Why Costa Rica Is A Really Great Place To Be A Wild Animal

The small Central American nation is showing the world how nature conservation is done.

From the pavilion of the Toucan Rescue Ranch on the outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica, tourists can sip coffee and contemplate a cornucopia of abuse. The leafy green sanctuary is filled with about 200 injured and rescued wild animals. There’s a spider monkey whose previous owner cut off part of its tail so it couldn’t get around as easily and another who had been tied to a tree with a chain. There’s a baby sloth rescued from someone who thought it would be a great plaything for her children (for the record: it wasn’t).

On a recent afternoon, one could hear the distinct chirping of a black-faced solitaire, one of 11 songbirds confiscated by wildlife officers from “horrible, disgusting cages” in a home about 50 kilometers east of San Jose, where they were likely being held for illegal sale, according to the ranch’s co-founder, Leslie Howle. Endemic to Costa Rica and Panama, the black-faced solitaire is prized by collectors who will pay about $700 for one because each has a different song based on the region where it lives. “That’s why collectors collect them,’’ explained Howle, an American by birth who lives in Costa Rica. “They want to have one that makes the bell sound and one that has the squeaky door sound.”

Howle, who grew up in Costa Rica, returned after having a midlife crisis, and in 2004 opened the rescue ranch, fulfilling a lifelong dream of running a refuge for wild birds. Her success caught the attention of wildlife officials, who began bringing her all kinds of rescued animals, at a time when the country was strengthening rules to protect wildlife and preserve habitat. Hers is one of a network of conservation nonprofits the government relies on to meet its ambitious commitments to protect biodiversity.

As a global extinction crisis grips the world, Costa Rica has answered nature’s cry by enacting detailed and targeted regulations to limit how humans interact with the nation’s richest assets, from singing birds to slow-moving sloths, leaping monkeys, and the verdant wilderness that is their home. Incorporating efforts by multiple government agencies, NGOs, private landowners and local communities, Costa Rica’s strict animal protection laws and comprehensive land conservation strategies have made it a model of what a country can do to reverse devastating trends and build a promising future for nature.

Toucan Rescue Ranch started as a refuge for birds, but now houses roughly 200 rescued animals, including sloths and monkeys.
Toucan Rescue Ranch started as a refuge for birds, but now houses roughly 200 rescued animals, including sloths and monkeys.
Sean Graesser

“It has definitely been an example to the world,” said Zdenka Piskulich, the executive director of the nonprofit Forever Costa Rica Association, which works with the government to help meet the country’s commitments under the United Nations’ 1992 global Convention on Biological Diversity — a key driver of the nation’s conservation efforts. (The U.S. signed the agreement, along with nearly 200 other countries, but never ratified it.)

Costa Rica’s attention to wildlife makes sense, culturally and financially. The Central American country of about 5 million people has some of the richest biodiversity on the planet. Slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia, the tropical nation has only 0.03% of the Earth’s surface area but hosts more than 5% of all known plant and animal species, according to Forever Costa Rica.

Straddling the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, it’s made up of rainforests, dry forests, mountaintop cloud forests, mangroves and wetlands containing more than 250 species of mammals (14 threatened with extinction in Costa Rica), over 100 bat species, more than 900 species of birds, and well over 1,000 different orchids. There are rare animals that occur nowhere else, such as the endangered variable harlequin frog once common in Costa Rica and Panama and the Cocos finch, found only on an island by the same name.

More than 3 million visitors traveled to Costa Rica last year, many to tour the nation’s extensive national parks and reserves. Eco-tourism there is a $3.8 billion per year industry, according to Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, the country’s minister of environment and energy and a former vice president at the nonprofit Conservation International.

It hasn’t always been this way. After decades of deforestation for agriculture, Costa Rica became a patchwork of forest pimples by the 1980s. But it began building a massive park system that — after 40 years of consolidation — now covers 27.6% of the country’s landmass as a protected area, compared to 13% in the United States, according to the World Bank. Many politicians and successive regimes worked with nonprofits to achieve such a massive reversal of deforestation, recognizing the value of Costa Rica’s sizable natural resources.

A spider monkey at Toucan Rescue Ranch.
A spider monkey at Toucan Rescue Ranch.
Zara Palmer

“There is more political stability in support of environmental policies than many other countries,” said Rodriguez. The population has supported the government’s work. Forever Costa Rica surveys have found that more than 90% of residents say that the environment is one of their top three concerns, Piskulich said.

