PARKS RESERVES WILDLIFE REFUGES


Today, protected wildlife areas cover about 33 percent of Costa Rica. Most are categorized as national parks, biological reserves, and wildlife refuges. The remaining areas are in forest reserves, protected zones, and wetlands. All are part of I I conservation areas that form part of the National Conservation Areas System, referred to by its Spanish acronym SINAC. The conservation areas (listed in Appendix 13) were created to facilitate tile regional protection of ecosystems and cultural resources.

The cornerstone of the wildlife areas is the national parks. Although "paper parks" had been created earlier, the national park system did not come into existence until the late 1960s. The park system grew from three in 1970 (Cabo Blanco, Poas, Santa Rosa) to 17 in 1978, and today numbers 24.

While preservation was the necessary initial step, the goal and challenge of parks and protected areas in general today is not only conservation of biodiversity but also putting people into the conservation equation. Population pressures are increasing at a time when public land available for new settlement is practically gone. Neighbors who receive some benefit from those protected lands will be more inclined to preserve them.

This is where SINAC comes into play. The conservation areas encompass not only the wildlife areas but surrounding private lands. Each has offices to coordinate conservation efforts within its area and to work with communities in the buffer zones around the protected areas. Participation by private entities is fundamental. The Arenal Conservation Area, for example, has assisted local communities in organic vegetable farming development, eco tourism trails and lodges, medicinal plant nurseries, tree nurseries, handicrafts for sale, and reforestation projects.

In some conservation areas, private lands are being promoted for scientific research: community members have been trained to work as Para taxonomists or naturalist guides or to start a butterfly farm or raise pacas. They work as caretakers and environmental education teachers in protected areas. These activities tie livelihoods directly to conservation.

One challenge facing not only parks but all public and private reserves is poaching, which involves hunting, nest-robbing, and trapping of tropical birds for pets to sell to national or international buyers. In the short term, preventing poaching requires constant surveillance' both costly and difficult. In the long term, education and developing alternative sustainable economic activities are the best solution.

Squatters sometimes pose a dilemma, especially for private reserves, but national parks have also been a target. The best-known examples are the gold miners who invaded Corcovado National Park, at its worst in the 1980s. I saw for myself in 1985 the destruction of mountainsides and streams caused by mining inside the park. In interviews with miners, it was clear that preservation of the forest came in a poor second to earning a living the way they knew how. They saw no direct economic benefit from keeping Corcovado pristine.

Budgets continue to be tight, with personnel stretched thin. Most parks lack sufficient staff to patrol protected areas adequately, much less meet needs of visitors. While infrastructure for tourists at most parks is still limited, a few visitor centers are now in place. The most-visited parks have management plans that incorporate guidelines on tourist capacity to prevent the places from being loved to death. Substantial improvement has been made in printed information available for visitors, usually in a bilingual format. Some information is free (especially trail maps). Attendants at entrance booths are not always good salespeople, so be sure to ask for a booklet or brochure.

Another challenge facing parks is lack of funds to purchase in holdings, which amount to perhaps 15 percent of total park land. Some private owners, who have waited for years to be paid, demand resolution-either pay or give back the land.
For wildlife refuges, incorporation of private reserves into the national system is a new wrinkle. Landowners who comply with requirements receive several benefits: exemption from the territorial tax, assistance in case of problems with squatters, free technical help on wildlife management, and the prestige that comes with being a government-recognized wildlife refuge-the latter a marketing edge for private reserves involved in tourism.

The refuge status does not preclude development but regulates it, gaining wildlife habitat without displacing landowners or removing land from productive private use. The owner can still raise livestock, live there, build a hotel, restaurant or shop, or permit scientific research. This seems a useful approach to protecting habitats not found within the parks, reserves, and government refuges at little cost to the government.

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