A loss of tourism threatens Costa Rica’s lush paradise

The Osa Peninsula is a biodiverse wonder and a model for conservation. But its preservation programs have been devastated by COVID-19.

DAVID PATTYN, NPL/MINDEN PICTURES
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A pair of scarlet macaws livens up a fern tree on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. The species is threatened by habitat loss and the pet trade through most of its range, but the Osa population is thriving—a vibrant symbol of a conservation success story.
DAVID PATTYN, NPL/MINDEN PICTURES
This story appears in the February 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Celedonia Tellez doesn’t recall the year she moved to the Osa Peninsula, or exactly how old she was, but she remembers well why she came: free land. At the time, the peninsula, a 700-square-mile crook on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, was a forest frontier, separated from the mainland by a neck of near-impenetrable mangroves and accessible mainly by boat. Celedonia was pregnant when she arrived with her five children, six chickens, a dog, and 700 colones, about one dollar. She also brought her boyfriend, but he “hated nature, and would run away from insects,” she remembers. So she took an ax and cleared the land herself.

“When I was cutting down the trees, I would think how they must have taken so long to grow, and I cut them down in an instant,” she says. “That’s what we did. We cut down the forest to live.”

Some 40 years later, Doña Celedonia, as she is respectfully called by everyone, still lives on that same tract, in a town called La Palma. When I met her on a June day in 2019, she was wearing jeans and a blue and white floral print blouse. She showed me around her garden and house, and from her confident stride there was no telling that she is nearly blind.

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Forest crowds the beach at Cabo Matapalo, a famed surfing spot on the southern tip of the Osa Peninsula. Conservation efforts are tied to income flowing from the tourist trade, which has been reduced to a trickle by the pandemic.

For Doña Celedonia, it was a day of redemption: Instead of clearing the forest, she was bringing a bit of it back. At her invitation, a nonprofit called Osa Conservation had organized a network of local and government groups to plant 1,700 native tree saplings on her 22-acre farm, most along a stream defining one border of her property. On Costa Rica’s annual Arbor Day, many of her six children, 16 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren had gathered to celebrate, along with much of the rest of the surrounding community. There were displays, speeches, games, and dances by the children in brightly colored traditional dress.

Toward noon, everyone ambled out to the stream to watch Doña Celedonia plant the symbolic last tree. Her grandson Pablo dug a hole. Seeming embarrassed by all the attention, Doña Celedonia bent from the waist and lowered the root ball into the ground.

“Maybe I’ll turn my whole farm back into forest,” she said, wiping the dirt from her hands.

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Botanist Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya gathers seeds from a wild nutmeg tree in the Osa’s remaining patches of old-growth forest. New trees grown from the seeds will be planted in degraded areas, with the hope of luring spider monkeys and other seed dispersers. “The trees you plant may die,” Huarcaya says, “but the trees the animals plant—they will re-create the original forest.”

Acre for acre, the Osa is one of the most fecund flecks of land on Earth. Though it occupies less than a thousandth of a percent of the planet’s surface, it harbors 2.5 percent of its life-forms. The peninsula’s assortment of habitats—cloud forest, lowland rainforest, swamps, mangroves, freshwater and coastal lagoons—offers refuge to thousands of species, including boisterous populations of scarlet macaws, spider monkeys, and other animals that have disappeared or are dwindling through most of their historic range. Five species of wild cats prowl its forests, four species of sea turtles trundle up its Pacific beaches to lay eggs. To the east, hammerhead sharks and humpback whales course up the Golfo Dulce fjord to give birth.

The Osa’s ecosystem, however, is fragile. Twice in the past it has been on the brink of destruction—not by large commercial interests so much as by the incremental impact of ordinary folk cutting down the forest to live or panning the Osa’s rivers for a few dollars’ worth of gold. In recent years, some Osa communities have become passionate defenders of the environment they once exploited. Instead of cutting down ancient trees for timber, they cut trails for ecotourists; instead of illegally tracking game, they track illegal hunters.

But now the area is facing a new threat. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the Costa Rican economy, shutting off the spigot of tourist dollars that has underwritten the shift toward environmentally sustainable livelihoods. The hearts and minds of Osa people are turning toward a conservation ethic. But they still have stomachs.

“People here are close to nature,” says Hilary Brumberg, the Osa Conservation staffer who led the reforestation project on Doña Celedonia’s farm. “But when it comes to feeding your family or protecting nature, the family will come first.”

