The country that is inspiring conservationists all over the world with its vast network of wildlife corridors
In a humid rainforest moistened by Pacific currents, Canadian photographer Nick Hawkins sits cross-legged amid tangled vines, his form concealed by a massive tree trunk thrusting skyward. Unseen in the soaring forest canopy, an avian orchestra flutes and frets. Hawkins is entranced by a family of white-nosed coati – bushy-tailed, long-snouted mammals with extravagant white mascara – rootling in leaf litter. “Being in Cabo Blanco Reserve feels like travelling back in time,” he grins. “It hums with natural energy.”
Hawkins spent five months documenting the radical efforts of Costa Rican conservationists to future-proof their protected-areas system against the stresses imposed by a burgeoning human population and changing climate. Their solution? To join the dots of the country’s many reserves using biological corridors.
Revered for its wildlife riches, Costa Rica is one of the world’s top destinations for ecotourism. Bernal Herrera-Fernández, vice-president of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, points out that despite covering barely one-third of 1 per cent of Earth’s landmass, this relatively small Central American state harbours 5 per cent of global biodiversity. An estimated half-a-million species cram into an area just two-thirds the size of Scotland. “Costa Rica also plays a hugely significant role in connecting the flora and fauna of North and South America,” Herrera adds.
The diversity of butterflies here is 20 times higher than in Britain, and there are 30 times more reptiles and amphibians. The mammal list edges towards 250 species, and upwards of 600 bird species are resident. It’s no wonder that Costa Rica enjoys a worldwide reputation for its astonishing biodiversity, as well as for setting the pace environmentally – its record puts many wealthier nations to shame.
The UK’s influential New Economics Foundation think tank rates Costa Rica as the world’s “greenest and happiest” country. The evidence is persuasive. Costa Rica generates 90 per cent of its electricity needs from renewable sources, a quarter of its land is in protected areas and it has been a frontrunner in sourcing international finance for conservation.
Yet even within a country as foresighted as this, wildlife is under threat. Its most famous amphibian – the golden toad – disappeared in 1989 and is presumed extinct. IUCN experts have catalogued more than 300 Costa Rican animals threatening to follow suit, from the iconic resplendent quetzal to Geoffroy’s spider monkey.
As ever, Homo sapiens is to blame. A growing human population is encroaching on land surrounding reserves, destroying habitat to make room for subsistence crops, ranches and commercial monoculture. Costa Rica’s protected forests have increasingly become dispersed fragments – arks drifting amid a sea of deforestation.
CHAINS OF HABITAT
Jan Schipper, a mammal expert at Arizona State University, has worked in almost every national park in Costa Rica. Like many conservationists, he became concerned that its much-lauded tropical rainforests were shrinking to spots on a map. “The more fragmented a forest, the closer the outside world gropes towards the animals clinging on there. Those that live solely in trees become locked in. No shy, self-respecting forest primate will ever descend to the ground and cross open pasture to reach another forest.”
Luis Mena of SINAC – Costa Rica’s National System of Conservation Areas – agrees, adding: “Conserving biodiversity is really difficult without connectivity between blocks of habitat, without education and without economic activities that are non-destructive.”
The turning point came in 1997, when Central
American presidents signed an agreement to consolidate a Mesoamerican Biological Corridor stretching from Mexico to Panama. Costa Rica – one of the most stable countries in a region beset by political strife – was among the first to seize the initiative. Under the auspices of SINAC, Costa Rica’s programme of biological corridors hatched in 2006.
To illustrate how corridors work in practice, Paco Madrigal, a naturalist and tourist guide, points to fruiteating birds. “Rainforest trees fruit at different times at different altitudes, according to a cycle, so corridors help specialist frugivores such as the spectacular barenecked umbrellabird and three-wattled bellbird to access food year-round. The chain of habitat enables these birds to visit multiple isolated forest reserves that might not otherwise be able to support them.”
Schipper adds, “By allowing breeding adults and dispersing juveniles to move around, corridors add genetic diversity to peripheral populations lying at the edge of a species’ range, which might otherwise go extinct. Corridors also increase the habitable area available to animals that need large territories, such as jaguars and harpy eagles. And they can help some species relocate to areas with different ecological conditions – such as cooler higher elevations – which gives them more chance of coping with climate change.”
It is this resilience to climate change that caught the attention of GIZ, an offshoot of the German government that funds international development, which is supporting Costa Rica’s corridor programme. “While important, the existing system of protected areas in the country is not enough,” says GIZ biologist Michael Schlönvoigt. “To be sure of preserving biodiversity in the face of a changing climate, we have to massively expand our ambition.”
SINAC has now defined 36 corridors covering roughly a third of the country, including one on the Nicoya Peninsula where most of the photographs on these pages were taken. A chunky protrusion into the Pacific, Nicoya is referred to as Costa Rica’s ‘thumb’ and exerts a special hold on the affections of local conservationists. Its largest protected area, Cabo Blanco, was also the country’s first: the rugged
"AS THEIR BENIFITS REACH MORE PEOPLE, THE CORRIDORS HELP DEMONSTRATE THAT NATURAL HERITAGE IS WORTH SAVING."
coastal rainforest reserve turned 50 in 2013.
María Teresa Cerdas is in charge of the Nicoya Corridor. “This peninsula once supported a whole range of tropical forest types, from the deciduous and coastal to the damp and sub-montane,” she says. “Most of the forest has been destroyed or degraded. But now with the corridor project we aim to reconnect more than 10 protected areas in state, private or mixed ownership.”
