Biological bridges key to sustaining Costa Rica’s biodiversity

From rainforests to mangroves …

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International partnerships help sustain Costa Rica’s biodiversity. Photo courtesy Dr. Jessica Young.
Costa Rica is home to an incredible variety of avian species, including some that migrate between Central America and Colorado. Photo courtesy Dr. Jessica Young.
Costa Rica is home to an incredible variety of avian species, including some that migrate between Central America and Colorado. Photo courtesy Dr. Jessica Young.

By Cassidy Brush

It’s 5:30 a.m. and already the cacophony of birdsong is deafening. But then again, it may be the howler monkeys we saw when we arrived — a tough distinction for someone new to the rainforest. Today is day two of a ten-day graduate course in Costa Rica entitled “Building Bridges and Creating Corridors.” The racket outside the shuttered doors is calling, and sleep seems pointless, so I acquiesce to the excitement of the day. Someone from my cohort is already awake and exploring the grounds close by. I wonder if she is thinking the same thing I am. What, exactly, made that noise? The mysterious creature remains hidden behind a lush wall of bush, taunting our curiosity.

And so begins my journey of exploring biological corridors in Costa Rica- from the cloud forests of Monteverde to the costal mangroves of San Antonio. Our group is made up of five environmental management students, an intern of permaculture, and Western State Colorado University’s global coordinator-cum-graduate faculty. We are supported by several Costa Rican organizations and professionals who infuse us with local knowledge. But importantly, we experience firsthand the international reach of these projects. Corridors live both within and beyond Costa Rica’s borders.

The concept of corridors is simple. In the reserves and parks we visited, they are areas of connectivity; places where species can move freely within a network of habitats. The goal of corridors is to provide a safe haven that promotes survival in an increasingly fragmented world.

Costa Ricans are progressive in protecting the immense diversity that graces their landscape. Through policy and community collaboration, they offer a model for the rest of the world.

This class was my second trip to Costa Rica. My first was last month to work on my graduate project, The Collaboration Connection, telling the story of the people and ecology that unite Costa Rica and the U.S.

The story began with the discovery of a 0.3 ounce banded Wilson’s warbler that traveled an incredible 2100 miles from Monteverde to Rocky Mountain National Park — a feat of endurance that’s repeated annually by this Neotropical migrant. Amazingly, this avian superstar inspired partnerships that bridged borders, science, and culture. The excitement surrounding the warbler’s flight was impetus for Rocky Mountain National Park to engage in a formal Sister Parks agreement with the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica.

Keeping in stride, the Estes Park Sister Cities Organization was founded to unite the towns of Monteverde and Estes Park. These biosphere reserves share over 150 bird species. And what’s more, they both straddle the Continental Divide. If I hiked due south from Rocky Mountain National Park, I’d end up in Monteverde. These relationships are strengthening the social and ecological ties that bind our countries. The migration corridor that facilitated this warbler’s flight is the metaphorical bridge of possibility that my project targets.

Day three reveals the identity of the creature lurking in the bushes. It’s a chicken-like bird called a Chachalaca. I never see him, but his raucous call is identified by my graduate mentor. His repeated “chac, a lak, chac, a lak” sounds like an old car engine refusing to turn over. The La Tirimbina Field Station and reserve that houses this charismatic bird is our lowland tropical base camp within the Costa Rican Canton of Sarapiqui. Our reception to the compound is no less exceptional. We are welcomed by the showmanship of sparring green iguanas, a resplendent chestnut-mandibled toucan, and a mother howler with baby astride, hanging on for dear life.

La Tirimbina’s dynamic programming includes scientific research, eco-tourism, and education. It’s situated in the northeastern region of Costa Rica in a richly diverse area where rivers and forest collide. The nearby San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor is our first stop in the lowlands.

The afternoon’s lecture is informative: there are 37 biological corridors in Costa Rica, 915 different species of birds (532 species in Sarapiqui alone representing 51 percent of all bird species in the country). The landscape it critical habitat for great green macaws and jaguar.

Most compelling is the alliance of 26 organizations that are making this happen. The project’s core lies within the 123,000 acre Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge. This mixed-use refuge restricts development, but permits people to live and work on their land. Their greatest campaigns are bi-national actions with neighboring Nicaragua to enhance cultural and landscape scale connections. This unique relationship allows them to co-create community programs, like festivals celebrating the macaws that fly across national boundaries, effectively promoting a culture of cooperative learning.

