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Tech to recover rainforest: Interview with Osa Conservation’s Carolina Pinto & Paulina Rodriguez

A Geoffroy's spider monkey

A Geoffroy's spider monkey, one of the spider monkeys found in Costa Rica. Image by Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  • Osa Conservation is a nonprofit organization working to monitor and protect biodiversity in the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.
  • The peninsula is home to plants and animals seen nowhere else on the planet, and is estimated to harbor 2.5% of the global terrestrial biodiversity.
  • The organization uses a wide array of tech tools — from camera traps to acoustic recorders and GPS tags — to study, monitor and protect animals such as sea turtles, jaguars and spider monkeys.
  • However, the harsh terrain, weak internet connectivity and the remote nature of the ecosystem are proving to be hurdles to quicker and more efficient deployment of tech tools.

For Carolina Pinto and Paulina Rodriguez, the story of the Osa Peninsula embodies one of hope.

The diverse rainforest ecosystem in Costa Rica, home to plants and animals seen nowhere else on the planet, had been subjected to destruction and deforestation for decades. But since the 1970s, Rodriguez says, the peninsula has seen a slow and gradual recovery.

“We had seen destruction a long time ago, and now they’re forests. It’s a great example that it’s possible to have recovery,” Paulina Rodriguez, the conservation technology strategist at the nonprofit Osa Conservation, tells Mongabay in a video interview. Pinto, the organization’s wildlife conservation manager, nods in agreement.

The Osa Peninsula is a unique ecosystem where the rainforest meets the Pacific Ocean. A favorite among researchers and tourists alike, this small strip of land, spanning about 1,800 square kilometers (700 square miles), is estimated to be home to 2.5% of global terrestrial biodiversity.

In a bid to protect and monitor the ecosystem better, Pinto, Rodriguez and their team members have been working to gather more data that will inform and improve their conservation strategies. Over the years, they’ve used a wide array of technology, ranging from camera traps and acoustic recorders, to thermal drones and GPS tags, to track, trace and monitor animals including sea turtles, tapirs, jaguars and spider monkeys.

“It’s not just about using the tech, but also evaluating if it has been successful or not and then seeing how we can improve them,” Pinto says.

Osa Conservation uses a wide range of tech tools, from camera traps to acoustic monitoring, to monitor biodiversity in the Osa Peninsula.
Osa Conservation uses a wide range of tech tools, from camera traps to acoustic monitoring, to monitor biodiversity in the Osa Peninsula. Image courtesy of Luca Eberle.

Paulina Rodriguez and Carolina Pinto spoke with Mongabay’s Abhishyant Kidangoor about the tools in their kit, the challenges of using technology in a humid and remote environment, and the lessons other organizations can learn from their experiences. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: To start with, could you briefly describe the work you are doing at Osa Conservation?

Carolina Pinto: What we are doing is trying to create a resilient corridor to protect and restore wildlife in the Osa. We also want to connect the Osa with the rest of the continent. We are really interested in the impact that climate change will have on wildlife and all the species in the tropical rainforest. So it’s important to have connectivity between the lowlands and the highlands, from the Osa Peninsula to the Talamanca Mountain covering a range from zero meters to 3,000 meters [9,800 feet]. The idea is to have a resilient landscape, so that in case something changes which affects not only the weather but probably also the land cover, we have this connectivity for animals, in case they need to move. To achieve that, we do restoration, and we work with education.

Paulina Rodriguez: Our model of preservation is also about working with people. For example, in higher elevations, we work with the farmers. We don’t buy lands like other conservation models. So it’s the people that are actually doing the work, guided by us, of doing these restoration efforts and creating a healthy corridor in this elevation gradient.

Mongabay: Could you explain to me what makes the Osa Peninsula an important ecosystem?

Carolina Pinto: Firstly, it’s very beautiful. You will see a lot of primary rainforest, but we also have secondary forests that have recovered over the past 70 years. It looks healthy and really looks like an old-growth forest. What makes it so rich is that we have a wetland. From the Osa, we have some elevation gradient. It’s quite unique because for the small territory that we are, it has very high biodiversity. The amount of species for a very small area, it’s very intense.


Mongabay: What are some of the threats that this ecosystem faces?

Carolina Pinto: We are still facing illegal hunting here in Costa Rica. It’s illegal to hunt but it’s very attached to people and is part of their culture. So it’s very difficult to change. We have been working on changing people’s mindset, but it’s a slow process. It’s been improving. But it’s still a problem.

Paulina Rodriguez: Another issue is the limited capacity that the government has. The only institution that can actually manage national parks and national protected areas is the government. But they have limited capacity because they have limited funds, limited people and limited rangers.