There’s no doubting the Nicoya Peninsula’s importance for wildlife. “We have 26 species of amphibian here, plus 43 different reptiles,” says Cerdas. “Our 72 mammals include an impressive array of top predators, including jaguars, pumas, ocelots and Neotropical river otters.”
But there are also about 20,000 people here. “Many locals depend on the land to eke out a living,” Cerdas says. “Cattle-ranching remains the most important source of income. Less than half of the corridor has any form of formal protection, and many parts suffer a litany of environmental problems, from fires to unplanned tourism and urban expansion, hunting, overfishing and the contamination of water supplies by pesticides.”
Both Cerdas and Luis Mena, who chairs the Nicoya project’s local advisory group, are clear that the project can only succeed by putting local people at its heart. Mena explains: “We strive not for ‘pure conservation’, if such a thing exists, but for sustainable resource use
that improves livelihoods in local communities without destroying the forest. A good example is apiculture using native bee species.”
This people-first philosophy informs the overall national programme, which requires that “society shares equitably in the conservation benefits of the corridors”. This is only realistic, says Jan Schipper: “People will not change unless you make it worth their while. Put simply, money talks. Conservationists must convince campesinos [farmers] not to succumb to the multinational pineapple industry. Instead we must facilitate a market for jaguar-friendly crops such as shade-grown coffee, and pay people for environmental services such as preserving forest or planting native trees.”
PEOPLE WILL NOT CHANGE UNLESS YOU MAKE IT WORTH THIER WHILE. PUT SIMPLY, MONEY TALKS."
The more local communities are involved, Schipper argues, the higher the chances of long-term success. “To have a functional biological corridor you need good management, an open-minded community, incentives and local leadership. Often this battle for hearts and minds starts with children in schools and then trickles upwards… being shamed by your kids for shooting a jaguar is a more effective deterrent than being arrested.”
Cerdas agrees with the importance of educating children about the environment. “We hold wildlife fairs and camp out with the kids, teaching them to count birds, how to manage their rubbish and so on.” It’s a familiar story: get the next generation on side or your conservation achievements won’t last long.
Cerdas is particularly proud of new social enterprises on the Nicoya Peninsula. “Our aim is to help local producers access Europe’s organic markets, so that they get paid to retain forests in the area,” she says. Meanwhile Mena cites community fire brigades as evidence of local people taking responsibility for ‘their’ forests.
Nicoya’s wildlife is reaping the benefit. Mena rattles off a list of charismatic species seen on the peninsula much more frequently than a decade ago: “The red-eyed treefrog, collared peccary, Neotropical river otter, northern ghost bat, king vulture, great curassow… all are much easier to spot nowadays.” Indeed great curassows have so far spread 70km from their stronghold in Cabo Blanco Reserve, taking advantage of the regenerating vegetation in the corridor to disperse.
This optimistic assessment is backed up by Robert Timm, a University of Kansas mammalogist who has worked at Cabo Blanco for 15 years. “Populations of many mammals seem to be increasing. Take northern tamanduas – these striking, medium-sized anteaters are more numerous here than anywhere else in Costa Rica.”
BACK FROM THE BRINK
Similar success stories are being reported in the country’s other biological corridors. Madrigal observes that numbers of the great green macaw, an Endangered species with probably no more than 200 individuals in Costa Rica, have stabilised since the creation of the San Juan–La Selva Corridor in the north-east of the country. “When I started guiding birdwatchers 30 years ago, we rarely saw macaws. Now most groups find them easily.”
As the benefits of the corridor programme reach more people, they help to demonstrate that natural heritage is worth saving; the decline in the country’s forested area has already been reversed. The IUCN’s Herrera suggests that this positive experience is now inspiring the rest of Latin America. “Several countries have adopted Costa Rica’s model to promote habitat connectivity and create new opportunities for community engagement,” he says.
Nevertheless biological corridors are far from a silver bullet for conservationists. There is some evidence of unintended consequences, such as facilitating poaching and exacerbating the spread of invasive alien species. Funds are often limited: Cerdas regrets that demand for financial incentives to conserve forest far outstrips supply. “Some interested landowners wait years for payment,” she sighs. And development pressure doesn’t go away. Timm says that a new highway bisecting the San Juan–La Selva Corridor is a catastrophe.
And yet. If a country with a population of under five million and a GDP of not quite $50 billion in 2013 – compared with the UK’s $2.7 trillion – can push ahead with a programme as ambitious as this, perhaps the rest of us need to ask ourselves if our own landscape-scale conservation goes nearly far enough.
ABOVE: Wildlife corridors enable apex predators with big home ranges, such as this Neotropical river otter, to colonise new areas
TOP: Costa Rican forests support an impressive variety of cats, including ocelots
ABOVE: half of all visitors to the country will go wildlife watching during their stay
TOP: The Nicoya Peninsula wildlife corridor is a haven for the white-nosed coati (above left) ABOVE RIGHT: Three-wattled bellbird BELOW: Orangebarred sulphur butterfly
JAMES LOWEN is a naturalist and author who studied the lekking displays of long-tailed manakins in Costa Rica in the 1990s
ABOVE AND BELOW RIGHT: Wildlife corridors have boosted numbers of the northern tamandua and great curassow ABOVE RIGHT: Local education is a key part of corridor programmes