Small but Mighty, Costa Rica Big on Biodiversity

December 19, 2008

Tiny Costa Rica is one of the Earth’s major biodiversity hot spots.

Did you know that our little territory, just 280 kilometers wide and 480 km long, is bursting with more life than the continents of Europe or North America? Have you ever wondered why?

What makes Costa Rica a promised land for plant and animal species is its location and geography. Its position as a bridge between North and South America allows species from both continents to meet, flourish and create new species here. Year-round high temperatures and humidity favor the growth of dense vegetation, which provides a welcoming terrain for life to spring forth.

But tropical forest isn’t the only habitat found in Costa Rica. Tectonic forces shaped the country like a big mountain with one foot in the Pacific Ocean and the other in the Caribbean Sea. The moving ground gave birth to unique natural features that hold the secret of enhanced biodiversity.

From sea level to 3,820 meters’ altitude (12,533 feet) atop the Southern Zone’s MountChirripó, the country’s highest peak, all kinds of climates and topographies offer homes to an incredible variety of wildlife. We have mangroves and sandy beaches, tropical dry forests, cloud forests, temperate highlands, volcanoes, subalpine prairies and even a desert budding with cacti in the northwestern Guanacaste province’s lowlands.

Costa Rica is the jewelry case for 5 percent of the total animal species known on the planet. Its 1,000 butterfly species represent a quarter of all butterfly species in the world. Half of the country’s 200 mammal species are bats, constituting 12 percent of the world’s bat diversity. The nation is also a bird paradise, home to 850 species – a tenth of the world’s bird species, including 51 kinds of colorful and restless hummingbirds. Plants are not to be outdone; the country is teeming with more than 10,000 species of vascular plants, including 1,400 orchid species found from sea level to the highest altitudes.

This profusion of biodiversity is being preserved through an exemplary network of national parks, biological reserves and other protected areas comprising about 25 percent of the country’s territory.

While this is a great achievement, it should not be forgotten that more and more Costa Rican species are at risk of extinction and that deforestation is still an issue. Only 5 percent of unprotected areas are forested, and the country’s remaining dry forest has been reduced to 1 percent of its original range.

Ecotourism holds a great deal of promise in inciting the local population to abandon agriculture for a more eco-friendly source of income. But we must stay vigilant. A large, uncontrolled influx of tourists can also be detrimental to nature. Deforestation for pastureland and agriculture may be replaced by deforestation for resorts and tourism facilities, resulting in more wildlife disturbance and pollution.

The reasonable use of nature’s gifts is more important than ever, if we and our children are to continue seeing Costa Rica as the planet’s jewelry case for life.

Fleur Daugey is field coordinator for the Osa Scarlet Macaw Conservation Project at the OsaBiodiversityCenter in southwestern Costa Rica’s CorcovadoNational Park.

 

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