Hollow eye sockets glared at me from the dark tropical leaf litter. Not expecting to be watched from below, I rested on my haunches, searching with the image recognition software installed by my primate ancestors. Once sure there were no coils of a deadly fer-de-lance snake, I plunged my hand into the leaves. Out came the skull of Central America’s largest primate, a spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi). Immediately I could see that this animal hadn’t died of old age or sickness, it had been ruthlessly killed. Three holes pierced the top of the cranium, with a fourth puncture at the rear base of the skull. Holy crap! I was holding the skull of Costa Rica’s largest primate… killed by the greatest aerial rainforest predator on Earth – the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja).
Death was instantaneous the moment the monstrous bird smashed its prey. Talons greater than those of a grizzly bear shattered skull and pierced brain. But here was my predicament – this was January 2020, almost two decades since any photographic evidence of harpy eagles’ existence in the rainforests of the Osa Peninsula. Most believed that harpy eagles had been extirpated from the region, and harpies are not inconspicuous birds – they are vocal, inquisitive, and huge, standing over a meter tall with a two-meter wingspan. Add the fact that there are more tourists and guides coming to Osa than ever before (over 50,000 per year), all armed with cameras, cell phones, identification apps and telescopes – so how could such a behemoth bird go unsighted for so long?
The harpies photographed around 20 years ago were likely remnant individuals of a spiraling extinction due to rampant deforestation associated with bananas, cows, and gold, and to intensive poaching of wildlife. This wasn’t unique to Osa but commonplace throughout Costa Rica. Forest that once covered 75% of the land in 1940 was depleted to around 20% by 1987. But the Ticos – as Costa Ricans are proudly known – quickly reversed this. They doubled down on defending nature – investing in education instead of the military, paying landowners to conserve and restore forests, and giving lawful protection to riparian forests instead of clearing them. Most importantly, they worked to establish a network of protected areas throughout the country. These pioneering efforts mean that forest cover has increased by over 150% since the 1980s.
The protected area system on the Osa Peninsula began with the establishment of Corcovado National Park in 1975, where this ‘mini-Amazonian-like rainforest has had a transformative effect on local livelihoods in the region – “ecotourism offers the best currently available employment opportunities, double the earnings of other livelihoods, and other linked benefits.”
And as the forests came back and the poaching pressure eased, much of Osa’s struggling wildlife rapidly began to recover. Surveys from as early ago as 1994 found that puma, collared peccary, ocelot, tapir, and other species, were mostly restricted to Corcovado National Park, ‘as rare as hen’s teeth’ in surrounding areas. But recent large-scale camera surveys have detected an incredible repopulation of wildlife throughout the peninsula. And while jaguar and white-lipped peccary (prime jaguar food) are not recovering as well beyond Corcovado, data suggests that even their populations aren’t showing any signs of reduction. Still there is no doubt these two key species remain in a delicate state and are at risk of following the path of the harpy eagle.
Harpy eagles weren’t the only species that quietly disappeared – so too did the giant anteater, a species now extinct throughout Costa Rica. With a total length of two meters and weighing over 100 lbs, the giant anteater dwarfs its much smaller relatives, the ~10 lb tamandua, and the diminutive <1 lb pygmy anteater. It’s not hard to imagine the impact that this ant-devouring beast provided in terms of controlling ant populations. To our knowledge the last known giant anteater in Costa Rica was recorded sometime around 2005. As with the harpy eagle, likely a lonely individual, clinging on.
Just a few weeks ago however, an adult harpy eagle was photographed in the north of the country. The bird quickly made national headlines and waves across social media. Ticos were ecstatic – loud and proud to see the world’s largest eagle back on home soil. Even Costa Rica’s ex-Minister of Environment and current leader of the Global Environment Facility, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, was proudly tweeting about the bird’s sighting. And while this doesn’t represent the recolonization of harpy eagles back into Costa Rica – as the bird was likely a wanderer from the >3000 km2 Indio Maiz Biological Reserve just across the border in Nicaragua – it demonstrates the sense of love for nature within Costa Rica.
