National parks offer large core habitat that is critical for conserving large cats, but national parks alone are not sufficient to sustain a connected and genetically healthy population. Smaller adjacent private reserves improve connectivity and increase habitat extent in areas outside these parks. Sustainable, low-impact ecotourism often incorporates private nature reserves, which can serve to create a matrix of interconnected protected areas, providing corridors to larger core habitat areas. Ecotourism areas often involve non-consumptive human use and conserve both primary and secondary forests.
One excellent example of such an operation is the Lapa Rios (Fig. 1) private nature reserve – 1,000 acres of mixed primary and secondary rainforest on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, and a substantial percentage of the last remaining tropical lowland rainforest in Central America. Within one week of camera trapping here in April 2014, we captured photos of puma (Fig. 2; Puma concolor), and their preferred food source, the white-lipped peccary (Fig. 3; Tayassu pecari), locally known as chanchos de monte.
Unfortunately, national parks often suffer from budget declines due to variable national and international economic conditions and shifts in political priorities. Between 2001-2005, for example, more than 50 park guards were removed from guard duties at Corcovado National Park, resulting in a dramatic increase in illegal hunting activities. White-lipped peccary populations were reduced to a tenth of what had been recorded in 1990 (when monitoring activities began) – the smallest population numbers ever recorded (Fig. 4). Due to the loss of this primary food source coupled with habitat loss, fragmentation, and a transition by ranchers to using cheap and available rat venom to extirpate jaguars (Panthera onca) feeding on their cattle, the jaguar population is now estimated at less than 25 individuals in the Osa Peninsula (Fig. 5).
Private nature reserves like Lapa Rios, and a number of other eco-lodges surrounding the Corcovado National Park, generally have had more reliable protection from illegal hunting and forest degradation, due to the more consistent presence of economic impetus from ecotourists over the last 20 years. Although the home ranges of white-lipped peccary and big cats are much larger than any single private reserve, these areas provide critical assistance to national parks, buffering their core habitat from the threats of illegal hunting and forest degradation which occurs intensively not just in Costa Rica, but throughout the tropics.
The non-profit organization Osa Conservation is now leading a collaborative multi-institutional effort to establish the first regional network of citizen science supported camera traps, incorporating private nature reserves throughout the Osa Peninsula and Golfito region of Costa Rica. This project will establish baseline information and provide continued monitoring capacity for big cats and other their prey into the future. Please see www.osaconservation.org for more information on the network or if you are interested in becoming involved in this effort. And see www.inogo.info and inogo.stanford.edu for additional information on the exceptional biodiversity, and its myriad threats, in the Osa and Golfito region.
Eben N. Broadbent 1,*, Juan Carlos Cruz Díaz 2, Angélica M. Almeyda Zambrano 1, Daniel Alvarez 3, Sandra L. Almeyda Zambrano 1, Carlos Alberto Quispe Gil 1, Tavis Forrester 4, Rodolfo Dirzo 5, William H. Durham 6.
1 Spatial Ecology and Conservation Lab, Department of Geography, University of Alabama (www.speclab.org); 2 Osa Conservation, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (www.osaconservation.org); 3 Lapa Rios Ecolodge, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (www.laparios.com); 4 Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institution (nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi); 5 Department of Biology, Stanford University (biology.stanford.edu); 6 Department of Anthropological Sciences, Stanford University (anthropology.stanford.edu).
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