After being attacked by a tapir – a mammal roughly as large as a cow – Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez wandered lost and alone through the dense jungle of Corcovado National Park for three days before he emerged, virtually unharmed, at one of the park’s beaches on Saturday.
On his last trip to Corcovado before the end of his term, Rodríguez, 46, was on a 14- kilometer hike through the remote park in the country’s Southern Zone April 20 with a group of six park rangers, working on an operation to prevent poaching, he told The Tico Times this week.
Illegal hunting for the white-lipped peccary, a main food source for the endangered jaguars that inhabit the expansive park, which spans more than 54,000 hectares, has been a continued problem, leading to declines in both animal populations. While in 2004, scientists suggested there might not be enough animals to repopulate the area, last year, renowned Universidad Nacional researcher Eduardo Carrillo noted an increase in the numbers of peccaries compared to the year before, when he counted between 300-400 animals (TT, July 23, 2004, Sept. 9, 2005).
Last week’s operation, part of a patrolling program to control illegal hunting that Rodríguez started at the beginning of his term, consisted of hiking through the park for evidence of poaching. Every year since he created the program, Rodríguez has joined park rangers on 4-5 patrolling missions of approximately three days each, he said.
On this particular mission, the minister decided to hike ahead to follow a young tapir because it looked hurt, as if a jaguar had attacked it.
Soon, the animal’s protective mother flung itself at him, closing its teeth on the backpack he carried, he told The Tico Times.
In an attempt to escape the aggressive tapir, an animal that can weigh up to 200 kilograms as an adult, Rodríguez jumped into a ravine. The fall rendered him unconscious.
“I lay unconscious, and woke up disoriented and bloodied,” he said.
Search-and-rescue personnel from the Public Security Ministry, the Red Cross and the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) began searching for Rodríguez Friday after he had been missing 24 hours.
Fabián Sandoval, Corcovado tourism coordinator who arranged the accommodations for rescue workers, estimated that the minister’s disappearance drew approximately 50 workers to the area.
They searched by land with two canine units and two teams of mountain-search experts, and by air with two Security Ministry helicopters and two airplanes, one of them from the U.S. Embassy in San José.
Guided by his compass and the sun, Rodríguez, who visited Corcovado 15-18 times during his time as minister, never lost calm as he searched for a way out to the beach. Armed with a machete, a rain jacket, binoculars, cookies, a flashlight and a hammock, Rodríguez set up camp for two nights, though he slept no more than four hours at a time.
After sighting a pack of wild pigs and running across two Fer-de-lance snakes, Rodríguez finally emerged at the park’s Sirena beach Saturday morning, dehydrated and covered with leaches. Rescue workers found him there, he said.
The minister was flown to San José in one of the helicopters and taken to the private Clínica Bíblica hospital, where he spent the night and was treated for cuts and dehydration, Public Security Ministry spokeswoman Patricia Meléndez said.
The minister, who returned to work Monday, said the thought of dying never crossed his mind and throughout the experience, he maintained faith in his abilities.
“In there, I wasn’t worried about me, I was worried about my family,” admitted Rodríguez, who has four children ages 12, 10, 4, and 2 with his wife, Florencia Valverde.
Upon his return to civilization, some have suggested Rodríguez’s experience was fabricated for “a minute of fame,” as the daily Al Día put it. However, Rodríguez told the daily he would never dream of putting so many peoples’ lives at risk like that, and that if people think so, they should say it to his face, and he would rip theirs apart.
According to Sandoval, no tourist has ever been lost in Corcovado for more than a few hours. Two years ago, an alleged poacher was lost for several days, but found his way out, he added.
Rodríguez, one of the few ministers in President Abel Pacheco’s Cabinet who remains in office, served as Vice-President during the administration of his uncle, ex-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002). He was director of the National Park Service during José María Figueres’ administration (1994-98), and assistant to the general manager of the Tropical Agronomy Research Center (CATIE) before becoming Environment Minister.
Last year, six international conservationist organizations awarded him the Global Oceans Conservation Award for his work in marine conservation (TT Daily Page, June 8, 2005).
In 2004, the minister expanded Las Baulas National Marine Park in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and promoted the San José Declaration, an agreement between Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador for the multinational conservation of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape (ETPS), a mega marine corridor that includes two World Heritage Sites – the Galapagos Archipelago in Ecuador and Costa Rica’s Isla del Coco National Park, a remote Pacific island located a 30-hour boat ride from the mainland.
The same week he received the award, the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON) requested that Rodríguez resign his position for failing to meet the country’s environmental needs.
The Law of the Jungle
Tapirs, monkeys and insects last week made it clear that in the jungle, government officials enjoy no special treatment – even if they are from the Environment Ministry and trying to protect them.
As if wild animals were teaming up to prevent the Environment Minister’s escape from the jungle, on Friday morning a pack of monkeys attacked a group of nine park officials who were searching for Carlos Manuel Rodríguez and had stopped to assist a colleague who was experiencing an allergic reaction to an insect bite.
After receiving the bite, from an insect he never saw, Carlos Madriz, administrator of the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve next to Corcovado National Park, experienced shortness of breath and an accelerated heartbeat, and fainted, he told The Tico Times.
While he was unconscious for approximately 15-20 minutes, members of his search party told him that not only did he foam at the mouth, but also a pack of monkeys started throwing sticks at the group.
“They don’t like human invasions of their territory and will throw sticks and sometimes feces at people,” said Madriz, who said luckily his group was not attacked with feces.
Although no one was injured during this incident, Madriz explained that at this point, the rescuers’ anxiety increased and they began to think the situation was getting out of hand.