The political response to the simmering controversy over the proposed dismemberment of Las Baulas National Marine Park comes as no surprise. It is the job of all political subordinates, regardless of country or circumstance, to support their leader. In this case, it is Jorge Rodriguez, Minister of MINAET, Costa Rica’s Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry. He wrote an opinion piece in the August 18th issue of La Nacion, entitled, “Conservation Remains our Priority”.
In spite of what he has to say, which is totally refuted by a Ph.D. and sea turtle biologist from Drexel University, Pilar Santidrián Tomillo, he is merely a stalking horse for President Arias. There is no question that the expropriation of the land within the national park is a very serious financial challenge, although exaggerated by administration calculations. However, the scientific issues relating to Leatherback sea turtle habitat and the delicate ecosystems within the park ought to be left to the scientists and not the politicians.
On August 5th, 2005, President Oscar shared his bold vision for Peace With Nature and the very first sentence stated, “Peace with Nature is an invitation to all the countries of the world to unite in a joint effort to strengthen their actions and political commitment in order to reverse the trends of environmental degradation caused by the impact of human activities on the planet’s ecosystems.”
This policy catapulted Costa Rica to the front of the line of countries committed to the preservation and protection of their natural resources. Along with a goal of carbon neutrality by 2021, this small country earned a big seat at the head of the table.
Please read the following erudite refutation of Minister Rodriguez’s opinion piece in La Nacion, authored by Pilar Santidrian Tomillo, Ph.D. and sea turtle biologist at Drexel University.
“I write this letter to respectfully answer issues raised in the article published in La Nación on August 18, 2009 by Jorge Rodríguez, Minister of MINAET, about Las Baulas de Guanacaste Marine National Park. I would like to point out that some of the historic and scientific information included in the article are incorrect and could lead to inadequate interpretations and foster disinformation about the Leatherback turtles among the readers of La Nacion.
First of all, I would like to clarify that the main cause for the decline of nesting turtles on the beaches of the National Park was the poaching of eggs that took place intensively in the 1970s and 1980s, and that extended for approximately 20 years at absolutely unsustainable levels for any population of sea turtles. This information was published in the international scientific journal “Conservation Biology” in 2008.
Likewise, fisheries also had an important effect on the Leatherback turtles in the 1980s; however, the impact of fisheries is now considered low (but high for other species of marine turtles such as the green and olive ridley turtles, information to which Don Jorge Rodriguez is probably referring). Furthermore, all of the 46 turtles studied by satellite telemetry during the nesting season in years 2005, 2006 and 2007 left the waters of Costa Rica without being affected by fisheries. Even if fisheries were important in the past and poaching of eggs nearly collapsed the population, the current threats are nowadays the ones that compromise the future of the Leatherbacks. These threats are climate change and tourist development on the nesting beaches.
One can interpret reading Don Jorge Rodríguez’s article that the establishment of the Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge by Decree in 1987 provided protection to the Leatherback turtle; maybe with the intention of justifying the current proposal to lower the category of Las Baulas from National Park to Wildlife Refuge. However, it is of extreme importance to emphasize that this refuge did not protect the Leatherback turtles properly. The effective conservation of the Leatherback turtles did not take place until the area was protected as a National Park.
Furthermore, we can read the following reference in the scientific report for the creation of Las Baulas de Guanacaste Marine National Park written by Dr. Peter C.H. Pritchard in 1990: “The current designation of Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge, administered by Tempisque Conservation Area has been inadequate to protect the land and beaches of LBG (Las Baulas de Guanacaste)”. He continues with the statement: “the beach is subject to chaotic and catastrophic levels of turtle egg collection and visits to the beach of groups without a guide or control. In addition, the habitats at the beach front are threatened by a scenario of commercial development. In any case, the beaches and mangroves are already protected in all Costa Rica by national laws, and the designation of Refuge does not contribute anything new.” Dr. Pritchard ends with the categorical affirmation: “LAS BAULAS DE GUANACASTE needs to be a National Park.”
The protection on the beach started in 1988 thanks to a group of citizens lead by Maria Teresa Koberg, Peter Pritchard, Mario Boza, Esperanza Rodríguez, Edwin Rosales and Stanley Rodríguez. The initiative was to incorporate the guides and scouts of Costa Rica for protection duties at Playa Grande. Over 3000 children from all over the country participated in the program for the first time in 1988-1989, during the school holydays (December-February). These children stayed awake at night to talk directly to the poachers and to convince them of the effects of their actions on the turtles. Surprisingly, the pressure of the group of kids had an effect on an ashamed group of adults, and the intense poaching was reduced quickly, although it was not eradicated until the years of the National Park and the permanent protection provided by the park rangers of MINAET.
The impact of poaching on the population was catastrophic but the cessation of it, in contrast to what happened to other populations such as the one in Malaysia (today considered extirpated), allowed them to survive. In addition, it constituted one of the keys of success of conservation at Playa Grande: the change in attitude of the local people, many of whom stopped collecting and selling turtle eggs in order to become tourist guides within the legal associations of the National Park. This step from poachers to tourist guides was without doubt and from any point of view, admirable.
During nearly 20 years, many people have participated in the conservation of the Leatherback turtles on the beach (scouts, local guides, park rangers, biologists and volunteers) and countless tourists from all over the world have waited until the early morning hours to enjoy the indescribable spectacle of nesting. The effort that beach work takes is only understood by those who have spent time doing it, having felt tired, sleepy, hopeless and cold in the rain. This effort deserves to be compensated by the continuity of the protection of such a wonderful and noble species. It is a heritage for all humanity, for the present generation and generations to come.”
Costa Rica’s national park system was created to protect and preserve nature from our insatiable appetite for profit and progress. These pristine places are the most valuable gifts we have to pass on to our children. The young conservationists in the picture below (courtesy Dr. Peter C.H. Pritchard) are at Playa Grande, standing guard over this Leatherback’s eggs. Our own future as a species is inseparable from the future of this ancient creature. Sanctuaries like Las Baulas are vital for our survival.