With that support, Costa Rica began an ambitious program starting in the 1990s to pay landowners to preserve forests and protect clean water. The government funds the payments with $30 million annually from a gasoline tax and about $6 million annually from a tax on water users, Rodriguez said. Now, more than half of the country’s landmass is forest, much of it privately owned. But Costa Rica is not stopping there. Recently, the country announced a plan to increase forest cover to 60 percent of its landmass by 2030.

Parks and biological corridors, some of them on private land, help migratory animals travel throughout their natural habitats and that has helped stem the loss of wildlife. Thanks to these protected corridors, populations of the scarlet and great green macaws, as well as the jaguar, have increased in the last few decades, according to Forever Costa Rica program officer Adolfo Artavia.

“Costa Rica's national park system covers 27.6% of the country’s landmass, compared to 13% in the United States.”

But not all corridors are safe from development — not even development for the sake of ecological progress. Thanks in part to the huge Reventazón hydroelectric dam, Costa Rica’s electricity needs are supplied almost entirely by renewable sources — a crucial part of the country’s lofty commitment to go carbon neutral by 2050. But completion of the dam in 2016 cut off an important migratory pathway for jaguars and other animals.

In tandem with habitat regulations, Costa Rica boasts strict stewardship of its animals and plants — and it’s only getting stricter. People can’t keep wild animals or plants without a special permit. Recreational hunting on land was banned in 2012. Wild animal “selfies,” the popular social media phenomenon where unscrupulous operators pose tourists with captive animals that often have been drugged or abused into submission, were banned as part of sweeping wildlife legislation in 2013.

Zoos in Costa Rica only house injured animals or those that can’t be released in the wild because they have spent too much time in captivity, said Ronald Mora, an officer with SINAC, the National System of Conservation Areas, speaking through a translator. The country also imposes stringent regulations on rescue centers such as Toucan Rescue Ranch, conducting regular visits to make sure they comply with the laws and don’t allow visitors to touch or handle the animals.

But the country often struggles to follow its own rules. A lack of financial resources consistently hampers enforcement of existing land use laws. Piskulich said that in a few areas, the government has allocated no money for management of forests and nonprofits have to step in and provide funding.

A baby two-fingered sloth rests in a bucket at Toucan Rescue Ranch's sloth nursery.
A baby two-fingered sloth rests in a bucket at Toucan Rescue Ranch's sloth nursery.
Zara Palmer

And despite decades of reforestation efforts, “there’s constantly destruction of the forest,’’ according to Sam Trull, cofounder of The Sloth Institute Costa Rica, which does research on sloths and releases the injured animals back into the wild. Many sloths are victims of deforestation, as well as dog attacks and electrocutions from power lines running between trees, she said. (The Sloth Institute works closely with Toucan Rescue Ranch; neither receives government funding.) “There are definitely protected areas, but the law does not protect other areas and there are plenty of other areas being destroyed,” she said.

Conservationists also say that Costa Rica’s marine habitats are largely neglected. Less than 3% of the country’s territorial waters are protected from fishing and other uses, according to Forever Costa Rica, which was founded in 2010 by the national parks administration and international trusts for “the conservation of terrestrial and marine ecosystems in perpetuity.” The government did recently take measures to try to protect coral reefs.

In the few marine areas that are protected, illegal fishing is common, said Jorge Cortés, a researcher and expert on coral reefs with the University of Costa Rica, explaining the country commits little funding to enforcement.

“You realize there’s no boat for patrolling, there’s no fuel, or there’s no one who knows how to pilot a boat,” Cortés said. With regard to marine habitat protections, “we are like Costa Rica in the ’70s when they started with the parks,” he added, noting that “it took 30 or 40 years to really consolidate that.’’ He hopes it doesn’t take that long to protect the oceans.

A sign over a recessed doorway at Toucan Rescue Ranch points the way to the “sloth nursery” and here, plastic buckets are literally overflowing with baby sloths. A few slowly reach out to fetch a cooked green bean or carrot. Like human babies, they make quite a mess, dropping much of it on the floor. And, like human babies, they instill a sense of hope for the future.

Costa Rica may be strained for resources, but its success in saving and restoring its wilderness and wildlife shows the rest of the world what’s possible. “We might not be huge in terms of our size but from a moral standpoint [Costa Rica] has a huge value,” Piskulich said.

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