Jaguars Could Disappear This Year, Experts Warn
PUERTO JIMÉNEZ – The Osa Peninsula, on the southern Pacific coast, one of the last strongholds of Costa Rica’s jaguar and whitelipped peccary populations, for years has been a poaching hotspot, and now scientists warn if the killing isn’t stopped both species could disappear from Corcovado National Park this year.
The situation has become so critical that Environment and Energy Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez put on his boots and tromped through the park with rangers last week to monitor anti-poaching efforts there.
Poachers, whose main target is the white-lipped peccary, often carry heavy weaponry such as AK-47s, according to park guards. They gun down as many peccaries as they can – sometimes 50 or more at one time, rangers said.
THE white-lipped peccary is the main prey of the highly endangered Central American jaguar. With its natural food supply quickly diminishing, the great cats have been forced to expand their hunting grounds and prey on domestic animals in the area, scientists say. As a consequence, residents of communities around the park often kill the jaguars out of fear or to protect their own economic interests.
This, coupled with the animals being hunted directly for the value of their pelts, teeth and bones, has decimated their population in the area, according to a study conducted by Eduardo Carrillo with the Universidad Nacional (UNA).
Carrillo, a jaguar expert, said eight jaguars were killed by community members last year.
The most recent accurate count of the Corcovado jaguar population, done with the help of 40 motion-activated cameras installed throughout the park, estimates the number of jaguars on the peninsula between 40 and 50 – a sharp decline from the count of between 75 and 100 just two years ago.
White-lipped peccaries have dropped 85% in the past four years, from 2,000 to around 300, Carrillo said.
ALVARO Ugalde, director of the Osa Conservation Area (ACOSA), which contains CorcovadoNational Park, has drafted a request for a declaration of a state of environmental emergency on the peninsula.
“I am tired of watching and fighting internally in silence,” Ugalde told The Tico Times. “How long can I hold here in Osa, feeling responsible for what’s happening and not able to stop it? I don’t know myself how to answer that.”
Ugalde, known as the father of Costa Rica’s national park system for the leading role he played in designing it, recently came out of retirement to combat the poaching problem in Corcovado. He raised enough money to pay his salary for two years, and then offered his services to the government, which gladly accepted, he said.
In the proposed decree, Ugalde requests whatever steps necessary be taken to stop the poaching problem within 10 days of the declaration of emergency. He also calls for additional employees and requests action be taken against restaurants and cantinas that sell poached meat.
PARK guards told The Tico Times they are doing everything within their power to stop the hunters, but only 25 guards are available to patrol the 54,039-hectare park, filled with thick rainforest and spanning about one third of the OsaPeninsula. Ugalde said the park should be staffed with no fewer than 40 full-time guards.
Current guards, joined by police assigned to assist them as part of a lastditch effort on the part of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) and the Public Security Ministry to stop the hunters, are now moving deep into the jungle on three- and four-day patrols aimed at catching poachers.
Acting on the evidence they encounter and phone tips from activists and local residents, the small teams of guards and police set up camouflaged surveillance points in the hope of catching poachers in the act.
BUT the hunters are evasive and intelligent, said Eliécer Villalta, the park guard in command of the Los Patos station. Although the station houses six guards, one must be there at all times to attend to tourists entering the park.
Villalta said poachers move stealthily and rarely use the same route twice. He also said he believes hunters occasionally call in false tips to mislead the understaffed guards and ensure a clear passage through other areas of the park.
The poachers’ main points of entry are along the park’s largely unmanned northern border, according to Eliécer Arce, superintendent of the park.
Arce said poachers have taken signs there that once read “Park Boundary.
Hunting Prohibited,” and modified them so they say only “Hunting.” He said the signs have arrows drawn on them pointing toward the Corcovado lagoon area, where most of the park’s wildlife is concentrated. Carrillo, Arce, Ugalde and Villalta all said an adequate number of park guards would prove incredibly effective in curbing the poaching.
THE black market surrounding the poaching of jaguars and peccaries thrives, according to Environment Ministry officials, park guards and area tour guides.
One tour guide, Mike Boston, said he had learned through acquaintances that a jaguar pelt could fetch up to $1,500 on the black market, and that some jewelry stores offer jaguar teeth mounted in gold for “a hefty price.”
Boston said a man in DrakeBay, a wilderness resort area north of CorcovadoNational Park, offered him a jaguar skull in “pristine condition” for $600 last year.
“If it does get $600, that’s a lot of incentive to get another one, isn’t it?” said Boston, who added he knew of a former tour guide, employed by an area hotel, caught poaching in the middle of the night.
Peccary meat can bring hunters between ¢9,000 ($21) and ¢12,000 ($28) per kilo, Carrillo said. That means that at 34 kilograms apiece (the average weight of a peccary), a single kill could bring in more than ¢400,000 ($941). Peccary meat often is sold in cantinas in the area and in some restaurants in the Central Valley, experts said.
ENVIRONMENT Ministry officials say hunters are coming from outside of the area to kill the park’s animals for sport, and it is not likely many people hunt for subsistence.
“They’re armed to the teeth, so they’re not poor people,” Ugalde said. “They’re armed with machine guns and driving luxury SUVs (sport utility vehicles).”
In many cases, the poachers are known among community members, park superintendent Arce said. Police and MINAE have a list of persons they believe to be poachers and guides, and are working on gathering enough evidence to move in on them.
In addition to drafting the emergency decree, Ugalde – named one of Time magazine’s Latin American Leaders of the Century in 1999 – has led an effort to raise $31 million to hire guards, purchase more land, and manage CorcovadoPark. He said the Costa Rica – United States of America Foundation for Cooperation (CRUSA) has pledged to match donations up to $3 million.
UGALDE and Arce both mentioned the possibility of temporarily closing the park to make putting an end to the poaching the number-one priority of every employee.
However, they also said it is not likely because of how much area business owners depend on the park for their livelihood.
“The truth is, if I did that, they would probably lynch me,” Ugalde said.
He said area hotels and adventure agencies, of which only a few contribute to the park’s protection, are so dependent on the park they might resort to opening it by force if it were closed down.
How To Help
Marco Araya, director of protected areas within the Environment Ministry’s National System of Conservation Areas, said people interested in contributing to Corcovado conservation efforts should donate to one the following organizations:
Fundación Corcovado (Corcovado Foundation): Donations can be made by deposit at BAC San José bank, account # 901632398. After making a donation, contributors are asked to send a copy of the deposit slip to the foundation by fax (241-2906) or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
People outside of Costa Rica can send checks payable to the Corcovado Foundation to the Corcovado Foundation, Interlink No 665, P.O. Box 02-5635, Miami, FL33102.
Costa Rican Conservation Fund: U.S. citizens interested in making tax-deductible gifts to support conservation efforts can mail them to the non-profit Costa Rican Conservation Fund,3166 N. Lincoln Ave.
, Suite 426, Chicago, IL60657