Making Tracks or Losing Ground?

Today’s slide show: Images from Sirena. Today’s audio: Charlie Foerster, the independent tapir researcher at Sirena.

Álvaro Ugalde, one of the lions of Costa Rica’s environmental movement

SIRENA—Álvaro Ugalde, a compact and courtly Latino Kojak, has spent all morning running around with a broom, sweeping the porches and floors of the Sirena Field Station. You wouldn’t know he was the man who, 32 years ago, started the Costa Rican national park system, a gangling, glittering web of parks, reserves, protected areas, mostly protected areas, and soon-to-be-worth-protecting-again areas. Nearly 30 percent of the country is now protected to one extent or another, but does this make Don Álvaro happy?

“Once an hour, I feel like crying,” he sighs, looking around him at the Sirena camp. It’s so dirty here, he says. So many things don’t work. There isn’t enough water. The bathrooms—well, let’s not dwell on that. Don Alvaro wants to fix up Sirena and make it a little more inviting for visitors. We’re not talking the Four Seasons Hotel here. Sirena will always be rough. That’s what makes it so … so … Sirena. But it could be much better. He gives a brisk waggle of the broom. And so could many things about the Costa Rican park system, particularly Corcovado, of which Sirena is a part, and which he has just taken the helm of, and which he hopes to make an example of, for the nation.

Ugalde is a conservation biologist—and a politically astute one. When he was a biology student, he had the great fortune of spending a month hopping from one U.S. national park to another, learning about what makes Yellowstone, the Petrified Forest, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon so spectacular and such successful tourist spots. What a concept: setting aside land just the way it is and giving nature credit for a few billion years of bright ideas. But as a biologist, he realized that whereas the conceptual foundation for U.S. parks was their scenic beauty, the raison d’être for Costa Rican parks should be their biological importance.

“We are a tiny country,” he says, “yet we have 4 to 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and that makes me feel a deep sense of responsibility.” You can’t just shrug and say, it’s here, we’re near, let’s use it. So then the question becomes how can we preserve nature and profit from it at the same time?

Don Álvaro doesn’t like the term “eco-tourism.” He prefers “nature-based tourism.” “The word eco-tourism has been polluted by people calling themselves eco, but when you dig in, you see it’s just a marketing thing.”

“When I go to a hotel that claims to be nature-friendly, I walk around behind the hotel to the places tourists normally don’t see,” he says. He checks where the trash is disposed of, whether they’re dumping sewage in the river. How would he define tourism prefixed eco- or nature-friendly or nature-based? He takes a notably broad view, one that some would say belongs on PBS, on Barney, it’s so sweet and inclusive. Effective eco-tourism, he says, is about more than preserving nature. It’s about benefiting local people economically, socially, and culturally. It’s about respecting native peoples, paying staff a reasonable wage—including, heavens, the women. He’s firm about women’s rights being tied into eco-tourism—nature needs nurture, and we know who’s ace at the mothering trade.

Yet even as Don Álvaro thinks the eco-tourism industry has its share of hucksters, he by no means thinks Costa Rica has reached its tourist-carrying capacity. A million tourists per annum? Bah, that’s Brazil nuts. It could be twice that, thrice that, who knows? With better management, with better waste disposal in national parks, a few more broomsticks in the right hands. Look at Europe and their millions and millions of tourists. And what’s a cathedral rose window compared to scarlet macaws, or a flying buttress compared to the fine fat buttresses at the base of a giant fig tree?

Oh, he’s heard all the criticisms of Costa Rica, and how his country is such a “paradox.” More protected land than anywhere else, but a degree of deforestation—70-plus percent—that is right up there with the best of the chainsaw nations. Biodiversity abutting polluted rivers. “We’re not wishy-washy about anything,” he says. “We do something, we do it all the way.”

Yet he’s not even too upset about the deforestation, because he and other biologists have learned lately just how readily a forest can be resuscitated. Leave a bit of depaupered land alone in the tropics and nature will reclaim it with astonishing alacrity. As we walked through Sirena’s forests with him, he pointed out how much of it was new growth, how much that looked ancient was just a few decades old. True, the old-growth forest we walked through was more complex, more richly layered, but the recent additions still had plenty of punch, twitter, and howl to them. As for the dirty lagoons? “I’ve seen the Thames being cleaned up, the Hudson being cleaned up.” So when he’s not on the verge of tears, he’s an optimist. There are good days and bad, ups and downs, just like the market, he says. And some stocks are worth holding onto—like the one I bought for my daughter, to sponsor Sea Turtle 89802.

For that matter, I’d rather see a jaguar than drive one. We went out jaguar-stalking today, with Eduardo Carrillo of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a beaming, mustachioed, jovial fellow who loves his job and loves jaguars and has seen them maybe 25 times in the wild and never tires of the sight. He has seen jaguars walking, resting, swimming, climbing, eating, and watching him in return. He never feels frightened: Jaguars, unlike mountain lions, do not attack people, he said. Nor does he tire of the sound. The jaguar is the only great cat in the Americas, which is not a judgment call but a description of the genus, Panthera, which includes lions, tigers, and leopards. The great cats have the distinctive capacity to roar. Mountain lions don’t roar; neither do cheetahs, ocelots, bobcats, or house cats. Jaguars do. Carrillo did his best to imitate the jaguar roar for us. “That’s ugly!” exclaimed Don Álvaro. Well, it loses something in the translation, Carrillo admitted.

A single paw print is all we find of the “great cat” 

We didn’t hear a jaguar roar today. We didn’t see one, either. But I didn’t feel too bad when I learned that Carrillo’s student Roberto Salón, who has been studying jaguars for 18 months, has never seen one either. We did, however, see jaguar tracks, which are as wide as saucers, and the tracks of the jaguar’s favorite dish, the white-lipped peccary, and a camera trap that the scientists set up to take night-time snapshots of jaguars. The researchers are trying to figure out how many jaguars are in Sirena. They will then extrapolate a figure for the entire Osa Peninsula. Of one thing they are almost certain: The figure is comparatively lower these days with the rise in peccary poaching that drives the jaguars from the confines of the park. In the past six months, four jaguars on the peninsula have been shot. No doubt about it, we told Carrillo. It’s time to start an Adopt-a-Jaguar program, an initial public offering of incomparable value.

Or he might sell jaguar T-shirts, as Charlie Foerster sells tapir T-shirts to support his research. Yes, we bought those, too, because we earned them: We saw tapirs. Charlie showed us three, including a mother, Mamasota, and her 4-month-old calf, Nepal. Tapirs are herbivores, and they are huge: Mamasota weighs maybe 700 pounds. Seeing tapirs is like playing a game of “What’s That Animal?” They look prehistoric. They look like a zoo-in-one: a bit of horse, a bit of cow, rhinoceros, pig, and in the snout, an aspiring elephant. Charlie is trying to find out the basics, just as most researchers are at Sirena. How many are there? What do they eat? What are their families like? What do they do of a workweek? It’s too bad we know so little about so much, and that when I go to Costa Rica, I feel so useless. All I can do is buy this cute, lousy T-shirt.

Things to know before you go to Costa Rica.