The Pacuare Nature Reserve History

The PACUARE Nature Reserve came into being in September 1989 on the day that John Denham bought 800 hectares of land lying between the Caribbean coast and the Tortuguero Canal. From the very beginning it was owned by an English registered charity, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, which was formed specially for this purpose.

The land at the time was divided into six separate holdings. The smallest were owner-occupied, the largest owned by businessmen in Limon who tried to earn a return from coconuts or from grazing cattle on land they had cleared.  The coastal land between the Matina and Pacuare rivers has never been occupied by more than a handful of people and there were only four people living on the 800 hectares which we bought.

During the turtle season, swarms of poachers came to the beach to take the eggs of the Leatherback and Green turtles, and few nests survived.  Green Turtles were killed for their meat which was readily available in every restaurant around Limon. A quota on Green turtles meant in practice that poachers and fishermen could kill as many as they liked, either harpooning them at sea or taking them when they came to lay on the beach.

Two people were very important in the establishment of the Reserve. Maria Teresa (Te-Te) Koberg, who devoted many years of her life to protecting Costa Rican turtles, introduced us to this turtle nesting site and planted the idea for the purchase of the land behind the beach

Carlos Fernandez, a young lawyer in San Jose, negotiated the purchase with all six owners so that we were able to buy all six parcels on the same day.  Now, over twenty years later, Carlos is manager of the reserve, with a full-time involvement.

We retained the National University (UNA) to make an inventory of the wildlife in the Reserve and to advise us on its management. | A comparison with today shows how much everything has flourished and numbers increased. Following UNA’s advice, we left the land and its vegetation to regenerate naturally.

Our early efforts at beach protection were not effective until in 1992 we built the Casa Grande which became the base for the volunteer programme. Alexandra Denham, daughter of the founder, was in charge of the reserve and the turtle programme in 1994 and 1995. Volunteers were recruited in San Jose by advertising and flyers (there was no internet) and we had volunteers of all ages and nationalities, some for two weeks others for the whole season. People slept in the bedrooms, in tents on the balcony and under the house, and everyone cooked, cleaned and patrolled. It was a happy time, with the reserve run by enthusiastic amateurs, but the poachers still had the upper hand.

At this point we were joined by Stanley Rodriguez, a lifelong turtle ‘aficionado’ and a professional in turtle protection, who became the manager of the Reserve. Soon afterwards we started employing beach guards and poaching was reduced. 1995 is the year from which we date the effective protection of the beach.

Stanley remained with us for several years and then started his own turtle conservation project, a few hundred metres to the east of the Reserve, from which his family and volunteers now patrol and protect the 3 kms of beach adjoining our eastern boundary.  We are neighbours and good friends.

Gradually, over the next few years, the Reserve became what it is today.

We took on experienced marine biologists to supervise the turtle programme. Now we have one in the South Station and one in the North throughout the season.

We built ‘cabañas’ to accommodate volunteers and especially the school groups brought from the US by Ecology Project International (EPI), a ‘not-for-profit’ organization devoted to environmental education. Ever since Scott Pankratz, the founder, first came with two groups in the year 2000, EPI has been bringing hundreds of US students each year and also Costa Rican state schools students which they subsidize. EPI has been, and still is, a great support and friend to the Reserve.

We developed the North Station with new accommodation houses. It can now receive full-size groups of up to 20 and is self-contained. Half the beach is patrolled from the North and half from the South. The two stations communicate by radio, bicycle, by boat or on foot.

In the south we had major rebuilding to do in 2009/10 after the lagoon flooded into the sea, causing coastal erosion which washed away a lot of our land around the South Station. We were advised by experts that another similar flooding would destroy some key buildings without which we could not receive and accommodate visitors. The only safe option was to build a whole new station about 50 metres further away from the lagoon and 50 metres inland. The ‘Pueblito’, five buildings in a semicircle, was built by Danilo and his brothers in time for the 2010 turtle season.

Visitors will see the barrier we have built to keep the lagoon from flooding into the sea again, though we realize that it is not a guarantee against extreme conditions.

A big advance in the last five years is the concept of ‘field assistants’. Each year we recruit 8 to 10 young people as volunteers to work in the Reserve as assistants to the two biologists, in patrolling the beach, gathering the data from the nesting Leatherback and Green turtles and from the nests when they hatch. They also supervise various recent initiatives such as recycling, growing organic vegetables and working with the small Pacuare community whom we encourage to make handicrafts and grow produce for the Reserve. They are from all nationalities and usually have a background in biology or related subjects, but this is not necessary.    (More info. and ‘How to apply to be a Field Assistant’ is included in Work Opportunities).

The area of the Reserve remained at 800 hectares until 2008 when Rainforest Concern, a charity founded and run by Peter Bennett, kindly raised the funds to enable us to buy 250 hectares of land on the other side of the Tortuguero Canal to act as a valuable buffer zone against the advancing banana plantations. We continue our close association with Rainforest Concern which dates back to the early nineties.

In 2010 we acquired a valuable addition to the workforce. John’s wife, Hilda, retired from her professional career in order to devote her time and energy to the Reserve. We already see the results in several new initiatives.

There have been many changes and good progress since 1989. Year by year we see more animals in the forest, poaching on the beach is minimal and we have more visitors coming   to enjoy the reserve. We aim to continue the good work.

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The First House

The First House

Building the Casa Grande, 1992

Building the Casa Grande, 1992

A sloth joins volunteers, 1995

A sloth joins volunteers, 1995

With the beach washed away, in came the sea, 2009

With the beach washed away, in came the sea, 2009

We almost lost the Casa Grande, 2009

We almost lost the Casa Grande, 2009

After the flooding

After the flooding