Costa Rica: Sustainability in an Animal Paradise
I’ve just returned from a two-week vacation in Cosa Rica. While ostensibly a holiday, if you’re an ecologist in a country where ecological conservation forms the basis of their tourism industry, it can be hard to switch off. So amongst a plethora of monkeys, iguanas, basilisks, hummingbirds and crocodiles, I noted a few things which are worth briefly discussing before we get back into our regular blogs next week.
A warning though. Whilst a fair bit of well-researched content appears on this website, the observations here are much more general, and by no means applicable to the whole country.
- The Plastic Addiction
I know this isn’t exactly a hot take. Plastic consumption is one of the world’s foremost environmental catastrophes, and if the enormous soup of plastic in the middle of the Pacific wasn’t enough to ram the point home, the four others forming around the world should be.
What surprised me here was that despite the emphasis the Costa Rican government places on the conservation of biodiversity, there appears to be no effort in the tourism industry to shy away from easily avoidable plastic use. Plastic straws and cups were in abundance, but the real mind-boggler was the use of small plastic bags to contain cutlery. Having knives and forks handed to me in new plastic casing at half the restaurants we visited was an odd experience, and one which seems easily avoidable.
However we encountered a few places which eschewed the plastic wrapping and provided cardboard straws. Hopefully this is a growing trend.
- Animal Sanctuaries
One thing Costa Rica was far from short on was recovery centers for injured animals. We visited one in Cahuita, and were impressed by the number of volunteers they had managed to attract, most seemingly without any background in zoology. Other centers had one-day volunteer programs advertised, which were often tailored to getting children involved. The centers require government permission to release any individuals back into the wild, which seems to be an effective communication pathway. Yet like all dialogues between organisations with different priorities, it produces disagreements. We heard many examples of rehabilitated animals that the government considers too used to human exposure to reintroduce.
The center we visited did seem to focus more on animal welfare than population conservation (though they certainly did not ignore the latter), and associates who have previously volunteered at these centers seem to agree. There were several examples of animals who, even with rehabilitation, were incapable of contributing to population viability, or whose injuries were not directly or indirectly caused by humans, some whose removal from the population could be considered important contributors to genetic and behavioural evolution. However staff made the excellent point that with the number of these species that receive injuries from human activity every year, the least they could do is try to treat a few injuries that weren’t.
- Conservation Laws
Costa Rica’s conservation laws prohibit the killing of many species found throughout the country. No complaints here. Many of these species are integral parts of the Costa Rican ecosystem and tourism industry. However a guide from the Caribbean side of the country was discussing his family’s traditions of hunting many of these animals, and how the government provided no alternatives to these traditional food sources when the laws were introduced. Whilst I am all for criminalising the killing of endangered species, having a government tell your family to change their lifestyle, whilst they continue practices that have a much larger impact on the native ecosystem (ongoing deforestation and commercial harvesting amongst them) must rankle somewhat.
Having said this, I live in a country where hunting quotas are strict and easy to monitor, and contact between hunters and the government is frequent. Commercial harvesting is potentially an easier way to manage sustainable population of harvested species, and a source of employment for families in need of new income.
In conclusion, I’ll reiterate that much of the above may be a product of observational bias. Bias also leads me to suggest that regardless of your thoughts on the above, you go and check out Costa Rica for yourself. It’s marvellous.