Amazing field studies, such as the one I just returned from, are an example of the enriching opportunities offered at Rollins.
I took a trip to Costa Rica with Professor Barry Allen’s class, “National Parks and Protected Areas.” Costa Rica is a land of exquisite natural beauty. This country arguably contains more biodiversity than any other in the world. For this reason, it is extremely important to protect and manage these fragile habitats and ecosystems in this amazing country.
Costa Rica has definitely taken a lot of initiative toward land conservation and managed use, especially through eco-tourism and non-profit and non-governmental organizations. The conservation areas and national parks that we visited on our field study were: the Tirimbina Research Center, La Selva, Volcan Tenorio National Park/La Carolina Lodge, Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and Monteverde. Each of these different conservation areas had a different and unique approach to managing the land and the land’s role in the overall sustainable development of the region.
Tirimbina Research Center is an internationally recognized, non-profit organization created to conserve the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica; provide environmental education to the local community, students, and ecotourists; and to accommodate scientific research. Located within the rainforest and river environments of Sarapiqui, Tirimbina Research Center is a private wildlife refuge that protects 852.5 acres of mid-elevation, premontane forest, through which 5.5 miles of trails pass. One-third of the forest is used for ecotourism and environmental education, keeping the majority of the reserve naturally intact. Tirimbina Research Center’s conservation-education efforts and beautiful natural rainforest have made it a primary tropical science-research center, as well as a popular ecotourism travel destination. At Tirimbina, we went on a night hike and a day hike to observe the different species that are active at both times. In order to do this, we had to cross a suspension bridge over the Sarapiqui River. It made me a little bit nervous. We observed many exotic species, such as the toucan, MotMot Bird, sloth, and Costa Rica’s most aggressive venemous snake, the Fer de Lance. There was also an indigenous burial site and museum on the property. There one can learn all about the indigenous cultures of Costa Rica and see a traditional indigenous dwelling of the area, upon which the lodges we stayed in were modeled.
La Selva was originally established in 1954 by Dr. Leslie Holdridge as a farm dedicated to experimentation on mixed plantations for the improvement of natural-resources management. It was purchased in 1968 by the Organization for Tropical Studies and declared a private biological reserve and station. Since then, it has become one of the most important sites in the world for research on the tropical rainforest. More than 240 scientific papers are published yearly from research conducted at the site. At La Selva, we saw indigenous species such as the cayman (cousin of the aligator), a lizard called the “Jesus Lizard” (because it can literally run over the top of the water), and a peccari (the Costa Rican version of the pig, which was brought from Spain).
La Carolina Lodge is a rustic guesthouse on the eastern slopes of Volcan Tenorio (an active volcano). It is located in a less-traveled region of northwestern Costa Rica, amidst lowland rainforest and volcanic mountains. The lodge sits on 170 acres, nestled in forest and fed by a freshwater river. The property is surrounded by fields of macadamia. The lodge itself is also a full-time cattle ranch and farm, exemplifying the strategy of combining ecotourism with more traditional agricultural pursuits. The lodge is one of the closest accommodations for visiting Tenorio National Park and the Rio Celeste. At La Carolina Lodge, we got to experience a horseback ride through the Costa Rican countryside, which was absolutely beautiful. The waterfall that we hiked to in Volcan Tenorio National Park was absolutely stunning in beauty also. The water coming from this waterfall is a flourescent blue color due to a chemical reaction that is caused by the hot springs that boil up in it, a result of the volcanic activity. After the long hike up the volcano, it was nice to sit in the hot tub back at La Carolina. The tub is heated by a wood-burning fire and sits at the edge of the river that flows through the property.
Rincon de la Vieja contains an active volcano (the last major eruption was in 1991), mud pots, steam vents, and hot springs. The park protects examples of four types of forest habitat. It has excellent wildlife viewing and birding opportunities. More than 200 species of birds have been recorded here. Hacienda Guachepelin, bordering the national park, is a 100-year-old cattle ranch that has expanded into ecotourism. There are several waterfalls on the property. On our hike in Rincon de la Vieja, we got to see the local monkey species called the White-Face Monkey. This hike was through a lot drier habitat than the others through rain and cloud forests. This drier habitat is preferable to many lizard and monitor species.
One of the most diverse and important environments in Costa Rica is Monteverde. Its extensive private and public reserves protect 250 species of butterflies, many species of bats, and many species of birds. Forty percent of all mammal species in Costa Rica are found in Monteverde. Monteverde’s economy is based on ecotourism since being “discovered” by George Powell, a University of California ornithologist, in 1970. Visitation to the area has transformed the economy from farming to tourism. Local residents soon realized that it was much easier to milk the tourists than to milk their cows. Visitation to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve (MVCFP) alone has grown to 50,000 visitors per year. The resulting demand for hotels, restaurants, natural history guides, and other services has resulted in a standard of living for Monteverde’s residents that is much higher than most other regions of the country. This prosperity, however, is threatened by environmental impacts ranging from global climate change, to water pollution, solid-waste disposal, and deforestation, just to name a few. In Monteverde, we caught a glimpse of the endangered quetzal bird, which was very sacred to the indigenous people of the area, as well as an endangered bell bird. The highlight of the hike was probably the tarantula spider. We also went to The Frog Pond, a building that housed all of the species of frogs in the area; the Bat House, a building that housed all of the species of bats in the area; and the Butterfly Garden, a building that housed all of the species of butterflies in the area.
Our last two days consisted of a strenuous hike down to the San Gerardo Biological Station. It is located in an area that was set aside as a natural preserve called the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. From this station, one can view the active Volcan Arenal, which is a “perfect cone” volcano, as well as Lake Arenal. At San Gerardo, we went on a night hike, during which we saw a “forest crab” and other exotic species. The next day, we performed a “service project” by raking the dead leaves off of one of the main trails. The hike back up the mountain that day was extremely steep and difficult.
Overall, the Costa Rica field study with the National Parks and Protected Areas class was well worth it. This was a great learning experience. Since I returned, I have decided to take this class further and do an independent study with Professor Allen into Non-Profit Conservation and Ecotourism Organizations in Costa Rica.