Foquito has lived a hard life.
He was struck by a tractor-trailer at a young age. Then,while semi-conscious, he was scooped off the road, tied to a tree and fed plastic-wrapped hard candies and birdfeed.
Four years later, he knows no other way. Foquito is a white-faced capuchin monkey.
He lives in a home alongside the road to the Caribbean port of Limón, his lifeline a running, 20-foot chain. He alternates between a tree, the ground, and a wooden play ramp and table his “owners” have set up for him in the backyard.
His story is a familiar one for legions of other animals in the country, and is the springboard the country’s environmental groups are using as they gather signatures for a citizen initiative that would revamp the 1992 Wildlife Law.
The popular initiative to reform the law requires at least 140,000 citizen signatures –a process begun last month and led by the Association for the Preservation of Wild Flora and Fauna (APREFLOFAS) (see box).
While nearly unique in Central America, the country’s current Wildlife Law, according to the group’s director, Gino Biamonte, has done little to discourage the ownership and sale of wild birds and animals inside the country and is in dire need of reform.
Embarrassingly low fines for crimes against wildlife, ranging from ¢4,000-15,000 ($8-29), are far too low, he said, to deter even humble families from keeping wildlife as pets, particularly considering the well-known lack of enforcement.
“Some of these species can sell for thousands of dollars on the black market. With just one sale, someone trafficking these species can pay these fines for a lifetime,” he said.
The new law, Biamonte explained, is being drafted by a team of lawyers and wildlife specialists and would reinforce penalties, raise fines for animal trafficking and ban sport hunting in the country.
“We’re long past due on this and our wildlife is suffering,” he said. “It’s time for a change.”
One in four Tico households has a wild animal as a pet, according to a study published in 2001 by Carlos Drews, a Cambridge-educated Colombian biologist with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in San José.
Ticos are naturally animal lovers, Drews explained. According to his study, more than 71% of households surveyed in the late 1990s owned an animal of some kind, be it domestic or wild.
But despite a strong sentimental attachment to their pets, the conditions of these animals, he writes, are worrisome.
“Enclosures are small, animals are generally kept in isolation, diets can be inadequate, veterinary care is rare and mortality is high,” Drews continues.
Jorge Hernández, a wildlife biologist with the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) who is helping draft the new legislation, estimates that there are more than 300,000 wild animals in captivity illegally in the country, a massive number that he believes continues to grow at a rate of 35,000-40,000 a year.
“Having wildlife inside the home is part of the culture in Costa Rica. It always has been,” he said. “Despite our efforts, we have no reason to believe this tendency is not continuing to grow.”
Hernández wrote his thesis on the issue and worries as much about the condition of the animals in captivity as he does about their still-wild counterparts.
“If we continue to capture and sell these birds and animals, their populations will continue to plummet,” he said.
The list of commonly kept species in Costa Rica reads like the wildlife chapter in a tourist’s guide to the country, and includes such favorites as the scarlet and great-green macaws, the yellow-naped and orangechinned parrots, and spider, howler, squirrel and white-faced monkeys.
Unfortunately, he said, the list might also be confused with that of the country’s most threatened species.
A Perplexing Dilemma
If the popular initiative succeeds and a new wildlife law is passed, experts worry it could result in a Noah’s Ark style deliverance of birds and animals that would overwhelm the country’s rescue centers and put wild populations at risk.
Foquito, the white-faced capuchin who lives beside the road in Limón, is a perfect example of the enormous complexities of the situation, Biamonte explains.
If a new law is passed, Foquito, like the nearly 300,000 animals estimated in captivity, would theoretically need a new home.
“The question becomes, what do we do with them?” Biamonte asked.
Unclip his leash and release him to the jungle, and Foquito, now accustomed to a daily diet of hard candy and birdfeed, might not be able to fend for himself.
Worse yet, because he doesn’t come with papers or a passport, no one knows exactly where he was born, or where he belongs.
Set him free, Biamonte said, and he could spread disease or “contaminate” the gene pool of a wild population, or subspecies, of monkeys, whose numbers have already fallen 50% over the past 10 years (TT, April 27).
Mauricio Jiménez, a veterinarian and professor at the National University (UNA) believes that all existing animals should be registered and licensed with the passage of the new law, to ensure they receive adequate care.
“But once the animal dies, that’s it. The person never receives another permit,” he said.
Another option, one which some experts feel is the best way to ensure such animals don’t affect wild populations, is to destroy them.
But Hernández, who served as director of the national zoo for five years, fears this could cause a backlash.
“If people find out their parrot or monkey might be destroyed, they would be more inclined to secretly reintroduce it to the wild,” he said.
According to Hernández, the country’s animal rescue centers and clinics are “completely saturated” and in their current state, could not handle the influx.
To help solve the crisis before the passage of the law, he believes the government should promote the establishment of rescue centers throughout the country, funded in part privately. The centers could provide homes for animals until they died (parrots can live 30 years or more) or begin the process of re-introducing the animals into the wild.
Most everyone agrees the long-term solution comes down to education and abstinence. “If you have a wild animal in captivity, keep it until it dies, but don’t replace it,” Hernández urges.
There is another problem: Foquito doesn’t seem to want to leave.
When his owners unclip his lead, he climbs up a tree in the yard, or straddles someone’s leg, but rarely goes out of sight.
“The way the laws are written now, an animal that is free in someone’s yard, is not technically captive, and therefore, not a violation of the law,” Biamonte said.
It’s yet another of the many problems that might arise with the passage of the new law.
For now, proponents are just a few thousand signatures into the popular initiative, and time enough remains, say experts, to resolve these issues.
“What we know right now is that the law isn’t sufficient to protect our wildlife,” Biamonte said. “And we, as Ticos, need to start looking for solutions.”
Popular Initiative: New Laws Made Easy
It may be Costa Rica’s most easy-to-understand law. The Law for Popular Initiatives, passed in 2006, allows a citizen group to propose a law to the Legislative Assembly by collecting the name, signature, and cedula number of at least 5% of the country’s population (TT, March 3, 2006).
“It’s that simple. The idea was to make this a viable option for all,” explains Marco Vásquez, a legal advisor at the Ministry of Justice.
Simply put, the law allows citizens to bypass the requirement of having a legislator to introduce a law. It also requires the legislature to vote on the law within a period of two years.
“This is a huge advantage, particularly considering the notoriously slow legislative process,” Vásquez said.
To date, Vásquez said, no group has yet to take advantage of this option. If successful, he said, those wishing to reform the Wildlife Law could be the first.
If you are a Costa Rican citizen and would like to sign the petition proposing reforms to the Wildlife Law, call 240-6087, see www.apreflofas.or.cr, or visit your nearest Importadora Monge store.