There is no better example of this passion than the community of Rancho Quemado. Situated in the neck of the Osa Peninsula, the community once hunted white-lipped peccary like there was no tomorrow. Now, led by Yolanda Rodríguez and the community-driven biological monitoring group, members safeguard the white-lipped peccary on their forays outside of the park, keeping them safe from poachers, and holding an annual festival in the peccaries’ honor. Local tourism guide, Dionisio (Nito) Paniagua, feels that the reinstatement of critical megafauna, like the harpy eagle and giant anteater, would benefit Costa Rica’s ecotourism economy. Every year thousands of ornithologists make pilgrimages to Darien National Park in Panama, a mecca for harpy eagles, and the same goes for the giant anteater, where tourists flock to the llanos of Colombia and the savannas of the Beni in Bolivia.
As we hike together in Corcovado, Nito tells me, “I desperately wish I could see those species here in Costa Rica.” Perhaps most importantly of all is that most tropical ecologists agree that the loss of large keystone species like harpy eagle and giant anteater from an ecosystem has a rippling effect that leads to a depleted, damaged system. One recent study published in Science showcases how the loss of such species results in a catastrophic collapse and simplification of complex-food webs. This puts the future of maintaining balanced healthy ecosystems in doubt.
But there is a solution! Wildlife recovery can help rebuild food-webs and support healthier ecosystems. In the mid-1990’s wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park after an absence of 69 years. They quickly repaired broken aspects of the ecosystem. They hunted elk and changed elk foraging behavior, which allowed over-browsed vegetation to recover. This in turn helped to restore the dwindling population of beavers, which then began to change the hydrology of the waterways thanks to the increasing occurrence of beaver damns. The elk carcasses left by the wolves helped scavengers in warm winters survive when resources would have otherwise been scarce.
And this recovery of damaged systems through reintroducing native lost species can be remarkably quick. In the face of this year’s recent European heat wave, beavers became UK national heroes. Landscapes that would have been otherwise turned to dry muddy puddles were kept lush and green, all thanks to the beavers – a species rewilded just a decade ago – following 400 years of absence.
These examples are why species reintroduction has been identified as a key tool toward meeting global 2030 biodiversity targets. And countries like Argentina are leading the field by reintroducing whole communities of lost species into its national parks – including pampas deer, collared peccary, jaguar and giant anteater! When I spoke with Luli Masera from ‘Rewilding Argentina’, she told me about the overwhelming sense of pride from the public when footage was shared of animals once extirpated but now returned to their homes, rooted back into the web of life. And key to this success was the support from government ministers who helped facilitate this process to see Argentina’s parks rewilded.
Fortunately, Costa Rica too has taken active steps in terms of species rewilding! Throughout the country over 60 beaches are monitored and patrolled almost daily, to protect mother sea turtles and their nests from poachers. Many of these programs have hatcheries, where eggs are safeguarded so that tens of thousands of baby sea turtles, that might otherwise be poached or predated, are released safely into the ocean. This major effort has likely led to the global population increases detected for many sea turtle species. Scarlet macaws have been captive bred, some rehabilitated after injury and released back into the wild. Tourists traveling the country today might never believe that until just a couple of decades ago, scarlet macaws were only easy to spot on the Osa Peninsula. These days they scream and soar along the whole Pacific coast, and even regions of the Caribbean. Baby turtles and scarlet macaws are always fan favorites.
Founder of Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation and Rewild’s Senior Mesoamerican Associate, Esteban Brenes-Mora tells me, “Costa Rica’s environmental leadership can’t stop here. We mustn’t wait for lost species, like giant anteater and harpy eagle, to naturally recover. And we can’t let species struggling to recover [to] quietly go extinct. It’s the time to be bold and proactive in re-establishing all species necessary to maintain resilient ecosystems.” Now more than ever, Costa Rica needs its leaders to facilitate this critical next step – reintroducing native animals into the forests that the country has been so successful at regrowing.
And the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica’s mini- Amazon, is the ideal place to start, with over 80% forest cover, four protected areas, a nature-loving community, an ecotourism-based economy, and a bountiful prey base for both harpy eagle and giant anteater. Why not establish herds of white-lipped peccary into Piedras Blancas National Park, where they have been absent for over 40 years? Translocating pilot herds from Corcovado to Piedras Blancas would provide greater resilience for the peccaries and provide an increased food base to bolster Osa’s jaguars.
Is Costa Rica ready to take a mighty step ahead in rewilding its recently lost and struggling species before they are wiped from its current generation’s memory? It’s time to see Costa Rica’s wildest ecosystems become truly wild.
This article by Andrew Whitworth was first published by Mongabay.com on 27 September 2022. Lead Image: Adult harpy eagle courtesy of Tom Ambrose.
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