NORTH

AMERICA

COSTA RICA

SOUTH

AMERICA

A Sweet Spot for Wildlife

NICARAGUA

100 mi

100 km

CAribbEAN

SEA

San José

COSTA RICA

PACIFIC

OCEAN

PANAMA

Osa Peninsula

MAP VIEW BELOW

Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula has long been considered one of Earth’s most biodiverse regions. Researchers have discovered that its Golfo Dulce, or “sweet gulf,” hosts an exceptional range of species. Conservation groups and local communities are working to preserve this rare combination of old-growth, lowland rainforest and a uniquely shaped bay.

Key habitats

Mangrove

Other forest

COSTA RICA

PANAMA

Coronado

Bay

The fjord-like formation

has a shallow mouth and deep, sheltering harbor. The four main rivers that drain into the bay regulate water temperature and salinity.

Connecting ridge to reef

To sustain wildlife populations, volunteers maintain a network of private and public lands, creating a biological corridor that links the Osa Peninsula to high-elevation protected areas.

Protected areas

National park

Key connections

between

protected areas

Forest reserve

Biological corridor

N

Coronado

Bay

Corcovado NAtional Park

Piedras Blancas National Park

La Amistad INTERNational Park

Putting nature first

A push by advocates in the 1990s prompted Costa Rica to set aside 28 percent of its territory for environ­mental protection.

SCALE VARIES IN PERSPECTIVES ABOVE.

 

Riley D. Champine and Manuel Canales, NGM Staff; Alexander Stegmaier Sources: Hilary Brumberg,

Noelia HernÁndez, and Eleanor Flatt, Osa Conservation; NASA; CIMAR,

University of Costa Rica; GEBCO;

ESA Climate Change Initiative Land Cover PROJECT; WDPA

A Sweet Spot for Wildlife

NICARAGUA

100 mi

NORTH

AMERICA

100 km

Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula has long been considered one of Earth’s most biodiverse regions. Researchers have discovered that its Golfo Dulce, or “sweet gulf,” hosts an exceptional range of species. Conservation groups and local communities are working to preserve this rare combination of old-growth, lowland rainforest and a uniquely shaped bay.

CARIBBEAN

SEA

San José

COSTA RICA

COSTA RICA

SOUTH

AMERICA

PACIFIC

OCEAN

PANAMA

Osa Peninsula

MAP VIEW BELOW

Connecting ridge to reef

To sustain wildlife populations, volunteers maintain a network of private and public lands, creating a biological corridor that links the Osa Peninsula to high-elevation protected areas.

Protected areas

Key habitats

National park

Mangrove

Forest reserve

Other forest

Biological corridor

11 miles (18 KM) from coast

Scale varies in this perspective. Rincón to Puerto Jiménez is 17 miles (27 km).

Putting nature first

A push by advocates in the 1990s prompted Costa Rica to set aside 28 percent of its territory for environ­mental protection.

Rare depths

The fjord-like formation has a shallow mouth and deep, sheltering harbor. The four main rivers that drain into the bay regulate water temperature and salinity.

Persistent threats

Farming, roadbuilding, and illegal activities such as hunting and gold mining threaten the rainforest. Agricultural runoff can flow into the gulf, imperiling coral reefs and marine life.

Riley D. Champine and Manuel Canales, NGM Staff; Alexander Stegmaier

Sources: Hilary Brumberg, Noelia HernÁndez, and Eleanor Flatt, Osa Conservation; NASA;

CIMAR, University of Costa Rica; GEBCO; ESA Climate Change Initiative Land Cover PROJECT; WDPA

Andy Whitworth, Osa Conservation’s 37-year-old executive director, wears his love of wildlife literally on his skin: Tattoos of snakes, lizards, gharials, and hummingbirds adorn his arms, while a greater horned rhino grazes across his chest. He joined the organization in 2017, after six years fighting a dispiriting battle for conservation in the Peruvian Amazon.

“When I came to Osa, I suddenly felt hopeful again,” Whitworth told me over breakfast at Osa Conservation’s biological station, in the southwest of the peninsula. “In the Amazon I’d see spider monkeys once or twice a year. Here, it’s once or twice a day. It was transformational.”

Whitworth was quick to give some credit for Osa’s success to Costa Rica’s pioneering reforestation policies. Through most of the last half of the 20th century, the forests that once covered 75 percent of the country were systematically denuded for timber, cattle, and crops such as bananas and pineapples. In less than a generation, scarcely a fifth of the land remained tree covered.

