CORCOVADONATIONAL PARK, OsaPeninsula – Take a few steps off the “tourist trail” with world-renowned jaguar expert Eduardo Carrillo, and the forest darkens, the sky lost behind an impenetrable mosaic of green leaves of every shape and size.
“Don’t sit down, and be careful not to touch anything,” cautions the National University (UNA) biologist – a rotund, enthusiastic man who has studied jaguars inside the park since 1994.
Danger abounds on these “investigation” trails, paths separated from the park’s wellsigned hiking trails by a curtain of lush vegetation and undetectable to anyone but park guards and the scientists, such as Carrillo, who maintain them.
Here, in the encroaching jungle, even the most cheerfully colored frogs impart a venomous mucous that can kill. Snakes coil around moss-covered branches, resembling vines – an unwelcome surprise for the unwary visitor looking for a walking stick or a leaning post.
Ants march in military-like formation, carrying chartreuse cut leaves on their backs like miniature pitched tents. Even the trees wear collars of needle sharp spikes to defend against predators.
White-lipped peccaries root snout first through the dense growth, and jaguars, stealthy and silent, prowl the shadows in one of the last true strongholds of this species in all of Central America.
Welcome to the place National Geographic calls the most biologically diverse on the planet – and home to what Carrillo insists is the most critically threatened species of all: the park ranger.
Corcovado’s park rangers have always suffered from an uncertain fate, explains Carrillo, but never has it been more critical than now, with funding for their salaries due to expire next month.
In 2004, an $8 million donation from the U.S.-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation – matched by $3 million from private donors and Osa-based environmental groups – allowed the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) to hire 67 new officials, among them 54 park rangers and a support staff of 13, including lawyers and officials who help process and transport detained hunters (TT, Nov. 12, 2004).
The hefty donation, managed by The Nature Conservancy, a worldwide conservation group with offices in Escazú, west of San José, doubled the number of park guards and even accounted for such supplies as toilet paper and boots – essentials in a region that receives more than 4 meters of rainfall a year and harbors over 10,000 species of insects.
“Before they hired the new guards, there would be some places in the park we would visit only once a year,” said Greivin Vega, a spry young park guard whose job – and home – is at risk. “Now we run patrols throughout the park all year.”
CorcovadoNational Park covers 425 square kilometers, an area roughly 122 times the size of New York City’s Central Park.
The Moore Foundation grant came at a crucial time in Corcovado’s history.
Populations of jaguars, the park’s crown species, had plummeted from an estimated 150 to just 40 in five years, in large part because of relentless illegal hunting pressure on their primary food source, the white-lipped peccary (TT, Sept 9, 2005).
Meanwhile, the government floundered in fiscal crisis, with then-President Abel Pacheco stating that he wouldn’t reprioritize state spending and “get rid of doctors to hire park guards” (TT, July 23, 2004).
The grant was the jaguar’s savior, according to Carrillo. The newly hired rangers quickly clamped down on illegal hunting by launching patrols into every corner of the park.
“Peccary numbers rebounded almost immediately after the park rangers were hired. It is working,” confirms Carrillo, whose figures show an exact correlation between the year the park guards arrived and the rising populations of this pig-like, easily hunted animal.
Jaguars, he said, are less apt to wander outside the park in search of peccaries, and so are less likely to be shot by poachers and farmers protecting their livestock.
The situation is still precarious, cautions Carrillo, who adds that jaguar populations have not been so quick to rebound from the crisis.
According to Richard Kogel, who helps manage the Osa program for The Nature Conservancy, his group is willing to continue to fund Corcovado rangers’ salaries at least through October, and perhaps January 2008 – with one caveat.
“The government must use that extra time to ensure set posts and funding for the rangers,” he said, insisting that the funding hinges on the government’s committed support for such a proposal.
The sizeable initial grant that funded the rangers expired quickly as significant chunks of money were set aside for conservation easements outside the park; to maintain biological corridors; for purchases in nearby Piedras Blancas National Park; and for studies associated with zoning plans that will help ensure sustainable development in the region.
“This grant was by no means strictly for park rangers. The government needs to find a way to fund the program in the long term,” Kogel said.
Ronald Vargas, director of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), the branch of the Environment and Energy Ministry that manages the nation’s protected areas, said he realizes the critical nature of the situation.
He said ¢400 million, about $775,000, would be required annually to ensure that the program continues, with an average monthly park ranger salary totalling about ¢244,000 ($473). Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles has presented a proposal to the Finance Ministry to include it in next year’s budget, according to Vargas.
“I have had people tell me that sum is too big, that it could be used in other places. I say jaguar populations are in danger. Whatever effort, whatever protection we can give them, we must do it,” said Vargas, adding that he believes such a move will help make the region more attractive to tourists, as well.
“It will pay for itself in the end,” he said.
To follow Carrillo through the dense, wet tropical forest of Corcovado National Park is like accompanying a talking guidebook, complete with explanations of every smell, sight and sound.
“See those scrapings? Those are whitelipped peccaries rooting around for food,” he said. “You can smell them when they’re close.”
The day before, he said, he’d seen dozens wandering through the brush just minutes from the nearby Sirena Ranger Station. They were kicking up dirt, feeding and almost oblivious to his presence.
Not five years ago it was rare to see any at all.
“For me, it was almost a religious experience,” he said.
Carrillo is certain a jaguar has been prowling this very trail. He says he knows this because guards had found a kill here – a gutted peccary carcass – not long ago. The thought of the unseen jaguars, he says, gives him hope. But the line between their survival and their extinction in the park is perilously thin – dependent on the fragile relationship between hunter, peccary and predator, and now, a once-again tenuous source of funding.
“If these park rangers leave at the end of this year, there will be a disaster in Osa. Jaguar populations will not recover from another assault on their prey,” he said.