Just over a year ago, a surf competition on the southern tip of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast—home of the famous Salsa Brava reef break, which produces some of the country’s strongest waves—brought hundreds, if not thousands, of surfers to the region’s otherwise wild beaches.
They flooded Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a tiny town an hour’s drive away from the nearest airport, local animal biologist and conservationist Encar Garcia told me. It used to be a village in a jungle clearing mostly composed of Afro-Caribbean people and members of the Indigenous Bribri tribe. Until the tourists discovered it.
Now increasingly large droves of wannabe yogis and surfers are arriving in sarongs and flip-flops, ready to soak up the jungle vibes. Unbeknownst to many of them, their quest for the “pura vida” lifestyle is damaging the very environment they’re looking to savour.
“After the last surf championship, I was very depressed,” Garcia said, gesturing toward the nearby wild beaches of Playa Cocles and Playa Chiquita. “All my staff and volunteers were cleaning the beaches. It was full of garbage at the end of the competition.”
It was hard on both wildlife and the locals. “We were without water for a week because there wasn’t enough water for everybody,” Garcia added. “If we’re normally 2,000 people [living here], and then one weekend we’re 4,000—just imagine, where are all these people going to the bathroom? On the beach. It’s disgusting.”
I visited Garcia last winter at her animal rehab facility, the Jaguar Rescue Center, named for a sickly jungle cat Garcia and her since-deceased husband, Sandro Alviani, rescued in 2007 after its mother was killed by farmers. The jaguar died early on, but the center—which rehabilitates many species—bears its name. In reality, there are only 500 jaguars in the country, according to veteran jaguar conservationist Eduardo Carrillo.
At the center, I found baskets of baby sloths and howler monkeys orphaned by the region’s unshielded power lines, a frail jaguarundi, a bossy pelican who'd been hit by a car, an infant margay, and 100 other rescued animals.
As Garcia has discovered in the 10 years since officially opening the Jaguar Rescue Center, protecting the environment and the animals in it has become increasingly complicated as tourism grows.
The Costa Rican government says 600,000 jobs in the country (about 27 percent of the workforce) directly or indirectly depend on tourism. Last year, Costa Rica received 2.6 million foreign visitors, about half the country’s actual population. The majority come from the US, Canada, Europe, and neighboring Nicaragua.
“Costa Rica has really used ecotourism as a form of development,” said Daniel T. Blumstein, a professor at UCLA’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology who recently co-authored a book, Ecotourism’s Promise and Peril, over the phone.
Blumstein was careful to differentiate between ecotourism and nature-based tourism, even if tour operators don’t always do the same. Ecotourism, according to Blumstein, refers to travellers seeking to help preserve the natural environments they’re visiting.
According to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, 66 percent of visitors come to do ecotourism and 53 percent come for adventure tourism—which is more of the volcano-climbing, rainforest-hiking, ziplining, and (illegal) selfie-taking most people would associate with the country. Most of these activities are carried out in the country’s protected reserves and national parks, which cover about a quarter of the nation’s landmass. “The opportunity to educate people about the nature they’re zipping through is lost for a lot of tourists,” said Blumstein.
Carillo, a researcher at the National University of Costa Rica’s International Institute for Wildlife Conservation and Management, told me ecotourism has been a positive force in many parts of the country, even leading some to give up illegal poaching to become tour operators. “In Santa Rosa National Park, the jaguar population is increasing very rapidly due to the effective management of the habitat,” he wrote me in an email. In other areas, such as the Osa Peninsula, the population is decreasing. He estimated there are fewer than 20 jaguars there, compared to 100 jaguars 20 years ago.
Overall, he continued, the country is permitting too many visitors into protected areas such as Corcovado National Park, where much of his work is focused. Limiting the number of visitors and making local tourism companies financially contribute to the local communities would help, Carrillo said.
Back in Puerto Viejo, Garcia said the widening of the main road from two to four lanes, and a corresponding spike in car traffic, has resulted in more animals arriving at the Jaguar Rescue Center. Big gaps in the tree canopy means that animals must attempt to cross the busy main street via uncovered power lines, or on foot.
Deforestation—whether for agriculture, mining, animal farming, new roads, or real-estate development—is a primary threat to animals like the jaguar. Besides loss of habitat, Garcia said workers’ careless cutting down of trees has brought many injured animals to her team.
Garcia said she’s been working with the local electric company to put ropes in place so animals can cross safely, but that isn’t the only issue. In Costa Rica, foreigners are allowed to buy land outright rather than using a local partner. At the time of reporting, there were 713 Airbnb places available to rent in Puerto Viejo, not to mention dozens of tiny hostels and hotels. As tourism grows, real-estate development will likely continue to expand.
The Jaguar Rescue Center does not receive any government funding to operate, instead relying on community support, donations, and entrance fees.
“I know Costa Rica is probably one of the best countries for protecting the environment and animals, but there is a lot of hypocrisy too,” said Garcia. She noted her facility rarely receives visitors from Costa Ricans. Carrillo, too, noted that locals aren’t well-educated about native ecosystems. Garcia said she’d like to see school curricula include education about treating local ecosystems and animals with respect. She also advocates for more security in protected areas to prevent animal theft, poaching, and illegal tree-felling.
Garcia is worried about how Puerto Viejo is changing. “People discovered this place, and that is a problem. We need people to survive, but not [too many]. How can you manage that? You need to find the balance.”
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