While we were in Playa Gigante in June this year helping out with the construction of the new Gigante Community Health Center, we wanted to see if there were any eco-tourism opportunities in town to help out the local women getting vocational training and education assistance through our friends’ humanitarian non-profit SweetWater Fund. And, 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.
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. And, 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?”
- What species of howler monkeys live in Playa Gigante?
- Where do the howler monkeys live?
- What are the demographics (number of individuals, sex and age categories) of the observed monkey troops?
- What do the monkeys eat (which tree species should be protected)?
- 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.
“Giganté” as Playa Gigante is known by the locals, is a small town is 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 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 line the access roads and, increasingly, vacation homes with ocean views can be see 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 time and rented rooms at the local surf lodge and youth hostel. The town was surrounded by rainforest with the 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 south side of 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.
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, only makes about $5 to $7 a day. This is not enough in a new tourism economy with higher prices for food, less land and 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).
- 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 a new great trail run to explore it’s scenic coastline through the rainforest or 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.
On my last visit it occurred to me that the charm of Playa Gigante, such a new town 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 stoped 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 bare back 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.
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 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 5:530 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 guage. 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 Cannon 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.
After I go over my background research on howler monkeys, I will summarize what we found out for each o 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.
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 community 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 re-freshed 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 every 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 included 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):
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).
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 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.
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).
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 to 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 un-prepared for how fast the monkeys would disappear into the upper reaches of the rainforest canopy. Also, from 10-20 meters away, identifying of 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 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.
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 felt I could observe more naturalist behaviors, too. 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.
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.
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.
- Madroño (Arbol nacional de Nicaragua)
- Tiquiloté (Arbol con frutos blancos; Estan Buenos si los monos estan dehydrated)
- Arbol de Poroporo
- Arbol de Nin
- Jacoté Jobo
- Nanci Wité (aka: “Nanciguisté)
- Mango (hojas y fruita)
- Aquacaté (fruita, “Avocado”)
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 researchers 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 can not 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).
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 info@KIRFaid.org). 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 renown chimpanzee primatologist and conservation activist Dr.Jane Goodall, DBE has 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 assessable 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.
Hoffman, David M (2013) “Taking Another Look at Protected Areas and Migration: What do Migrants Think?” Anthropology News, July/August, P.25-26.
Wainwright, Mark 2007 Monkeys (order Primates). The Mammals of Costa Rica: A Natural History and Field Guide. Ithica, New York: Cornel University Press. P. 142-173.