In the hot, hot sun of Holy Week, while thousands were enjoying the country’s Pacific beaches, volunteers from the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), the conservation group COVERENA (Comité de Vigilancia de los Recursos Nacionales) and members of the transit police kept a vigil on the Bernardo Soto section of the Inter-American highway.
While the police checked for licenses and sobriety at a station set up 500 meters west of the toll booth near Naranjo, northwest of San José, the MINAE and COVERENA folks were looking over cars, vans, trucks and buses for living illegal gains: birds, plants and other wildlife.
This is the time of year when young birds are ready to fly and the illegal commerce in birds is highest. Previous years have seen a booming trade in baby parrots and parakeets along the Pacific beaches; you could buy a baby parrot for ¢5,000 ($10) or less. Little by little, the public has learned to leave wildlife alone.
“It’s a satisfaction for me to see the number of captured birds and wildlife diminishing,” said Analive Espinoza, a forestry engineer with MINAE in Atenas, northwest of San José, and one of the three women who gave up her Easter Sunday to stand along the highway and look in car trunks and truck beds.
“Some people don’t like the inspections, rapid as they are, but mostly they understand the problems and are pleased,” she said. Volunteers are instructed to be pleasant and polite, according to MINAE coordinator Victor Julio Quirós.
“People are tired and hot, but most accept the delay,” he said. “It’s the grumpy ones who have something to hide.”
The campaign began weeks in advance with public notices. On the Saturday before Easter, cars were stopped on their way west and volunteers handed out flyers advising occupants to respect and protect natural resources, according to COVERENA’s Sergio Arroyo, who said the annual campaigns began in 1998.
By the end of the day, the team had confiscated an owl, a parakeet, a turtle, two kinkajous and three dead and skinned iguanas.
Plants come out the worst. People pull them out of the ground, or off trees, in the case of orchids and bromeliads, and don’t realize it’s illegal. Catches of fish were also confiscated if the owners couldn’t produce fishing licenses or receipts.
The rule is that anything pertaining to nature stays where it is. Corals, rocks containing fossils, and shells were other items confiscated. One disappointed and embarrassed woman had planned on adding shells and rocks to her garden at home. Instead, she received a lecture from MINAE, which will return the rocks and shells to the sea. No fines are given in the case of animals, plants and minerals if they are voluntarily given up.
Animals go to Zoo Ave in nearby La Garita, where they are eventually released. Plants go to a teaching laboratory at the technical school in San Ramón, also nearby.
It’s a little more difficult for traffic violators; a block of 38 cars was parked along one section of the highway with the words “alcohol” or “no license” painted across the windshields for all passersby to see. Drivers who failed the Breathalyzer test or lacked a license got a ticket and a ¢26,000 ($52) fine, and had to go home in a bus or taxi. By going to court and paying the fines, they could reclaim their cars later in the week.
Humor, camaraderie and a filling lunch provided by Zoo Ave made the day pleasant in spite of the heat and traffic. Special attention was given to buses, which were directed to a separate lane. “Bus, bus, bus!” went up the shout, bringing volunteer inspectors running.
Similar checkpoints were set up in San Carlos, another popular Holy Week retreat in north-central Costa Rica, and other highly trafficked vacation routes. Although the number of plants and animals confiscated went down this year, the wildlife trade is still going on, according to Ignacio Solís of the National Conservation Area System (SINAC), a division of the Ministry of Environment and Energy. Confiscated items from other checkpoints included two ocelots, parrots, a sloth and 600 pieces of lumber.