The coun­try that is in­spir­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists all over the world with its vast network of wildlife cor­ri­dors

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Front Page - PHO­TOS BY NICK HAWKINS

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.


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


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.”


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.”


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

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