Death in the Rainforest – by Jack Ewing

In the rainforest death is simply another step in the endless cycle of life. Sooner or later every living thing dies and becomes food for some other living thing. In fact individual deaths often tend to make the species healthier. This brings to mind the following story as it was printed in Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate.

A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted by wolves and mountain lions, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members.

This natural culling process affects all living things. Baby sloths sometimes tumble from the tops of tall trees. Sometimes they die, but often they suffer little or no damage from the fall. At Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, we occasionally find a young sloth on the ground and its mother high in the treetops. Even though unharmed from the fall these infants are doomed. If they don’t fall prey to a predator or scavenger, starvation comes quickly. The interesting thing is that the mother sloth makes no attempt to rescue her baby, even when humans intervene and try to return it to her. The mothering instinct has its limits where species survival is at stake. What the female is really saying to her young is, “Sorry kid; you know the rules. Sloths have to be able to hold tight. If you can’t hang on, get your butt out of our gene pool.”

All living things are subject to this dynamic, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, plants, bacteria, and molds. It is often called “survival of the fittest” or “natural selection.” Human technology has allowed us to bypass the immediate effects. Among other things this has allowed us to live longer and enjoy life more. It has also made us dependent on modern medicine for our survival as a species.

As brutal as it sounds, a 100 years ago a woman with hips too narrow to give birth naturally would have died during childbirth and the genetic characteristic of narrow hips would not have been passed on to future generations. Modern medicine, however, bypasses nature’s natural selection with the C-section. The woman is able to have her baby and everybody is happy. Some of her children will inherit her genes for narrow hips and the trait will pass on to future generations.

Several years ago we had an over population of coatis and raccoons in the area around Dominical and Hacienda Baru. The problem started when a fruit stand near the Barú River started discarding damaged fruit in the grass and weeds behind the stand. The coatis and raccoons got in the habit of going there to eat. Soon they were taking bananas out of people’s hands. These charismatic mammals became a roadside attraction. People were buying lots of bananas to feed to the animals. Banana sales skyrocketed and so did the coati and raccoon populations. These wild animals were no longer wild. They stopped hunting for their natural food in the forest and just hung around the fruit stand, human dwellings, and the roadside where they begged for food. One evening I was sitting in the Hacienda Barú restaurant with some friends, and a raccoon walked in, climbed onto the counter, grabbed a package of cup cakes off the rack, and made its escape. We had to fortify the kitchen area with wire mesh to keep them out. Eventually Mother Nature took a hand in the matter. The coatis and raccoons came down with a severe mange, and their hair started falling out in big patches. The weaker ones died. About the same time we started seeing pumas on and around Hacienda Barú, and these large predators prefer coatis and raccoons to any other prey. The weakened population of these semi-domesticated mammals were an easy meal for the big cats. The population crashed. The only ones to survive were the smartest, toughest, wildest animals, the ones who had never succumbed to the temptation to accept a free hand out. Today we still have all three species, pumas, coatis, and raccoons. The point is that those who survived were the genetically superior individuals, and the deaths of their weaker companions contributed to the general health of the entire population.

Every day bird watchers and ecotourists visit Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge. What these nature lovers find is a healthy natural ecosystem. We protect the habitat and allow Mother Nature to deal with the multitude of species in her own way. She does a much better job of it than we ever could.