Thursday, April 1, 2010

Corcovado National Park

In Corcovado, as at all other sites, we spent our first full day become oriented and learning the area’s history. Our first night had passed without event; although our accommodations weren’t ready and the entire class slept side by side on plastic mats in a single room, I didn’t mind. Perhaps because I was more comatose than asleep, but I wasn’t bothered by the thin and occasionally odorous mattresses and I didn’t even notice the snoring that had so vexed some others as they cursed in the darkness (I resent any implication suggesting this was because I was the culprit).

We were instructed to pack light for Corcovado, as hauling our equipment into the remote site was a logistic challenge. I dutifully complied, bringing only a single pair of pants, a couple shirts, and leaving much of my gear behind; as the days passed, I would regret only that I didn’t have my rubbing alcohol, though others would’ve likely preferred I had a change of clothes. In any case, it didn’t take me long to decide what to wear before we headed out.

The forest that now makes up Corcovado National Park has a long and somewhat sordid past. In the early 20th century, the land was owned by the United Fruit company (based in the United States, this corporation was a heavily influential, and oft criticized, force in Central and South American countries in the early 1900’s). However, they didn’t make much use of the land; and as the forest went undeveloped, many squatters took up residence. In addition, gold mining began in earnest and small communities sprouted up within the forest to support this illegal activity. The Sirena station, where we were staying, was once the location of a seedy settlement that existed to satisfy the needs of the gold miners, providing staples like food, alcohol, and women. All for a price.

Selective logging occurred throughout the forest for the rest of the century until 1975, when the Costa Rican government acquired it and established Corcovado National Park. A protected land in name only, there remained problems with squatters, who were relocated, and gold miners, who weren’t as receptive to relocation attempts. Violent conflicts between guards and gold miners in the 1980’s forced the closure of the park. Understaffed and underfunded, Corcovado struggled. The Nature Conservancy was an early partner in bringing the park to its current status as one of the most treasured protected areas in Central America.

Now, Corcovado National Park represents one of the best places in the region to see wildlife that is rare elsewhere, like tapirs, white-lipped peccaries, jaguars, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, pumas, ocelots, and on and on.

Tapirs were on the top of my list to observe, huge beasts that can weigh hundreds of pounds, they’re distantly related to the horse and rhinoceros (these animals are grouped together because of the structure of their foot). There are four species across the globe, three of which are in Central and South America and one in Asia. Like many large animals, it takes tapirs a long time to reach maturity, and once they’re of reproductive age they don’t produce many young. After a baby is born they may stay with the mother for two years! A lot is invested into each animal; normally, this is okay, because adult tapirs have few natural predators. Not even a jaguar will have an easy time taking one down. But, they’re no match for a bullet.

The loss of just a few animals may reduce the population down the road, which is why hunting and poaching have been implicated as one of the major causes of the species’ decline. But, this threat pales in comparison with habitat loss. Once a rainforest is converted to other land uses, tapirs simply have less space to live. For a large animal that forages for fruits over a huge chunk of land, populations can’t maintain themselves in small fragments of forest. In the depths of Corcovado, poaching is not a great concern, and the vast amount of protected forest allows tapirs to thrive.

I spent an inordinate amount of time strolling through the forest looking for sign of tapirs. Day after day I walked the trails hoping to stumble across one of the beasts. I found many patches of dense vegetation where tapir are known to bed down; it’s thought the vegetation might deter hungry cats from venturing too close.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily feel safe there, I suppose you take what you can get when a jaguar wants to eat you. Occasionally, I would see their unique tracks in the sand along the beach or the shore of the Sirena River, but never the beasts themselves.

Tapirs are generally nocturnal but due to park restrictions night hikes were a rare event. The prospect of completing one was the subject of great anticipation for me, but these infrequent events did not produce the payoff I was hoping for. Another group however, did hear a tapir stampeding through the forest and caught a brief glimpse as it disappeared into the darkness.

Minutes after I fell asleep when hot and steamy night, I was awakened by a faculty member urgently asking me if I wanted to see a tapir. Groggily I removed my ear plugs as he repeated himself. I must not have looked as though I was operating on full cylinders as I stared at him quizzically, because he repeated himself a third time.

“If you want to see a tapir, there’s one in front of the station.”

Frantically, I threw on whatever clothes were within reach and stumbled out of the room and towards the front of the station. Despite assurances of a huge tapir there just moments before, there was no sign. Over the next few days, others would report to glimpses they had seen of these animals, but they successfully eluded me. That is, until the last possible moment.

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