Reporting: Costa Rica
COSTA RICA CLOSES WORLD-RENOWNED PARK TO STUDY ANIMAL DIE-OFF
by Jesse Froehling
American Reporter Correspondent
Drake Bay, Costa Rica
DRAKE BAY, Costa Rica, Dec. 14, 2005 -- Officials closed Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park, a prime tourist attraction, because many kinds of animals are dying in alarming numbers there amid one of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world.
The dead include monkeys, toucans and sloths. The last time monkeys started dying on such a massive scale in the park was in the 1950s, said Edwardo Carrillo, the head researcher in the investigative team that is looking into the deaths. The culprit then was yellow fever, he said. However, yellow fever does not affect birds.
Carillo said that perhaps as many as half the monkey population at the park (www.costaricamap.com/ing/biopcorcovado.html) has died. The park is located on a peninsula in southwest Costa Rica in Central America. The park covers 110,000 acres and contains four species of monkeys and more than 500 species of wildlife.
Initially, officials tried to downplay the situation. In signing the order for the park's closure Dec. 3, director Alvaro Ugalde would say no more than that animals were dying, though he didn't know how many. As a result, the park was being closed until officials found out why, he said. The closing got very little publicity.
A team of biologists and health investigators took specimen and blood samples of the dead creatures and sent them to Texas and elsewhere for examination. Results are not back yet.
Federico Solorzano, who works with the Fundación Corcovado, a promotional group, advanced one possible explanation. Costa Rica's May-to-November rainy season has just ended. It was nastier than most because of backlash from the Atlantic record hurricane season. Rains devastated communities throughout the Pacific as far south as the Osa Peninsula on which the park sits.
Those rains may have also ruined the development of the fruit that monkeys and birds feast on, Solorzano speculated. The animals may be starving to death.
Mario González, a 70-year-old farmer on the Osa, agreed that starvation may be the case. In his 50 years on the Osa, there had been seasons where a larger quantity of rain had fallen, but never with such force, he said. In addition, he noted that it seemed as if animals were venturing out of the park more frequently this year, maybe in search of food, he suggested.
Carrillo, after visiting the Osa Peninsula, said that although toucans had been dying off, the birds have not been dying at such a high rate as that of their tree-swinging counterparts. When pressed, he wouldn't estimate a number or a percentage of dead birds.
Dr. María del Rocio Sáenz Madrigal, the nation's health minister, noted that migratory birds come to the area, including some from Canada. She said there was no increase in illnesses among humans, according to those health workers operating clinics in the area.
Many types of illnesses and viral diseases can be spread by moquitoes and other insects, something plentiful in the rain forest.
The research team is made up of eight experts from Costa Rica's health and environmental ministries as well as the Universidad de Costa Rica and the Universidad Nacional. Carrillo said they should know Dec. 20 what is killing all the animals.
Though it would seem that the closure of the park would be devastating for tourism, hotel owners weren't reporting many cancellations or early departures. The high tourist season is just beginnning in balmy Costa Rica.
If officials find out what is killing animals before Dec. 20, and that cause is non-threatening to humans, then the park will open back up, Solarzno said. But until then, the park, which is known for its diversity of plants and animals will remain closed to the public.
The park is a refuge for many kinds of wildlife. Tourists face primitive conditions and frequently camp on the ground. However, the peninsula also is a haven for fishermen, surfers, plus dolphin and whale watchers.