But in the mid-1990s the government took action not just to halt the trend but to reverse it. It passed a law prohibiting the cutting of any trees without a detailed management plan and initiated a program to pay landowners to maintain their forested terrain and plant new trees, funded through a national tax on gasoline. In merely 25 years, Costa Rica’s forest cover has more than doubled, and the country is well on the way to its goal: trees blanketing 60 percent of the land by 2030.

If the electric company cuts down a tree, Whitworth told me, it has to provide funds to plant five. Laudable, but hardly an end in itself, he said.

“Just promoting forest cover is dangerous. You could end up with empty forest. What we’re focused on is restoring the entire ecosystem.”

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A puma fixes on a camera trap, perhaps alerted by the shutter’s click. A network of such traps deployed by conservation groups, ecolodges, and local people reveals that populations of pumas and three other wild cat species have rebounded on the peninsula since the late 1990s. Jaguars are still scarce.

During the past several years, a network of camera traps that Osa Conservation coordinates with universities, private landowners, ecolodges, and other local groups is revealing how well the forests are filling up. A study in the 1990s, Whitworth said, found virtually no wildlife in the Osa beyond Corcovado National Park, which covers most of the west side of the peninsula. Now they’re seeing animals where they had previously been hunted out.

Pumas, once rare in the park and never seen beyond it, are recovering. Ocelots too are rebounding in force, as are jaguarundis, another small cat. Collared peccaries—a piglike mammal—are abundant in the Piedras Blancas, a national park on the far side of the gulf. White-lipped peccaries, a related species, aren’t faring as well yet beyond Corcovado Park—perhaps not unexpected, since they’re prized for their meat and move in big herds easily targeted by hunters. The white-lipped peccaries are favorite prey of jaguars, and they too have struggled to rebound beyond the parks’ borders.

Ultimately, the only way to ensure the health of the Osa ecosystem is to grow it. To that end, Osa Conservation is helping to fill in the forest by planting trees on strategically located private farms such as Doña Celedonia’s. In the short term, plantings along rivers and streams in cultivated areas give shade for farm animals, help prevent soil erosion, and provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. But the long-term goal is to create an unbroken corridor of green, arcing from Corcovado across to Piedras Blancas, and eventually to the vast La Amistad International Park in the Talamanca Mountains, shared by Costa Rica and Panama. This will require not just eco-friendly government policies but also buy-in on the ground, one farmer or rancher at a time.

“The national strategies have initiated this great forest change,” Whitworth told me. “But the real connection to wildlife comes from the bottom up.”

One reason for the abundance of species in the Osa is the paucity of one in particular. Until the 1960s, the peninsula was inhabited only by a gnarled handful of gold miners, squatters, and fugitives, whose reputation for lawlessness helped keep the general population at bay.

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Two gold miners work a stream near Corcovado National Park. Hand panning for gold, for decades a way of life on the Osa, is illegal throughout Costa Rica because it pollutes the environment, but the government tolerates a few artisanal miners. Some communities formerly dependent on mining have successfully redirected their economy to ecotourism.

“It was a pretty rough bunch of boys,” remembers Patrick O’Connell, who as a young man found his way down from Indiana to the Osa to hunt and stayed, making a living by walking from one miner’s camp in the jungle to another’s, buying gold. “Nobody died of old age.”

At the time, 80 percent of the peninsula was still old-growth forest. That began to change in the early 1970s, when, encouraged by the completion of the Inter-American Highway South, the population doubled to about 6,000 people, primarily occupying the cultivated strip on the eastern side of the peninsula. Most of the undeveloped land was owned by a transnational timber company too distant and badly managed to exert much control, so whoever could clear a piece of land could call it their own.

Meanwhile, a biological research station on the peninsula had also attracted another human subspecies: foreign scientists, more than a thousand of them visiting during the 1960s. As settlers pressed into the rich Corcovado Basin on the western side of the peninsula, scientists helped sound the alarm: Unless a park was created to protect it, the Osa’s forests and the biodiversity they contained would vanish. Spearheaded by Álvaro Ugalde, the father of Costa Rica’s park system, the government negotiated a complicated land swap with the timber company, leading in 1975 to the creation of Corcovado National Park.

There remained the problem of removing from the park’s boundaries some 250 entrenched settlers, who viewed the timber company, the park rangers, and the scientists with equal degrees of hostility. In the end, most agreed to move to land provided for them on the eastern side, spurred by payments totaling more than a million dollars for “improvements” to the land, such as deforestation, crops, and buildings.

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A ranch hand tends a herd on one of the last remaining cattle ranches on the Osa Peninsula. Much of the land cleared for cattle ranching in the past century has been bought by ecosystem ventures and conservation initiatives, and converted back into forest.

