Throughout Costa Rica, uninsulated power lines deliver arboreal animals a grizzly death sentence: electrocution. Everywhere bare power lines are installed in their forest habitat, tree-dependent creatures such as monkeys, sloths, squirrels, coatis and iguanas meet untimely and horrific ends, often leaving their young orphaned and defenseless.
In the Pacific beach town of Nosara on the NicoyaPeninsula, the nonprofit Nosara Wildlife is working to save injured and orphaned animals while raising awareness about long-term solutions to the problem.
Nosara Wildlife is a joint project by Refugio Animales de Nosara (Nosara Wildlife Refuge) and Sibu Sanctuary, two organizations with a common mission: to rescue injured, orphaned and displaced wild animals and provide them with immediate medical care, rehabilitation and eventual release into the wild. While the organizations’ leaders readily acknowledge that their efforts are only a desperate short-term Band-Aid to the problem, they are working together with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to promote a long-term solution: simple modifications to power infrastructure that render it safe for wildlife.
According to ICE, about 90 percent of Costa Rica’s energy is generated by renewable resources – water, geothermal and wind power. However, in the process of delivering this energy, wild animals are continually killed, contributing to the decline of already delicate populations. Yet electric power and excruciating death need not go hand in hand.
Electricity can be delivered safely to consumers by simply insulating existing power lines or burying them underground, and installing transformer connector covers.
ICE and Nosara Wildlife recently reached an agreement to insulate a total of 20 kilometers of existing power lines and cover “hot” transformers in the Nosara area. Since starting installation work Feb. 12, ICE has insulated 12 km of wire; the remaining eight km are slated for completion by July. Nosara Wildlife has raised funds to assist ICE with the cost of labor and materials to achieve this goal.
“This shows the really compassionate side of ICE,” says Brenda Bombard, founder of Refugio Animales de Nosara, who has been advocating insulated wires since 1998. “They are going to make an example out of Nosara.”
Bombard says she has not received a single call to rescue an electrically burned animal in Nosara since the insulation project started.
“I will be thrilled if I never see another electrocuted monkey again,” she says. “Unfortunately, we still get monkeys from as far as Sámara, Playa Negra, Nicoya and Tamarindo.”
Nosara is just one of many regions in Costa Rica where human development brings power lines into wildlife habitat.
“The only remedy for this problem is a law that mandates only insulated or underground power lines be installed where arboreal wildlife is at risk,” says Steve Coan, 60, co-founder of Sibu Sanctuary. “Unfortunately, we lose more and more wildlife daily to electrocutions.”
This preventive measure makes economic sense; the insulation material costs about $1 more per foot than uninsulated wire, while it costs more than $150 per month to care for an injured monkey, not to mention the suffering, injuries and death that would be eliminated.
On an even larger scale, what would Costa Rica be without monkeys? Monkeys serve a crucial role as seed dispersers. They reforest the land for free, simply by eating fruits and defecating the seeds as they move through the canopy. The loss a decline in monkeys would represent for tourism alone, aside from the incalculable loss the extinction of a species represents to an ecosystem, makes insulation of power lines a win-win solution.
According to a 2007 study by biologist Ronald Sánchez of the University of Costa Rica, the country lost more than half its monkey population between 1995 and 2007 (TT, April 27, 2007). Sánchez estimated that spider monkey populations declined 72 percent, squirrel and capuchin monkeys 43 percent each, and howler monkeys 65 percent.
“In the Nosara area, the greatest threat to monkeys is electrocution,” says Vicki Coan, 57, Sibu Sanctuary co-founder. “If they are to be saved, there must be a change, and it must happen fast.”
Nosara Wildlife operates through two organizations that play different roles in the rescue and rehabilitation process.
Refugio Animales de Nosara rescues all types of injured, orphaned and displaced wild animals, specializing in howler monkeys. Founder Bombard, 55, a native of the U.S. state of California, received her first injured monkey in 1998 shortly after her arrival in Costa Rica. The Refugio, as it is known locally, became an official organization in 2002. It provides immediate emergency medical attention and feeds, shelters and treats animals while supplying ongoing medical treatment by veterinary and wildlife specialists.
Last year alone, more than 132 monkeys came through the rescue center. Bombard says 98 percent of the adult monkeys brought in for electrical burns die within several days of coming into contact with live power lines.
Animals that have been rescued by the Refugio and recover to a stable condition are transferred to enclosed habitats in the jungle at Sibu Sanctuary to reintroduce them to their natural setting. The Sibu staff provides ongoing rehabilitative care in the secured enclosure, which is planted with monkey friendly trees and plants.
After a quarantine period to make sure the new monkeys are healthy, the animals are moved to a step-down secure habitat with an open canopy, so they can begin to
relearn how to survive in the wild in a troop and wean themselves from human care.
Eventually, healthy animals are then released back into the wild, with the support of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry and other agencies involved in wildlife protection. Since opening in March of last year, Sibu Sanctuary has released six monkeys into the wild.
With annual operation costs running upward of $135,000, Nosara Wildlife runs solely on donations and the personal savings of the founders. The Refugio is working toward a goal of raising $150,000 to create an emergency treatment facility with attached baby nursery and loft for visiting veterinarians, while Sibu Sanctuary is trying to raise $4,000 to complete its open-canopy step-down habitat. It also needs $25,000 to build a life-term habitat for animals too disabled from dismemberment and burns to be released back into the wild.
Although 99 percent of the animals brought to Nosara Wildlife are there because of electrical burns, wildlife also faces other human-caused threats, such as habitat loss and forest fragmentation. This destruction can be mitigated by protecting land in biological corridors, connected swaths of forest habitat that allow sufficient space for populations to remain healthy and genetically diverse. Dogs should be leashed and well fenced to prevent them from attacking wildlife.
The problems of hunting and poaching for the illegal pet trade are highly culturally and economically ingrained; curbing them will likely require long-term alternatives and education campaigns.
Until all new and existing power lines are either insulated or buried underground, Nosara Wildlife and like-minded organizations will continue their tireless work of rescuing animals that survive electrical burns and rehabilitating them or their orphaned young for eventual release into the wild.
Nosara Wildlife is one of several organizations throughout the country rescuing electrically burned animals. But the real, achievable solution is prevention. By mandating insulated lines wherever arboreal life exists, Costa Rica could prevent unnecessary suffering and death of animals.
“We have the resources and ability to live in harmony with wildlife,” Vicki Coan says.
Because of the highly sensitive nature of their work and the risk of the spread of disease between humans and monkeys, neither Sibu Sanctuary nor the Refugio are open to the public. However, the public can support their work by regularly inspecting power lines and transformers, making sure vegetation is professionally cut back from lines, planting trees, leading environmental education programs, fundraising and advocating for safe, eco-friendly delivery of electricity.
Nosara Wildlife: Find information on how to donate and support the “Stop the Shock” campaign at www.nosarawildlife.com.
Refugio Animales de Nosara: Brenda Bombard, 2682-0059, 2682-1010, email@example.com.
Sibu Sanctuary: Vicki Coan, 2682-1474, 8866-4652, firstname.lastname@example.org.