A Conservation Tourism Assessment in Nicaragua: GPS Trail Mapping and Howler Monkey Census

Brick house just before the Papaya Grove and across the street from a rain forest patch

House across the road from a rainforest patch (and home to a group of wild mantled howler monkeys) in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua Photo: AR Kirwin

This post is about an assessment of the local conservation tourism opportunities in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua that I did in the summer of 2013.  Playa Gigante is a small fishing village and, recently an international surf destination, on the Pacific Coast of southern Nicaragua a couple of hours north of the Costa Rican border. This report includes a summary of the social and economic changes that are creating both hardships and opportunities in the town, and the various ecological data on the local howler monkey groups and their food trees and scenic trails that I was able to collect during the assessment.  My complete field report about this project is posted on the blog for the Kirwin International Relief Foundation (KIRFaidblog.org)– a non-profit disaster relief and education organization that I co-founded with my husband in 2005. Our non-profit has been supporting the humanitarian and environmental conservation efforts of two other non-profit organizations who are making a big difference in the town: Project Waves of Optimism and Sweet Water Fund. This was my second visit to Playa Gigante after helping out the local women’s softball team Las Estrellas through Sweet Water Fund and vising the construction of the new Gigante Community Health Center, made possible by local community volunteers and fund raising effort lead by the inspiring group of young surfers at Project Waves of Optimism.

Howler monkey (Alouatta paliatta) family. Photo: AR Kirwin

Howler monkey (Alouatta paliatta) family. Photo: AR Kirwin

The aim of conservation tourism projects is to protect the local biodiversity while offering tourism activities in an area. Conservation tourism, also known by the older term “eco-tourism” has been around a long time and has seen its share of controversy. There have been many instances of local communities loosing access to land in ecologically protected areas and being prevented from supporting themselves via their traditional hunting, agricultural, pastoral, fishing or other means.

However, more recent conservation tourism initiatives seek to empower local people who live inside or near ecologically protected areas. For example, recent 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).

Since I was in Playa Gigante for only a week, I didn’t have enough time for a comprehensive research project interviewing local residents and visiting tourists. So, I decided to try to keep things simple and use my GIS skills to map some scenic trails I had discovered in my previous visit and locate and get the demographics on the local groups of howler monkeys (and any other wild non-human primates) who lived in the area with the help of volunteers.

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?

In follow-up posts I give a brief summary of the results of our findings for each of those questions. For the remainder of this post I will give a  background on the social and economic changes that are challenging the local residents of Playa Gigante. These challenges are the reasons why we are working there in the first place.

Background on Social and Economic Challenges in Playa Gigante

Playa Gigante got its name from Pie de Giganté ("Giant's Foot") is a rocky outcropping that is an ecologicla protected area.

Playa Gigante got its name from Pie de Giganté (“Giant’s Foot”) –a rocky outcropping and local favorite hiking place. It is an ecological protected area. Photo: AR Kirwin

“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).

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  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.

Frantic piglet looking for his mum and siblings in the central rainforest patch in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua Photo: AR Kirwin

Frantic piglet looking for his mum and siblings in the central rainforest patch in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua Photo: AR Kirwin

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. On the beach, a family’s laundry dries on lines strung over the sand next their small fishing boats. Chickens peck around in the sand and between the homes and everyone knows the black’n’white floppy eared dog who patrolls around the fishing boats looking for scraps.  A quiet moment in the town’s central rainforest patch with only the sound of a soft rain falling on leaves, turns into high comedy as a frantic piglet left home along dashes this way and that way through the ground foliage, leaves flying, squealing “Wee! Wee!! Wee!” before disappearing on the trail of his mum and siblings.  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 trotting towards us. On it’s bare back were two smiling and laughing little girls in simple dresses and wind blown hair holding on their pony’s rope halter. Like leaders of a small parade, they were 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.

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.

Preparation for this Project

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 tool: Garmin GPSMaps 62 - Not the best GPS, but one I could afford for this project. Photo: AR Kirwin

Research tool: Garmin GPSMaps 62 – Not the best GPS, but one I could afford for this project. 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 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. As a practice project, I mapped some running trails in park were I live in Ventura, CA called Arroyo Verde Park. I refreshed my Spanish language skills with Rosetta Stone.  I interviewed a primatology graduate student at CSUN 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).

GPS Location of Research Area and Research Methodology
Party Wave in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua Photo: AR Kirwin

Party Wave in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua.  Photo: AR 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 5:530 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.

In follow-up posts I will give a brief summery of the data we were able to collect for each of our research questions for this conservation tourism assessment.