For several years there was little disturbance in the park. But then the price of gold began to soar. Coupled with widespread unemployment elsewhere in Costa Rica, the prospect of making a fortune, or at least scraping out a living, triggered Osa’s second crisis. By the early 1980s, some 1,400 miners were working illegally in the park.

“The damage was huge,” says Dan Janzen, a prominent Costa Rica–based environmentalist recruited in 1985 to conduct a study of the miners’ impact. Almost all of the animals in the southern third of the park had been hunted out to feed the mining communities. The rivers had become what Janzen describes as “liquid deserts,” the shrimp, crabs, and other aquatic life blighted by sediment from the miners’ operations clogging the riverbeds downstream.

Instead of using what he calls “guns and gold badges” enforcement to chase the miners out, Janzen recommended taking a year to get to know them and persuade them to leave on their own or face arrest. It worked, but in subsequent years the government often reverted to a more militaristic approach, which only exacerbated the local people’s resentment.

Nowhere was the guns-and-gold-badges approach applied more clumsily than in Rancho Quemado, near the center of the peninsula. The settlement had been carved out of the forest in the 1960s by a family named Ureña from Buenos Aires, Costa Rica. Its people, like others on the peninsula, subsisted by growing crops and hunting wildlife. Every other year a herd of white-lipped peccaries would come through Rancho Quemado from the park, and every time, hunters in the village would kill about 80 percent of the animals. In 2008, however, the peccaries were accompanied by rangers, some of them armed. With their own guards to protect them, the peccaries became fearless, chowing down on the villagers’ crops and wandering freely in the fields and streets, while the townspeople watched helplessly. It was a short-term win for conservation: Villagers killed only five peccaries that year. But long term, it deepened the divide between the park and the people.

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A pod of spinner dolphins cruises off Isla del Caño, in the Pacific Ocean roughly 15 miles west of Drake Bay. Superpods numbering in the thousands congregate along the Osa’s coasts, attracted by a predictable abundance of prey.

When I visited Rancho Quemado 11 years later, the town had a very different energy. I was tagging along with Marco Hidalgo, the community outreach manager for Osa Conservation. At the open-air restaurant of Enrique Ureña, a nephew of the family’s patriarch, the peccaries’ seasonal migration through the village was again the topic of conversation—only now the matter at hand was how to protect the animals instead.

Ureña, once among the most vocal opponents of the park, worried that the rangers were stretched too thin; what was needed were local volunteers who could escort the peccaries as they moved about. Hidalgo mentioned that Osa Conservation had a peccary surveillance project under way using radio collars on individual animals so the movements of their group could be easily tracked.

“The ones you want to put collars on aren’t the peccaries,” Ureña’s elderly mother, Espiritu, interjected, from where she sat apart on a sofa in the corner. “It’s the hunters.”

Rancho Quemado’s transformation was wrought through necessity—there wasn’t enough employment for everyone—but its direction was determined by education. In 2002, Ureña and 14 other villagers ranging in age from 14 to 60 took an intensive course in forest biology. The students learned, among other things, how peccaries function as “ecosystem engineers.” They disperse seeds, create habitat for aquatic life with their wallows, and alter the structure of the forest by eating the seeds of common plants, allowing diverse rarer ones a chance to compete.

With the understanding that the biodiversity surrounding them was a natural draw, residents also learned how to set up ecotourist operations. Now the village monitors peccary movements, conducts bird counts, maintains camera traps, collects tree seeds, and offers forest hikes and educational programs for children. Hidalgo has helped guide and encourage this change of heart but takes no credit for its success.

“They took the tools and changed themselves,” he said.

By no means have all of the Osa’s communities undergone such a metamorphosis. Hidalgo told me that Los Angeles de Drake, a village in the northern part of the peninsula, is so rabidly anti-conservationist that when his work takes him there, he has to park his car behind the locked school gate so it won’t be vandalized. But—in 2019 at least—there was a sense in many of the people I met of a profound shift toward a protective view of nature.

I spent two days with Tomas Muñoz, who grew up in Dos Brazos de Rio Tigre, another town formerly dependent on illegal mining that has turned to ecotourism to survive. Muñoz started hunting when he was 10 and began panning for gold two years later. He estimates that from the age of 14, when he dropped out of school, he spent 25 days out of every month in the jungle.

He learned all the ways of the forest, including how to evade the rangers and police. (Walk only on roots and stones so you don’t leave prints; don’t wash in the creek where you’re camped, since the suds will show up downstream; and don’t use any lotions or sunscreen because unusual odors are easy to detect in the forest.)

