To my eternal shame it has taken me 7 years to discover that the Masaya Volcano is not just a massive lava filled crater but also an amazing national park with a whole fascinating eco system and wildlife. It is inevitably the crater which attracts the tourists, and indeed where we take a group every month, that and the bat caves. The crater is admittedly extraordinary, with its history of being the Spanish conquistadors’ idea of hell (the cross was planted at the summit to keep the devils away!) and, the aspect I find quite unnerving, some centuries later one of the ways which the dictator Somoza used to eliminate political opponents was to drop them, live, into the volcano from a helicopter. The crater also of course has its endearing, even surprising, side – most notably the parakeets that make their nests in the walls of the smoky, to all appearances completely unhealthy, crater. They can be seen by evening visitors as they return, chattering away to one another, from their feeding grounds to the nests.
But it was only when one of the Park Rangers, Erico, visited La Mariposa and told me something of the rest of the park that my view started to change and expand. There are, he informed me, 124 species of butterfly in the woods, several of which have only been spotted in this location. This is not actually the season for best seeing butterflies (December is the best month) but I set out anyway one morning on the most enlightening walk, firstly on a path called El Coyote….there are not, according to Erico, many coyotes left on the volcano but there is a family group of 10 or so living near the crater. They are of course active at night so I need to do another walk. As well as a few butterflies and some stunning orchids we also saw the trogon bird. At my insistence we headed off on a much narrower track, El Jinoguave (one of the very common trees in this dry wood), but I had set off badly prepared and, hit by a bout of dizziness, had to lay down, (I had a touch of sunstroke I think) prostrate on the path while Erico sent for a horse to rescue me. This experience turned into something really special as a small troupe of white faced monkeys (capuchins) marched through the tree tops over my head. Including a female with a pint sized baby clutching her back. Priceless. I had a particularly great view of them thanks to my horizontal position. I was especially blown away because I honestly had no idea that a group of white faced monkeys, a species threatened with extinction, is living just around the corner. Colin, a Mariposa student and an ecologist told me that 12 is probably not a sufficient number for the group to be viable in the long run…..thus the idea was born to investigate the possibilities of liberating our 4 Capuchins there!!!
Then I got chatting to Erico about the problems facing the park. The surrounding pueblos are, on the whole, poor campesino communities. Erico explained one example is how people enter the park and collect firewood, sometimes already dead wood but also cutting branches and even whole trees. The response of the Rangers if they discover this used to be to confiscate both wood and the offending machete. This led to a lot of resentment – so much so that on occasion fires have been deliberately set as a way of getting back! Erico and some of his companeros had the idea of offering work to try to change the prevailing attitude to one of wanting to protect the forest. Now women from Las Sabanitas sell fruit in the car park, making a good living, and some of the muchachos now bring their horses to the car park and provide rides to the visitors (one of their horses rescued me!!). But the fundamental problem is that there is simply not enough resources to protect the park properly (this of course is a major difference with much richer Costa Rica) and it is much harder to reach the richer folk who also exploit the park, hunting with dogs and guns being one example. As a result of this activity there are hardly any, if any, deer remaining in the park.
The possible ways in which La Mariposa can help are, in brief…
- Help to identify the poorest families in the surrounding communities (we estimate about 10 in las Sabanitas for example, which is the nearest to us) and who are the most dependent on the park for their livelihoods.
- Work with the families to establish possible alternatives. For example, the Mariposa could try to raise funds to pay a number of people to assist with park rangering (this would be based on the same model we use to pay the salaries of the extra teachers on the school projects) and, in time, help support training for those who would like to become guides with expertise in butterflies or bird watching.
- La Mariposa would also look for funds to buy a number of eco cookers for the families most dependent on collecting firewood in the forest.
- La Mariposa will work to attract more visitors and students who are interested in supporting this kind of eco tourism initiative and in learning about the local flora and fauna. It may be possible, in the future, to establish a scheme whereby Mariposa students could volunteer in the park.
- La Mariposa will take more groups and individuals to visit and get to know the park as a whole, not just the crater! And develop programs for students specifically interested in the problems facing conservation etc in Nicaragua.
A short time after this idea took root, I went on holiday for a week to a semi tranquillo beach up north called Jiquillo. It happens to be next door to a nature reserve, Padre Ramos. Could not be more different to Masaya in terms of eco systems, here we are talking huge river estuary and mangroves. But the challenges are remarkably similar…in this case, I gatecrashed a training session being given by an NGO, Fauna and Flora, to a group of local people interested in working to save the very rare hawksbill turtle, rather than making a living through taking the eggs, and acting as guides to eco tourists. And again, it is even harder to tackle the rich who exploit, in this case the pollution caused by sugar cane fields and prawn factories. The role of La Mariposa would in this case be rather limited by distance but I am excited by the idea of taking study groups up to the estuary and comparing the issues and solutions with the Masaya situation.
As a first step towards developing the Mariposa co-operation program with the Masaya Volcano national Park and the Padre Ramos Nature Reserve we are offering a two-week study program when we will be visiting and studying, with local guides, both locales. I will put up more detailed information shortly.