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Patrols Protect Corcovado and Piedras Blanca National Parks

In Focus, November 2003

Illegal logging and hunting in Costa Rica's Corcovado and Piedras Blanca national parks and the unprotected corridor between them has posed a serious threat, with experts predicting decimation of the forests. Logging, unsustainable agricultural activities and development threaten most of the peninsula.

The Corcovado Foundation, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), aims to reverse the trend and establish a sustainable future for the area's richly diverse wildlife.

"We are already having an impact but there's a lot more to do. Incredible treasures could be lost," said Alejandra Monge, executive director of the Foundation. "Corcovado's beauty is inspiring. We must ensure that it's protected."

Now with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the Foundation is working in partnership with the government ministries of environment and security to enable patrols of the national parks to reduce the incidence of illegal hunting, logging and fishing.

The foundation covers operating costs to conduct the park patrols, while the ministries provide personnel and equipment. The foundation's effort also includes education and awareness-raising activity in local communities near the parks.

Situated on the Osa Peninsula in the southwest of Costa Rica in the Mesoamerica hotspot, the rain forest of the Corcovado and Peidras Blancas national parks is home to wild pigs and jaguars, both of which are under severe threat. The peninsula contains the finest example of lowland tropical rainforest in Central America. The area also includes the Golfo Dulce, one of only four fjords in the tropics. Recently, observers have discovered that the Golfo Dulce is a calving area for both northern and southern Pacific populations of humpback whales, a circumstance unknown anywhere else.

Very little of the 51,000-hectare area is well protected and areas that are protected are widely separated and too small to maintain the biological processes necessary to keep the present levels of populations or diversity. Large mammals such as the jaguar, puma and tapir as well as rare species of plants are particularly threatened by fragmentation of habitat and face possible extinction.

Through this new partnership effort, the Department of Environment, Department of Security, local communities and the Corcovado Foundation are consolidating their resources and so anticipate strengthening the protection and control of the park areas.

The Foundation hopes that through the physical control and protection of the parks, combined with environmental education and sustainable economic management of alternatives for the local communities, healthy numbers of wildlife in the area can be maintained alongside a human population that understands and is interested in the protection of the natural resource on their doorstep.

"This project is groundbreaking as the first time such an arrangement engaging ministries of environment and security as well as an NGO has been worked out in the country," said Michele Zador, CEPF grant director for Mesoamerica. "It is being watched as a potential model for other parks in Costa Rica and even other Central and Latin America parks."

The first task in the joint project has been to gain control of the illegal activities that threaten the two national parks. The Ministry of Security has collaborated with the parks by bringing together members of the rural police force from all over the country to jointly patrol with the existing park guards. They hope that together they can drive illegal hunters and gold miners from the park and, by making arrests, discourage them from returning.

Already, there have been more than 59 patrols in the park since the project began in July—a level of patrolling not seen in the area for years. The patrols are carried out by teams of at least two guards and sometimes six depending on the level of danger anticipated. Some patrols can be carried out in a day; others take 2-3 days with the guards camping along the way. The Ministry of Environment is setting up training for patrols in the environmental aspects of their trips.

With the help of the CEPF grant and others, the Corcovado Foundation has employed eight new park rangers and implemented a program to involve community members in efforts to combat illegal activity. It has also been possible to check licensing anomalies and as a result logging permits have been reduced from 132 to 16.

Under threat is the wild pig or white-lipped peccary due to illegal hunting inside the national parks. Travelling in groups of 20-30 in a herd, they make an easy target for poachers. They are also the primary food source of the jaguars. The decrease in the population of wild pig has caused these large cats to leave their natural habitats and move into populated areas in search of food in the form of goats or dogs.

The Foundation has also established a special youth group. Weekly workshops are held for children and activities such as beach clean-ups give them a hands-on opportunity to participate. The hope is that as well as encouraging a new generation of conservation-aware citizens, the wider community can also be reached through these young people aged 12-20. It isn't easy, however.

"A local kid who lives in rickety shack reported in one session that his dad had only shot one pig the other day," Monge said. "These are hungry people who must survive however they see possible."

The Foundation is keen not to alter local culture but to establish a freshly educated sense of custodial care of the parks. The wildlife in these parks is the biggest attraction of tourists who create work for the local communities. In terms of the human population, the tremendous natural wealth of the zone, if protected and properly managed, represents the true basis for the development of a sustainable and abundant economy.

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© CI, photo by André Bärtschi
The rain forest of the Corcovado and Peidras Blancas national parks is home to white-lipped peccary, jaguar, puma (above) and tapir as well as rare species of plants.

CEPF targets three priority areas in southern Mesoamerica: the Cerro Silva-Indio Maiz-La Selva corridor between Nicaragua and Costa Rica; the southern Talamanca region connecting with the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica; and the northern Talamanca-Bocas del Toro corridor between Costa Rica and Panama.

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