“Once I smelled 3-in-One oil from the rangers’ guns,” he told me. “They were 80 meters away. We all scattered and watched them pass on the other side of the river. They never caught me,” he added with a little smile. “I ran too fast.”

When he was 20, Muñoz stopped hunting because one of his uncles, who worked as a guide himself, convinced him that he was wasting his life; he could make a much better living leading tourists to the animals than killing them for meat. But it wasn’t easy to overcome the atavistic tug toward his former ways.

“My uncle took me to a ranger station where there were wild chickens and peccaries up close to me,” he recalled. “My instinct was to look for a stick or a rock—anything to kill them. It was in my brain. It took me two years before this feeling went away.”

Muñoz told me his story as we walked along a slate gray beach toward the southern entrance to Corcovado Park. Pelicans glided in formation above the breakers on one side, and the forest canopy rose abruptly on the other, like a towering green thunderhead. We spent the day in the park, Muñoz carrying the tripod for his spotting scope over his shoulder like a rifle, stopping abruptly to lure some spider monkeys closer with a call or to point out a crested caracara, a family of capuchins, a tiny Golfo Dulce poison dart frog, or a white-nosed coati nibbling on a Halloween crab.

The next day he took me to visit his village of Dos Brazos, which boasts its own trail into the park from the eastern side. It was built by the villagers themselves, mostly former gold miners. Muñoz helped train some to be guides, while other villagers provide tourist lodging, meals, and cooking classes. The trail doesn’t connect with the park’s formal network of trails, but it is easier to access, and it offers some of the best birding on the peninsula.

“Before, people just talked about the gold they got,” Muñoz said. “Now the talk is more about the birds.”

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Swimmers prepare for the Golfo Dulce Open Water Crossing competition on the east side of the peninsula, timed to attract more visitors during the low tourist season in late summer. The swimmers will share the Golfo Dulce with humpback whales arriving from the southern Pacific in summer to birth their calves in the gulf’s protected waters.

The following spring, there were no tourists to cook for, no work for the guides in Dos Brazos or Rancho Quemado, and no volunteers at Osa Conservation to tend trees or keep predators away from the sea turtle hatchlings on the Pacific beach. Costa Rica responded aggressively to the COVID-19 threat, shutting down all foreign travel. By the end of November, when the United States had suffered 264,808 deaths, Costa Rica had recorded 1,690.

But the economic damage was catastrophic. The tourist industry collapsed, choking off funding for the country’s national park system, forcing the authorities to close Corcovado in March and pull rangers from inside the park.

For a few weeks all was quiet. Then word went out on a social media chat shared by Osa tour guides: Someone was taking advantage of the lack of tourists and law enforcement to organize hunting tours within the park.

Two hunters had killed nine white-lipped peccaries—not for food but for sport. When I called Dionisio Paniagua Castro, a longtime tour guide and, since the pandemic, a conservation activist on the peninsula, I could hear his anguish over the phone.

“So many animals, for fun!” he said. “We definitely had to do something.”

The guides alerted the authorities, who sent in police and made some arrests. But the park was too big, and law enforcement too thin and sporadic, to cope with an escalating debacle.

It wasn’t just hunters. With both unemployment and the global price of gold rising in response to the pandemic, miners were streaming back into the park in numbers not seen in decades. Drug traffickers and loggers likewise were taking advantage of the disruption.

But there was another line of defense as well: the people of the Osa themselves. In response to the crisis, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s minister for the environment at the time, resurrected the notion of a cadre of 52 volunteer rangers—mostly guides and leaders from different communities, including Rancho Quemado and La Palma, who could be trained in surveillance technologies and deployed to form a buffer zone around the park.

They have no weapons, but they do have phones, cameras, and community connections, and they can quickly alert law enforcement when they spot illegal activity. Much of the problem appears to be caused by organized groups from beyond the peninsula. But as the tourist economy has collapsed, inevitably some local people have had little choice but to take up their old pans and shovels and join the illegal miners in the park.

“People have to find ways to make money, and gold mining is one of them,” Muñoz told me by phone. I asked whether he was tempted himself, since he was among the guides who were out of work. There was anguish in his voice too when he answered.

“I’m trying not to go there.”

Jamie Shreeve wrote in the March 2019 issue about the search for life beyond Earth. Frequent contributor Charlie Hamilton James photographs subjects ranging from rats and river otters to elephants.

The nonprofit National Geographic Society, working to conserve Earth’s resources, helped fund this article.