Opening Off-Limit Sites Can Help Deter Poachers

May 21, 2004

TOURIST hikersin parks andrefuges like Corcovado,a nationalpark on Osa Peninsulain southernCosta Rica andG a n d o c a – M a n -zanillo, a wildliferefuge on the southernCaribbeancoast, often see littleto no sign of illegalhunting, mainlybecause poacherstend to hunt in remote areas.However, tourist divers frequently seeblatant evidence of illegal fishing at many ofthe protected dive sites in Costa Rica.More often than not, the Pacific’s limitedCaño Island dive sites are strung withnew fishing line – recently a massive netchock full of dying marine life greetedtourist divers at the protected area’s premieredive site.This net could have easily stretchedaround several suburban houses – except itwas wrapped around the underwater pinnacleknown as Bajo Del Diablo like a deadlycloak.Local divemasters and instructors spentfour days cutting the net free.As has happened in similar situations inthe South Caribbean and Guanacaste, everydive operator in the area helped clear themess by providing boats, drivers, gas, tanksand more. Even the tourist divers sacrificedtheir dives (which they had paid for) andeven pitched in to help.Once informed about the net, the rapidand professional response of Golfito-basedOcean watchdog Mar Viva, together with theCosta Rican Coast Guard, curtailed aninvading fleet of poachers,who seem to have disappearedfor the moment.In Caño Island’s case,had there not been tourists,it is unlikely the net –which was quickly killingall coral and countless fishon one of Costa Rica’s mostprolific marine sites –would have been noticed.Local divemasters andinstructors surmise thatother important underwater areas of theisland are being destroyed, but as far as weknow, no one is checking. Like theCorcovado wilderness, most of CañoIsland is off-limits to many, includingunderwater.Keeping so much area off-limits totourists is exactly what poachers look for –no one is regularly checking the area. Thepossible visit of tourists seems, economically,to be the best defense against poachersbecause they do not seem to like to operatewhere they might run into a guide with agroup of tourists.Caño Island poachers almost alwayssteal under the cover of night. If they dare todo so during the day, it is always on the off limitsbackside of the island.Creating a dive site on the backside ofthe island and allowing night diving wouldcreate instant patrols that pay for themselvesin the places and times that needthem most – just like opening other parkentrances and camping areas in Corcovadowill thwart poachers in areas they currentlyrule.Spreading out the tourists a little atCorcovado and Cañowould also help lessen theheavy pressure on just afew relatively small areas.These protected placesapparently have no limitsand you might find morethan 100 people at a smallguard station at a time.Whether underwater orabove, most visitors tothese protected areas arestamping out the same fewtrails because everything else is off-limits –to everyone except, it seems, poachers.Limited numbers of tourists, with trainedguides, should be spread out over a greaterarea. This not only helps patrol protectedareas, but also keeps the quality of theecosystems and the tours from deterioratingfurther because of too many people on thetrails.A waiting line to use your crowded trailor dive route results in everyone seeing toolittle of the flora and fauna they came to thiscountry to see. It also risks loving thewildlife to a death just as final as that inflictedby a poacher.Contact the author at 835-6041 or emailat shawn@CostaCetacea.com or visitthe Web site at www.CostaCetacea.com.

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