Corridors come in all sizes. The 3 million year old isthmus of Central America connects North and South America to create a bridge that supports nearly 7 percent of the earth’s species on about 0.5 percent of its landmass. And Costa Ricans are passionate about saving it. The World Bank, a financial arm of the United Nations, reports that almost 27 percent of Costa Rica’s terrestrial area is protected — a high percentage for a country that’s about the size of West Virginia.

But corridors are also effective on a minute scale. Our naturalist guide for the course designed one on his property in Monteverde. The trees he’s planted are a mini-reforestation project that invites flora and fauna to leap-frog adjacent habitats. The project demonstrates the value of intersecting social knowledge with an ecological need, lending a hand to fellow creatures whose paths we may unwittingly complicate. The simplicity of this is alluring. What would be the impact if this local lesson was replicated worldwide?

Our dynamic group is transported to the cloud forests of Monteverde where we stay for two days. We’re like-minded adventurers who experience the forest slowly, taking in every ant, bird and flower.  It’s extraordinary to travel with a group of individuals that ponder the world so enthusiastically. Our next escapade is hiking the Three-wattled Bellbird Biological Corridor along the newly designed Pacific Coast Trail (Sendero Pacifica). At 4662 feet above sea level, Monteverde’s life-giving moisture emanates from clouds that envelope the steep slopes separating the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.

The Monteverde Institute seamlessly coordinates our stay with a range of instruction — from payment for ecological services to a night walk in the forest where invertebrates reign supreme. In a powerful exercise of restraint, we turn off our headlamps to experience darkness without visual cues. Our guide asks us to consider the eons of evolution that make survival here possible. We prepare for the upcoming trip to the backcountry with a mixture of solid instruction and sweet anticipation. Again we load our van to transfer from Monteverde to the Pacific Coast trailhead in San Luis. The landscape morphs from lush forest to green pasture as we drop in elevation.

A warm greeting from our guides prepares us for the amazing encounters in store. The trail is a new section of a greater network and corridor within the Monteverde Cloud Forest conservation region. Within its boundary is a segment of the renowned Children’s Eternal Rain Forest protected by the Monteverde Conservation League. The vision of this trail network is to link forests and local communities via a trail system that may be used freely by anyone. Many players are responsible for its conception. It is not a government or NGO project, in fact, it’s energized through grass roots design and informal associations. Community alliance and values are its guiding principles. Constructed by a dedicated consortium of self-organized volunteers, it represents many conservation properties and ecological or agricultural initiatives.

The rigorous hike is spectacular. Our conscientious guides check in frequently. Water, snacks, and good vibes are key to preservation here. Between contemplative moments are narratives that tell the story of this vast landscape and culture. Halfway through the day, we arrive atop a peak with windbreaks of pine and an open meadow. Looking back we see them. Two perfect rainbows with Monteverde’s cloud forests in the background. We pause here, and our guides realize the difficulty of getting us to move on. My mentor refers to this as “herding cats”, and it sticks for the rest of the trip.

After six hours we arrive at the deck of our hut in Ampala. The evening event is a visit from the association board members from San Luis and discussion with one of our guides who hails from Vermont, but has made Costa Rica his family’s home for decades. Their role is organizational and advocacy driven, not rule making. Strategy has stepped up to include education and tourism. Balancing growth with community values is preeminent. I fight sleep to enjoy these moments. Tomorrow is another big day — to San Antonio then off to the Nicoya Gulf. I want to stay here in the peaceful clutches of this place.

Making connections is core to our humanity. We seek opportunities to understand our relationship with the land and the people who inhabit it. Incredible networks of cooperation can be found if we pay attention. Our naturalist guide at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve said “you can’t have conservation without people.” The people who drive these conservation efforts are the bridge between their communities and the natural world. Connecting-the-dots means more now than ever.

My last tour is at 4:00 a.m. I’m zooming through the dark streets of San Jose in a taxi to the airport. At the rate he is going I will be early to the gate. The extra time makes me smile- imagining my indulgence in one last cup of Costa Rican café while reflecting on the importance of the connections I’ve just made.

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