler monkeys move through the trees and on top of the cottages and walkways for easy viewing.  The resort’s developers seem to have invested an extraordinary amount of effort to not cut down the canopy trees by designing the resort’s guest cottages, plunge pools, and walkways to go around the trees, thus protecting the habitat of the resident howler monkeys and other native fauna and flora. In a follow up report I will publish a spreadsheet showing the age and sex categories of each howler monkey group in more detail. 

4. Plant species of foods that howler monkeys eat in the area
To identify what types of trees are most important to howler monkey survival as food sources, I gathered samples of the leaves we observed the howler monkeys eating and asked two local residents (Ramon and Maria) their lay names in Spanish. Here are their lay names in Spanish with a short description (corrections were made to this section on 9/23/13):
Hojas de alimentos de monos aulladores (Food leaves of howler monkeys):
  • Madroño (Arbol nacional de Nicaragua)
  • Tiquiloté (Arbol con frutos blancos; Estan Buenos si los monos estan dehydrated) 
  • Orrillo
  • Arbol de Poroporo
  • Arbol de Nin
  • Jacoté Jobo
  • Nanci Wité (aka: “Nanciguisté)
  • Mango (hojas y fruita)
  • Aquacaté (fruita, “Avocado”)
I also took photos of the leaves the howler monkeys were eating for identification later by a neotropical plant specialist I know. I am hoping that more people would be interested in this project and help protect the howler monkey’s food supply and canopy trees in Nicaragua.

Leaf samples of what we observed the howler monkeys eating with their Spanish lay names. Photo: AR Kirwin
Leaf samples of what we observed the howler monkeys eating with their Spanish lay names. Photo: AR Kirwin

According to the literature, howler monkeys are mostly folivorous with 64% of their diet consisting of leaves but prefer young leaves and certain types of leaves during parts of the year and prefer leaves in certain parts of the plant (Chavez 2013). This is according to a meta study of other research data on howler monkey dietary preferences done by Chavez et al in 2013. Howler monkeys may have dietary flexibility in that they can adapt to new ecological conditions and eat a relatively abundant food supply (of leaves instead of fruit like spider monkeys), but they cannot eat any kind of leaf or be restricted to one type of tree species.Brown howler monkeys have been observed to feed from 402 plant species with the average number of plant species for each group sample being 42 according to the meta study by Chavez et al (2013). The majority of the top plant food species consumed by howler monkeys are leaves from trees (84.8%) (Chavez 2013). The most commonly consumed types of tree leaves across howler monkey habitats studied belonged to Ficus, Zanthosylum, and Eugenia species (Chavez 2013).

5. Scenic hiking and running trails in Playa Gigante that are publicly accessible
While taking waypoints (GPS locations) of each tree we found holding howler monkeys, I also tracked the GPS coordinates of our hiking routes on the scenic trails we took to find the monkeys. These trails ran along the coast and in the publicly accessible rainforest areas in and around the town of Playa Gigante and neighboring Playa Amarillo and  Aqua Resort. In a follow up field report I hope to publish some of these trails so more people can enjoy them and protect the area’s natural beauty. I’m testing various online map display options that are compatible with mobile devices. Earlier this year I published some running trails in Ventura, California using ArcGIS Explorer Online by ESRI and published it on my anthropology blog 

Playa Gigante looking north after walking through the rainforest trail from Aqua Resort. Photo: AR Kirwin
Playa Gigante looking north after walking through the rainforest trail from Aqua Resort. Photo: AR Kirwin

In a later field report I hope to publish these hiking routes after I map them using ESRI’s ArcGIS mapping software and any available aerial photos and contour maps that I can find of our study area in Rivas district of Southwestern Nicaragua. (If you know of any, please contact me at As southwestern coastal Nicaragua has been discovered by surf tourists, intrepid expats and luxury resort developers, there is a tremendous need for the area’s natural resources and rainforest biodiversity to be mapped and surveyed in order to protect it. As world renowned chimpanzee primatologist and conservation activist Dr.Jane Goodall, DBE said, and I’m paraphrasing: If people know about something then they can care about it, and if they care about it, they will be motivated to take action to save it. With those thoughts in mind, I hope this online field report works.  


Our conservation tourism assessment in Playa Gigante has revealed that there are three wild howler monkey groups living within walking distance of the tourist center of Playa Gigante. It also revealed that there are several publicly accessible trails that go along the coast and through the rainforest.These trails offer people spectacular views of the coastlines and allow them experience the vibrant living (and loud) biodiversity of a tropical rainforest first hand.

By publicizing the land-based treasures within walking distance of Playa Gigante, a place known internationally for its great surfing location, I hope to create more awareness of the conservation tourism opportunities for local residents and business owners. I hope the local communities continue to further protect their natural resources and public access to the rainforest and beaches for future generations.
Nicaragua’s southern neighbor Costa Rica has shown that by protecting 32% of it’s land (compared to 26% of the land which protected in the United States) in ecological protected areas, that there is a decrease in poverty in bordering rural areas. Costa Rica’s conservation-oriented tourism industry takes in about $1.9 billion dollars a year. When environmental conservation is combined with ecologically sustainable development, rural poverty is reduced and standards of living increase in those areas (Estrada 2013). Everyone wins: the monkeys, the trees and the people!
As Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE has also famously said, “We have a choice to use the gift of our lives to make the world a better place” (Jane Goodall 2013).


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Fox, Bo 2011 “Gigante Census Status Report” Project Wave of Optimism (, p. 4. You can also find data from Project WOO’s 2008 and 2011 census and surveys on their website: 

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