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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Frogs Of The OSA

In a Costa Rica refuge, preservation tactics are leading to a stable ecosystem where amphibians are thriving

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Red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas), Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. Working in the dark, I made a series of images with my DSLR handheld and a softbox-diffused flash mounted on-camera. All Images: Nikon D3X, 200mm ƒ/4 Micro-Nikkor lens, Nikon SB-900 flash, LumiQuest softbox

My foot plunged through cool rushing water to find the firm purchase of a pebbled streambed. The shallow creek that emerged from beneath an arch of lush jungle foliage was both beckoning and mysterious, and upstream we went, with the sound of Pacific Ocean waves pounding the wild beach behind us. "You watch the left bank, and I'll watch the right," said my companion, Belgian-born naturalist Rinaldo Mulder. After a few minutes of wading, he calmly motioned me over to some damp leaf litter beside a moss-covered log. "There she is," he whispered.

Mulder's eagle eyes had located the tiny rain-forest denizen that we were looking for, Phyllobates vittatus—a Golfo Dulce poison dart frog. About an inch long and glossy black with striking orange and turquoise markings, she blended perfectly against the wet reflections and dark tones of the decomposing leaves that were her home. A single quick hop had announced her presence.

Granular glass frog tadpoles (Cochranella granulosa) develop inside an egg case. I set up my tripod in the water and used an off-camera flash in a softball, illuminating the egg mass from below.
While Mulder kept an eye on the frog, I spread my tripod low and mounted my standard macro rig—a Nikon D3X and 200mm Micro-Nikkor lens. An off-camera softbox provided illumination in the subdued light under the rain-forest canopy. My heartbeat quickened as I moved in close and peered through the viewfinder. The fragile little creature was transformed into a formidable predator. How very fortunate I was to be so close to this creature in its native habitat—a primeval rain forest at the southern tip of the Osa National Wildlife Refuge on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Over the next several days of exploration and discovery, I would be reminded again and again of just how special this place is.

It's hardly a coincidence that I had selected the Osa Peninsula for a project on tropical amphibians. Around the world, amphibian habitats and populations are experiencing rapid decline, and throughout the tropics, the ecosystems that host the greatest amphibian biodiversity often face the greatest threats. From Borneo to Brazil to Madagascar, climate change, deforestation, agricultural expansion, pollution and the fungal disease chytridiomycosis have combined to take a terrible toll, leaving almost a third of all known amphibian species listed as "threatened"—or worse—on the Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Our little friend, the endemic Golfo Dulce poison dart frog, is listed as "endangered," but on the Osa, dozens of native amphibian species seem to be thriving.

Home to 2.5% of all known species of life on Earth and more than half of all animal and plant species present in Costa Rica, the Osa Peninsula offers a shining example of conservation success through sustainable ecological stewardship. The Osa National Wildlife Refuge, an ingenious 4,260-acre land management program established as a partnership of private landowners and the Costa Rican government, is part of a contiguous 15,000-acre ecological corridor preserving an area the size of Manhattan south of the Corcovado National Park boundary all the way to the tip of the peninsula. Since its establishment in 1999, the refuge has focused on conservation and ecotourism with a small environmental footprint, simultaneously serving the economic interests of the local community and the health of the ecosystem itself.

More than 20 individual properties make up the Osa National Wildlife Refuge, most of which were bought up in the 1980s and 1990s specifically for the conservation of this important biological
corridor. For the most part, these are entirely undeveloped, handed over by the owners for ecological management by Conservación Osa, the local conservation organization. Two refuge properties are ecotourism businesses, including El Remanso, a 150-acre parcel of primary-growth rain forest running from a ridgetop 350 feet above sea level all the way down to the pristine beach. The sloping forested landscape funnels rainwater into creeks that drop precipitously over stunning waterfalls into fern-rimmed pools. A lagoon just off the beach is home to a shy, six-foot spectacled caiman. Blending in perfectly with its remarkable setting, the lodge at El Remanso has a tiny ecological footprint by design. Totally off the grid, its electricity is generated by a micro-hydro facility and solar panels. Of its waste, 92% is recycled or composted. These behind-the-scenes efficiencies go largely unnoticed by guests, who experience stylish accommodations and a welcoming atmosphere more like a reunion of old friends than anything else.

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