Carolina Pinto: Then we have the problem of habitat loss and fragmentation due to different land uses and also due to roads. Some species need big areas of forest to be able to survive. In the case of the jaguar [Panthera onca], for example, they are now restricted to a national park that we have here in the Osa, and then they are in another part in the highland. In between, there is no other place for them. We don’t have enough forest cover for them to survive. In fact, the Osa Peninsula has been showing, across time, recovery in several spaces. But we are still fighting this threat because the species needs bigger areas. They are also being more critically pressed by hunting activities.

Another issue is that we don’t have enough data. We need to act, but we don’t have the data to know where to do it. While we are working a lot with technology and can collect as much data as we can, how can we know where the most critical place is? It’s always the problem of resource limits. We will have just these resources, in terms of equipment and in terms of people because we are an NGO. So it’s not that we have unlimited resources.

Mongabay: When did your organization start using technology in your work? What prompted it?

Carolina Pinto: It started little by little. In the first year of the organization, I think they had eight camera traps and they were working just with that. Now, with time, we have grown as an organization. I will say we have grown a lot in the past four years. We also have been in contact with other institutions and organizations. So we have inputs from [conservationists in] other parts of the world that are coming here as well because they know the problems we’re facing and they want to put technology to work in places where it is needed. The main thing that we want is biodiversity data, but we are also very interested in how we can decrease the impact of hunting. That includes knowing the places that we need to go to put a camera trap and monitor in real time.

Team members from Osa Conservation check camera trap images to detect species and monitor their behavior.
Team members from Osa Conservation check camera trap images to detect species and monitor their behavior. Image courtesy of Luca Eberle.

Mongabay: There seems to be a wide array of technology in your toolkit now. Could you explain to me what you use the most?

Paulina Rodriguez: The most widely used technology, I think, is the camera traps. When I started working with the organization, they were already using them and had a network of camera traps. I started using acoustic devices. In the past two years, we have used it more and more. We also have drones. We did some tests with them to find the roosting patterns of spider monkeys [Ateles geoffroyi]. We also did some tests to detect fires close to rivers, like campfires by hunters, to see if they were possible to be detected. We did tests to see if it was possible to detect sea turtles that are laying eggs. That now has been expanded to test with sea turtles in the North Pacific, to help organizations that work in areas where they have massive nesting events.

Carolina Pinto: Thousands of sea turtles arrive into a beach which is like 700 kilometers of beach. There are so many turtles that I can’t even count them. So they are using this technology now to see if they can make better estimations using drones. We have the thermal drone project with our sea turtles and with fires trying to see if that technology will be useful to detect hunters who are camping close to rivers at night. With sea turtle monitoring, the drones were able to see turtles that people doing the patrols weren’t able to see. Sea turtles nest during the night, and that’s why we use a thermal drone. We see the differences in temperature between the sea turtle and the sand. That’s super cool, and we weren’t sure that was going to work.

Paulina Rodriguez: In the Caribbean, it’s pretty dangerous to patrol the beaches because there’s a lot of poachers. Here in the Pacific area, it’s not that dangerous. So it’s a tool that can be used there more to do patrols without risking people.

Mongabay: Could you tell me a little bit more about how you have used camera traps in your work?

Paulina Rodriguez: In the last few years, we have been using camera traps not only on the ground, but also under the canopy. We thought that was also important because there are not just terrestrial animals, but also arboreal mammals.

Carolina Pinto: We have also been trying this exciting thing that we have been testing in the past two months. Conservation X Labs left us with 16 cameras. So far, we have installed 13 because we wanted to leave some so that in case some are broken, we can replace them. Basically, it’s a system that transforms a normal camera trap to a real-time one. It has an algorithm trained in it. So they can automatically identify species and they can also automatically identify people. So we receive information in the EarthRanger platform about what was detected. It’s quite interesting. We now need to test if the identifications that we are receiving are right or not.

A Geoffroy's spider monkey
Osa Conservation has conducted tests with drones to find the roosting patterns of spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi). Image by Matthew Paulson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: I read about how you are working to develop one of the world’s smallest camera traps. How is that going? What prompted you to do that?

Paulina Rodriguez: That’s still in progress. We have done two tests and now we’re waiting for the next prototype from the engineer. He has been to the campus twice. The first one was to test the camera that he created in the U.S. We needed to test connectivity, and test if the materials were strong enough to survive in the heavy rainy season and changes of temperature here. The first prototype didn’t work as expected. But it happens. It’s always happening with technology that is built in temperate areas, and then goes into the tropics. The next prototype was improved with connectivity, and the materials were also tested. But they have long cables that got bitten by ants and squirrels.

The purpose was to create something different: a camera trap or a field camera that is able to survive outdoors but in a different shape and size. So the idea was to have something different that people cannot see, and also animals cannot move.

Carolina Pinto: The main thing is to avoid them being stolen by hunters, that they’re not going to be seen and they will work in real time so that we can act immediately.

Mongabay: Is there anything you would like to add about the other pieces of tech you use in your work?

