It’s not easy being green, and Costa Rica‘s protected areas—roughly 20% of the country are expensive to protect. Only the most popular national parks, and those with easily observed borders, have enough rangers to keep poachers and loggers at bay, and even then imperfectly.
It is even more difficult to keep tabs on the system’s crown jewel, fantastic Isla del Coco. Jacques Cousteau called the remote spot, 550km (342mi) southeast of the Costa Rican mainland, “the most beautiful island in the world.” Laced with waterfalls and riddled with pirate caves, its lonely beauty inspired both “Jurassic Park” and “Robinson Crusoe”.
The challenges that face this famed protected area today, however, are best described in the documentary Sharkwater. The movie shows illegal fishing boats, most from China, harvesting the Isla del Coco’s famous and endangered sharks with a casual cruelty that sickened conservation-minded Costa Ricans when it was released in 2006. The public uproar that followed forced the Costa Rican government to improve the island’s security.
Only about 1100 tourists make the rough, 36-hour voyage to the island annually, most of them on expensive, all-inclusive dive trips. Divers come to see the world’s largest schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks, as well as silky, reef, whitetip, tiger and whale sharks; huge marble, eagle, and Pacidic manta rays; mobulas; pilot and humpback whales, and more. Vast schools of tuna, snapper, crevalle jacks, groupers, flouders, hawkfish, surgeonfish, squirrelfish, trumpetfish, urchins, eels, and more, glint in silvery numbers as they flow with the rough waters. This is a trip for experienced divers only, who will never forget it.
Thus, President Laura Chinchilla responded to increasingly brazen fishing fleets by naming the area, already declared Cocos Island National Park in 1978 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the Seamounts Marine Management Area (SMMA). They did not, however, set aside extra funding to protect the 10,000-square-kilometer expanse of deep blue sea—the second largest marine park in the world, after the Galapagos.
“We are unable to create a separate budget for the new management area,” Minister of Environment Teófilo de la Torre told the Tico Times. “The country is facing a fiscal deficit and we can’t generate more resources.”
Happily, a collection of Costa Rican and international NGOs is stepping in to help protect the park’s residents from the human predators above. These range from official groups such as INCOPESCA (Costa Rican Institute for Fish and Aquaculture), which has been given the authority to ticket and fine illegal fishing vessels, to more controversial organizations, such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
It’s not an optimal setup, and it will take more than this patchwork of multinational resources to stop the foreign fishing fleets from breaking international and Costa Rican law. It’s a beginning, however. While many of this greenest nation’s parks and conservation areas started out as protected only on paper, the promises made by politicians eventually panned out, and today this is the best-preserved country in Latin America.