Lessons from Costa Rica on how to be a steward for wildlife

Lessons from Costa Rica on how to be a steward for wildlife

by Dustin Rhodes

Last year when my family was talking about possible vacation spots, I blurted out, “I want to go where I can see monkeys everywhere.” Of course it also had to be affordable and not terribly hard to get to.

After endless Google searches, the advice of friends and some serious consults with the New York Times’ budget travel section, it seemed we were destined to go to Costa Rica. As a bonus, capuchin and howler monkeys—the “rulers of Costa Rica,” as I was later told by a tour guide there—are favorite monkeys of mine and you can see them practically everywhere.

Without hyperbole, Costa Rica is probably the most stunningly beautiful place I have ever been—and not because of the influence of Western civilization but as a result of the landscape itself: There are pristine coastlines and breathtaking rainforests within driving distance of one another. And while the Central American country is small—from north to south its only 180 miles—25 percent of the land is actually protected in the form of national parks and wildlife refuges.

Impressively, while Costa Rica takes up only .03 percent of the earth’s surface, it contains six percent of its biodiversity. There are more than 130 species of fish, 220 of reptiles, 1,000 butterflies (10 percent of the world’s butterflies are in Costa Rica), 9,000 plants, 20,000 species of spiders and 35,000 species of insects—all of which make Costa Rica a veritable wildlife watching paradise. Truth be told, that’s all I really wanted to do during this vacation.

So with the help of a travel agent, we planned everything around seeing sloths, howler monkeys, capuchins, enormous lizards, bats and so much more. I won’t bore you with details of my perfect vacation; what I came away with was far more life-changing than relaxation and wonder. The whole week was a life-lesson in conscientious wildlife watching, which really struck me as very different from our culture here in the U.S. While we have many breathtaking national parks and refuges of our own—each with diverse landscapes and animals who reside within them—we are much more lax when it comes to preserving nature and wildlife habitat, as we tend to see ourselves as the center of the universe, rather than just a part of it.

In Costa Rica, what I found was an intense determination to always err on the side of caution—which is to say Costa Ricans have a deep respect for the natural world that I have not experienced in any other place I have visited. Each day of my vacation, I learned a new way of respecting and preserving the landscape—ways that I can apply to my own behavior here. And here’s hoping you will, too.

DO NOT SPRAY 

Before arriving in Costa Rica, I had read in multiple books that bug spray and sunscreen are essential items, especially now that Zika virus has arrived. However, Costa Rica’s wildlife has suffered because of sunscreen and bug sprays applied by people inside of parks and refuges.

In one park, our tour guide told us that bug spray had decimated a rare species of frog, and in the process of trying to help the frog recover they closed down the trail for a decade and permanently banned the application of these products within the park and refuge system. In other words, you should still apply sunscreen and bug spray, but you cannot do it within the protected habitats of animals. In fact, most of the parks we went to had guards who did not allow you even possess sunscreen and bug spray beyond the entrance.

JUST SAY NO TO SWIMMING—SOMETIMES

I live in the mountains where every body of water, no matter how big or small or how fast the rapids are, is called a “swimming hole.” Some of the most famous trails, waterfalls, rivers, hikes, scenery in the world are where I live in Asheville, North Carolina, but you won’t find a body of water without people.

In Costa Rica, there is a much more mindful approach to water. For instance, in Tenorio Volcano National Park, there is a hike to the most beautiful waterfall and shockingly azure blue “swimming hole” you’ve ever seen— except that swimming (or even touching!) the water is forbidden so that it remains undisturbed and unadulterated.

There were even guards surrounding Celeste Waterfall, to ensure that tourists (and a few locals) complied. Again, Costa Rica does not want bug spray and chemical residues seeping into these pristine waters, which is home for many species of animals.

And yet, as a habitual sunscreen user myself, I have never thought twice about wading or swimming in any body of water I come across at home— because it’s “just what we do.” But that doesn’t make it right.

DON’T STRAY

Straying from paths is discouraged the world over, even here in the U.S., because it destroys precious plant and animal life and habitat. I have lived near the Blue Ridge Parkway my entire life, and routinely I notice signs about not wandering from the path; but I also notice that people do and that some plants in my area are on the brink of extinction because of it.

In Costa Rica, trails are routinely closed to humans— sometimes for many years—because even when humans stay on a trail, eventually the animals around it choose to move away from heavily trafficked areas.

In one particular park we went to, Costa Rica was preparing to close a particular trail in the coming spring for a minimum of seven years so, as my tour guide communicated, “The animals would return.”

BE QUIET

One popular park in Costa Rica— Manuel Antonio National Park, on the Central Pacific coast—was also the most crowded. The lines to get in were long, and once inside there were people everywhere. But what was striking: It felt like being inside a library— completely quiet.

People moved slowly, talked quietly, if at all. Our tour guide spoke to us in a hushed voice. Why? So the animals would not be disturbed (and also so the tour guide could hear them). Our tour guide told us plenty of people come from all over the world to experience Costa Rica but can’t put down their cell phones and stop checking email long enough to connect with nature. I saw that, too.

LIFE LESSONS

It’s hard to leave the modern world, but I was surprised when I came home to discover that I had taken less than 20 photos during the whole trip. Instead, I returned with incredible memories and life lessons—the most important of which still seems to be: Be quiet, keep your eyes open, tread lightly, literally and figuratively, and pay attention. We were rewarded for our quiet attention by seeing sloths, bats, butterflies, birds, howler monkeys, capuchins and so much more. And the quiet itself was restorative. Costa Rica was restful, relaxing, beautiful, exciting and, more than anything, inspiring. I learned how to be a better steward for animals and the environment wherever I visit.