Carolina Pinto: We use a lot of free apps on our phones. It’s a very basic technology, but everyone has availability to it and that makes it important. We all, kind of, have a computer in our hands. We can collect a lot of data with that kind of technology. So we have been working with the EarthRanger app for our volunteer rangers and people who are volunteering to patrol for free in different places in the Osa. With those communities helping us, we have also been working with iNaturalist, another app which is focusing on monitoring. We have also been using eBird for people that are more interested in birds.

Ecotourism is very important in the Osa. It’s part of the development and it’s a way to promote the protection of wildlife and, at the same time, promote the economy. Because we cannot just tell people to not hunt. They need to have economic activity. So it’s very important to make them understand that those animals are very important to be kept alive. So it’s a part of this sensitization process as well and making people more aware.

Paulina Rodriguez: For me, too, the apps are important because we cannot do this by ourselves. Local communities are part of this, and we can actually have people being actively involved. If not, we’re going to be alone in trying to do it, and the people will undo what we’re trying to do. So it’s going to be an endless cycle.

Legally, we cannot manage any area but we can start putting all the information together and can share all these metrics with national authorities who can do something. So it’s also a way to have evidence and say, “Hey, we have seen that in this area. This is happening.”

Where the Aguajitas River meets Osa Peninsula's Drake Bay on the Pacific side.
Where the Aguajitas River meets Osa Peninsula’s Drake Bay on the Pacific side. Image by Trish Hartmann via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: According to you, what are some of the challenges and downsides of using technology though?

Carolina Pinto: The problem with technology that we face is the environment. It’s really hard. Even for people who come from another country, they’re not used to this high temperature and high humidity. Electronic devices have the same issue because it gets too wet. They have to put them in a dry room and only some of them recover. When we bring new technology here, it’s a whole thing to put them to work in this environment. Then there is the problem of getting information in real time because of the problem with the signal.

Mongabay: What’s in the works for upcoming months?

Paulina Rodriguez: We want to start collaring wildcats to understand their movements, but we know that takes time. There are also tapirs [Tapirus bairdii] that we want to have more information on.

Carolina Pinto: The wildcats are going to be super challenging because part of the goal is to be able to put collars on jaguars. It’s a big challenge. But it’s very important to understand what is going on with this particular species to protect them. We will also be collaring pumas [Puma concolor].

We also want to start using the kind of GPS device that also comes with a camera so we can really know what is going on. Sometimes with the movement, we can’t tell what the animal is really doing or what is actually happening. Sometimes they happen to spend a lot of time in a specific place and we don’t know what was going on. We could guess that it was hiding or it was resting, but we don’t know. Having cameras with GPS will give us more detailed information to understand the species to act and protect them.

Paulina Rodriguez: Right now, we also have acoustic devices out there. We have our arboreal bridges to connect species, but two species of monkeys are not using it yet. We want to see why that is happening. Is there something in the design that they don’t like? So we have the acoustic device, and we want to collect them and start analyzing that data in the next six months.

The team at Osa Conservation is planning to analyze audio data to understand why two species of monkeys are not using an arboreal bridge they built.
The team at Osa Conservation is planning to analyze audio data to understand why two species of monkeys are not using an arboreal bridge they built. Image courtesy of Luca Eberle.

Mongabay: What have been the biggest learning experiences from using a wide range of tools in this difficult environment?

Carolina Pinto: What attracted me when I was looking for this position is that it looked amazing because it was about working with technology and putting technology to work. But because we are in a big area, we have a lot of data. So we need to figure out how to make it more efficient, how to process everything as best as we can, and how to reduce the amount of money and time that you need to invest. It’s not just about using the tech, but also evaluating if it has been successful or not. If they’re not being successful, then we need to see how we improve them. We are trying to do it constantly. It’s not like we just put the structures and then we leave.

Paulina Rodriguez: Having a science-based approach and evaluating, depending on the project, every three months or six months or every year or two years, it is important to evaluate and make decisions if it is working or not. It’s important to have in mind that anything that works in the dry season may not work in the rainy season, or the opposite.

Mongabay: What would you like other conservation organizations to learn from your experience and work?

Paulina Rodriguez: The magic of Osa Peninsula is that it has been changed by the local people in the past, since the ’30s. There was a lot of destruction from the ’30s to ’70s in terms of more forest reduction. From the ’70s to now, it has been recovering because people started caring more. What people used to know as pastures are now forests. Our story is completely different from what is happening in the Amazon. So we had destruction a long time ago, and now they’re forests. It’s an example that it’s possible to have that recovery.

Banner image: A Geoffroy’s spider monkey, one of the spider monkeys found in Costa Rica. Image by Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Abhishyant Kidangoor is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @AbhishyantPK.

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Friedlander, A. M., Ballesteros, E., Breedy, O., Naranjo-Elizondo, B., Hernández, N., Salinas-de-León, P., … Cortés, J. (2022). Nearshore marine biodiversity of Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica: Where the ocean meets the rainforest. PLOS ONE, 17(7), e0271731. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0271731

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