Clean’n’Green Costa Rica – a True Tropical Paradise?
Bill is the man. He can only be described as a real-life Costa Rican Rafiki, down to his Jamaican-esque lilt, missing-a-few-teeth grin, Dairy Milk chocolate skin and the wisdom that comes with 87 years of jungle adventuring. He’s living The Lion King dream, surrounded all day by incredible and exotic animals, sharing his knowledge of the Costa Rican wildlife in his home, Tortugero National Park, with curious tourists like myself.
Tortuguero wasn’t always the veritable Garden of Eden for animals that it is today. Bill’s forefathers were some of the first people ever to live on Tortuguero Island, named for the influx of giant sea turtles onto the small island each November. His parents cleared jungle, planted the first coconut trees, and observed with curious caution the jaguar tracks that appeared around their settlement. They didn’t consider the wildlife so much of a treasure as a threat, and indeed a source of income: from a young age Bill and his siblings hunted jaguars, manatees and crocodiles, variously prized for their furry, slimy and scaly skins. Killing and selling precious animals was the only way for Bill and his family to support themselves.
Others also hunted animals all over the country, their skins exported to make shoes for creepy middle-aged men and ugly handbags. Rainforests were felled, minerals were torn from the ground. Paradise found was becoming paradise lost.
For all its beauty, Costa Rica doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to caring for its other assets either. In the early 1990s, the country had one of Latin America’s most atrocious rates of deforestation. Once upon a pre-colonisation afternoon, Costa Rica had a forest cover of around 99%. But since the 1940s and the advent of that pesky thing called progress, the forest has been burned, slashed and bashed to about 35% cover today. That destruction was perpetrated to make way for coffee and banana plantations, which admittedly supply some pretty key deliciousnesses to our own Nueva Zelanda.
Luckily a lot has changed. In his lifetime, Bill has seen a monumental shift in both the Costa Rican psyche and his own approach to his environment. Instead of continuing to exploit its bountiful natural resources, Costa Rica now prides itself on its environmental savvy and its clean green image – much like New Zealand actually, but arguably with more justification.
Forming as it does a landbridge between South and North America, Costa Rica is one big fiesta of flora and fauna. It is home to 12,000 species of plants, 1,239 species of butterflies, 838 species of birds, 440 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 232 species of mammals. The country is ranked third in the Environmental Performance Index - the top rated country in the Americas - it is rated first in the Happy Planet Index, and has plans to be the first entirely carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021. Rainforest is the most productive CO2-eating, O2-pumping forest there is, and Costa Rica has been able to “sell” oxygen to the world by being paid to maintain its rainforest as national parks. As a result, more than 10% of the country consists of protected rainforest. This of course doubles as a fantastic tourist attraction, which is one of Costa Rica’s most important industries.
Bill, my new jungle friend, is still going strong after three snake bits and decades in the jungle (the mighty jungle). His transition from dastardly poacher to jungle custodian reads a bit like a Disney script, and indeed this country looks like it was taken from the animation storyboard of that cartoon classic, El Dorado. Today Bill roams Tortuguero National Park in pursuit of exciting creatures, tailed by camera-toting tourists, grumbling all the while about new regulations that prevent him from leaving the path to bash around in the bush for snakes.
Another convert to the eco-conscious way of life is Alex, who runs a B&B in Puerto Viejo, inland from Tortuguero. His particular piece of paradise is just off a busy road but is a genuine oasis. This place is called home by various toucans, sloths, woodpeckers, freaky spiders and a green parrot he rescued (it’s unable to live in the wild because someone sliced its toes off – sadface). Brightly-striped hammocks hang from the rafters of wooden bungalows; one room is a treehouse, complete with interior trees and real-life creatures, some of which you don’t really want to share a bedroom with. Birds fly down to feast on papaya and pineapple, eating breakfast next to lucky camera-toting guests. And Alex makes bread by hand every day.
As well as giving people a taste of Costa Rican paradise, Alex has a farm nearby where he looks after other creatures at various stages of rehabilitation. Each has a sad story: there’s a scarlet maccaw (it’s name’s not Richie though - lol) which had its wing broken by a kid with a slingshot. Thanks to Alex it has healed and can fly again, but even though it has other maccaw buddies in the surrounding forest, it always comes back to him. There’s a toucan which Alex found in a home in Puerto Viejo. It had been kept in a cage so small that it had never learnt how to spread its wings. Now it can fly too.
Probably the most exciting critter is an eight-month-old, white-faced Capuchin monkey, one of the four kinds of monkeys found in Costa Rica. It’s mother was shot by poachers, and one of them took the baby as a pet. Alex was able to rescue it and rehabilitate it, first having to put it on a diet: apparently people tend to feed cute animals all sorts of stuff that they would never get in the wild. So it was a seed, nut and grasshopper diet for the little monkey who had been raised on salty, processed food. Unfortunately, the monkey can’t return to the wild because of the exclusive family groupings and male dominance that make up the species’ social hierarchy. Apparently the local alpha male sometimes comes down from the trees that surround the monkey’s cage to intimidate him. He does get to run free under supervision though, and could potentially have a future in television, since he was pretty much a real life Marcel.
Alex admits that, like Bill, he used to hunt species that are now protected. But, as Alex put it, he had to change his mindset or become extinct “like the dinosaur”. Unfortunately not everyone has evolved to adopt an environmentally-conscious approach to life. Whenever he’s in the jungle Alex carries a shotgun and bow and arrow to scare off poachers, and he sees far too many of them.
While there are a few individuals who are clearly set in their devious poaching ways, for the most part Costa Rica has begun to earn a clean’n’green image. Its environmental savvy, particularly reflected in the fact that it can trade carbon credits for rainforest protection, is an attitude for the 21st-century that will hopefully go on disseminate around similar countries in the Americas. Costa Rica has been lucky enough to have a settled democratic government (a rare beast in that part of the world) and extensive foreign investment, giving it the resources to make the right environmental decisions. Things get better every year: through education, tourism, and the literal bright-eyed and bushy-tailed vivacity of Costa Rica’s rainforest.