Costa-Rica part two- Jungle hunter

The small grey-green snake, curled about a frail sapling, bending under its weight, warmed its coils in the splash of hot sun piercing the jungle canopy. Steam rose from the ground around, so recently saturated by a tropical downpour. I stepped forward to get a better look, fumbling with my fogged up camera, as our Carib guide, frantic with concern, ordered our mixed group of trekkers and tourists to keep our distance. We edged past the reptile, slipping and staggering on the flooded path, the surrounding foliage denying our flailing search for support with fierce spines and crumbling bark. This little snake, given so much respect, was an 'eyelash viper', whose bite gave death within two hours. We were on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in the Tortuguero jungle reserve, and four hours from medical help.

Soaked through, and standing up to our calves in muddy water, we slowly became aware of the forest coming to life around us, warmed and cheered by the re-appearance of the equatorial afternoon sun. A myriad of birds, high in the canopy above, gave full cry to their exotic calls, occasionally appearing as flashes of coloured movement as we craned our necks skyward. Spider monkeys shouted and argued all around, hurling themselves from tree to tree in pursuit of each other. At our feet, the shocked calls of seemingly startled frogs punctuated the harsh rhythmic rasping of myriads of cicada, and right in our ears, the base drone and zipping high pitched whine of countless mosquitoes contributed to the vibrant living sound of the jungle.

George, our Mawamba lodge guide, had promised me 'turtel' in our treks into the jungle, and, nearly oblivious to the wonders above me in the dense green canopy, I scanned the muddy, pool strewn ground minutely on either side of the path as we wove our erratic way through the giant trees. I paused, not for the first time, and peered intently at yet another humped shape at the side of a shallow pond, seen through the dense ground cover. The anti-malarial pills I was taking had a known side effect- temporarily reducing distance vision, and, my face screwed up with concentration, I fought the haze to identify what I was seeing. My wife, close behind, followed my gaze. The lump/rock/shape seemed to have an appendage, dark with striped patterning. As we watched, this appendage made a small, but typical movement- the head turn of a water turtle on watch, and suddenly millions of years of camouflage evolution had come to naught for this little fellow. I reached into my rucksack for my camera, already fitted with a massive 600mm mirror telephoto lens, and raised it slowly to my eye with all of the deadly concentration of a sniper. Those few seconds between bag and eye was all it took however for moisture to form on the glass lens, and my quarry vanished into an impenetrable mist. Frustrated, I quickly dismantled, wiped and dried the affected surfaces, juggling with them desperately above the muddy forest floor, whilst at the same time attempting to cautiously edge closer to my target, manoeuvring myself awkwardly through the ooze for a clearer view. A sequence of shaky, foggy and distant photos followed in the next few minutes as I edged through the trees, until, triggered by some unseen signal, this little turtle flipped into the water with a gymnast's grace and speed, vanishing immediately. George, the guide, arrived at that moment. No-one else had seen our turtle, and our mumbled claims of the sighting seemed embarrassingly weak. George assured me ebulliently once again that it would be he who would find me 'turtel', and chastened, we followed him back onto the path.

The problem is that the turtle, whether land or water based, is a past master of disguise. Every leaf lying on the forest floor has the characteristic shape and dorsal keel of a chelonian, making any discovery a matter of chance. I ruminated upon this, and other injustices in life as I scanned the vast area of leaf litter and other natural ground cover within view, whilst weaving our way through a magnificent primeval jungle which enticed us to do rather more than look down at our feet. Perhaps this is why the other dozen members of our party walked past and stepped over the little animal sitting at the edge of the visible track. My wife and I halted however, both near mute with disbelief. There was a moment of paralysis, and then I quickly stooped, and seized the little creature, breaking the spell. I triumphantly held up in my hand a juvenile wood turtle, probably Rhinoclemys funerea, about 8cm in length. My wife, her voice high pitched with excitement, called back the others, and this time there was no mistaking our find. I examined the turtle, as it was being photographed by all in sundry for posterity. With its black carapace, rough edged and sharply keeled, it was a wonder that we saw it at all. Its limbs, grey with darker speckling added to the camouflage, as did its narrow head and neck, which was orange striped and darkly patterned. Underneath, the bright yellow plastron was centrally patterned with bright orange, as vivid as any orchid. Our short time intruding into this creature's life soon however came to an end, and I released it back to its muddy and littered jungle floor, where it quickly, and rather unsteadily attempted to make itself scarce. We ourselves moved off awkwardly along the narrow path, in danger of plunging unsteadily into the undergrowth at every slippery step. The discomfort, for me, however was forgotten.

At Tortuguero, owing to the flooded aspect of the terrain, much of the transport was by small boat. Indeed, the village itself could only be accessed in this manner. Consequently, much of the wildlife observation was done from a boat, creeping gently and quietly through the narrow channels, overhung with the mossy boughs of ancient trees. The guides, sharp-eyed as hawks, could be guaranteed to keep our excitement levels up. At any moment, a sudden change in course, or the boat motor shifted into reverse would warn us of a sighting, and following the direction of his stare, we would peer at the jungle, straining to be first to spot the object of his attention. Snake? Bird? Reptile? primate? Few guides however, bothered to make much of a fuss over the occasional basking river turtle. The tales of our exploits on the beach with the sea turtles had spread amongst the other tourists however, as had our encounter with the little wood turtle amongst the guides.

One afternoon, three Mawamba lodge boats out cruising together responded to the usual call of a sighting. At the back of the middle boat, I would have to wait until the guide had manoeuvred us around before I could see in the direction indicated. Calls from the front boat were taken up by ours, and everyone seemed more interested in my wife and myself than the jungle. The 'Yanks' in the boats had found the 'crazy Brits' a turtle, and as we cruised right into the jungle verge, there he was, a large semi-aquatic turtle of the Rhinoclemys family, sunbathing on a log, and looking horrified at the attention being paid to him. Adding to the slightly surreal atmosphere, he remained still, as we glided right up to him, cameras flashing in the gloom. Only his eye moved, looking around at himself, checking his camouflage, convincing himself perhaps that we could not see him. I shot off a whole film, and, finally satiated, I looked back at the third boat, raising my camera in triumph to George, their guide. His white teeth shone in reply. I had bagged my 'turtel'.

Paul Coleman