Costa Rica – A Wildlife Contradiction?

After only a couple of weeks in Costa Rica our wildlife viewing stats have gone through the roof! Everywhere we look, there are sloths, monkeys, parrots, caimans, Jesus-Christ lizards and much much more. Indeed, Costa Rica promotes itself as a wildlife and nature conservation haven. But this portrait is, perhaps, not altogether accurate.

The primary reason we love Costa Rica is the wildlife. A trip in 2009 showed us a huge array in a short time and this visit has been the same. This week we start volunteering at the Jaguar Rescue Center and we’ll have a chance for some real close-up views and a specific post (or four) on that experience, but before we do we wanted to share a sense of just how abundant this place is.

So here is a gallery of what we have seen so far: from outside our cabin in Cahuita, to walking through the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge with a guide, to  just pootling around town and the beaches.

For anyone interested in tips for wildlife photography (not that we claim expertise) see our post Wildlife Photography Primer.

Sloth Sanctuary

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Sloth evolution

We didn’t get a chance to visit the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica on our previous trip (which was largely spent on the Pacific coast), but have dreamed of being able to take the tour ever since (especially Alison). In the meantime, the sloths have become television stars, as they were featured in a special Animal Planet documentary called “Meet the Sloths“. This made Alison even more determined to visit the sanctuary (and so too every one who has seen it I imagine, as evidenced by the number of people who seem to want a sloth as a pet; we don’t think these people got the point of the documentary). After several years of patience, we finally made it to the sanctuary.

But first, there was a minor marriage meltdown, as Toby ignored Alison’s signal that the bus had arrived at the sanctuary. Toby insisted that the driver would stop as he told us he would when we boarded the bus. But the bus didn’t stop: it sped by at 70mph until the women behind us informed us that, yes indeed, that was the sloth sanctuary stop. Cue the weary travellers weaving their way up to the driver to ask him to stop. By the time he did (with a sheepish grin), we were two+ miles past the sanctuary. Now two miles isn’t a lot, except perhaps when trudging along asphalt in the glaring sun and humidity >70%. Oh, and with cars and buses whizzing past at high speed a matter of inches away (there was no pavement). We ended up missing the intended tour and arriving drenched in sweat. As you might imagine, very little conversation was had en route. [Alison]



Luckily, another tour was due to start in 20 minutes, giving us enough time to cool our heads and feet and meet our first sloth – Buttercup! She was the sloth that started it all over 20 years ago, when she was brought to the then-hoteliers as an orphaned baby. Within two years, another infant sloth appeared, and it snowballed from there. Since Buttercup’s arrival, they became an official sloth sanctuary and have rescued over 500 sloths. The sanctuary owner is now a world authority on sloths and provides advice to zoos around the world. The main threats to the Costa Rican sloths (species which are not endangered) are electrical wires (which can electrocute those who try to cross them), cars and packs of dogs (when the sloths are on the ground slowly making their way from one tree to another).

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Baby in a onesie

The tour was very informative, and we met many a sloth: both two- and three-fingered, young and old, awake and asleep. They were all so #%&* cute, it was difficult to restrain ourselves from running off with one or ten (especially Alison whose head almost explodes when she’s around baby animals). They just look so blissful too, like they have just smoked the greatest joint ever. Mental note: sloths mainly eat the leaves from the Cecropia tree – maybe I should try some. 😛

The tour ended with a little boat ride through the mangrove behind the sanctuary, where we spotted two wild sloths high up in the trees and a number of other critters (mostly birds).


In addition to the contentment spread by being amongst the sloths, Toby regained relationship points by nabbing a free ride back to Cahuita with another couple on our same tour. [He told me to mention this fact. – Alison]

It’s hard to know what to feel about this tour. You get amazingly close to the animals, it’s a hugely professional outfit but something grates: it’s overpriced and somehow I wonder if that’s taking advantage of the popular exposure.  Maybe I am just being a curmudgeon. Line up the baby sloths in onesies, we’ll all smoke some Cecropia and just bliss out!


Cahuita National Park

RTW-W9-Costa Rica-Canon-211213-67RTW-W9-Costa Rica-Android-241213-121Imagine “heaven”. Some of you will have imagined  a beautiful beach, blue seas, white surf etc. That’s Cahuita. The sand is so soft it is like walking on a silk carpet. Behind the beach, jungle stretches off into the distance around the Cahuita peninsula. Entry is free (donations appreciated) and 10 yards into the park the howler monkeys hang out above you while huge orange iguanas fight rivals for female attention. The loser normally falls out of his tree. You can walk the length of the full peninsula (8km) and grab a bus back or just relax and take a swim.

Unfortunately there are thieves in heaven: when you do take that swim a white faced cappuchin monkey will probably rifle through your belongings.


Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge 

RTW-W9-Manzanillo Refuge-IXUS-040114-16Saturday morning 6:45am and another bus. This time to Manzanillo just down the coast from Puerto Viejo. We’d cycled down to Manzanillo a few days previously to inspect the beach. It had passed muster and was therefore used for some heavyweight indolence. This time though we were meeting Florentino, a local guide who was going to take us into the wildlife refuge. Between the bus and Florentino we had already encountered a Tamandua (Lesser Ant Eater) leisurely climbing a tree next to the bus stop. A fleeting glimpse of wildlife, but a good omen.

RTW-W9-Manzanillo Refuge-IXUS-040114-15Once introductions were made, Florentino took us to his house and equipped us with wellies. Before we left his property we had a quick tour of the trees and plants in his own backyard: breadfruit, cinnamon, mango, ginger, lemongrass, wild cilantro (coriander for the Brits amongst our readers) and turmeric. Florentino was born in Manzanillo and speaks English, Spanish and Patois. The Patois is a form of English that is incomprehensible to me for the most part: you can grasp words but not the whole sentence. I now know how Americans feel watching Trainspotting.

The tour lasted a good four hours and Florentino spotted everything that was there to be spotted. I can only assume these trained guides head out early in the morning and pre-place the animals, since there is no way they can be that keen sighted: small mud-colored frogs in leaf litter yards from the trail, bats inside a rolled up leaf (he got Alison twice by surprise – they flew right at her), sloths high up in far away trees and snakes, lots of snakes.

RTW-W9-Manzanillo Refuge-EOS-040114-35We saw at least four eyelash vipers ranging from bright yellow to a mottled green and yellow with red (Harris Tweed). These little things don’t seem to hide or slither away in your presence … they don’t need to. A bite will kill you in six hours and their strikes are so quick they have been known to catch hummingbirds.

We also found this spooky dolls head. Apparently he encountered it a few weeks ago and it scared the daylights out of him. I can see why.

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We covered primary and secondary jungle, beach front, clearings, a small farm and cliff tops. By the end we were asleep on our feet and dripping in sweat. Alison actually did fall asleep on the short bus journey back.

A really wonderful experience with a great guide. The only thing missing was a Toucan, but those will come later!



Random Animal Facts

  • The two types of sloths in Costa Rica – the so-called 2- and 3-toed sloths – both have 3 toes. So it is actually their hands that have either 2 or 3 claws/fingers.
  • It takes sloths 1 month to digest the leaves they eat and they poop roughly once a week; and they make a special excursion down to ground level for the occasion. This is a great info sheet on sloths.
  • Toucans – possibly the friendliest-looking birds – eat other small birds (among other things).
  • Howler monkeys make the scariest noise ever (see this youtube video we found). Something between a lion and demon. If you didn’t know what it was and you heard it in the jungle, I’m pretty sure you’d run like you’d never run before.
  • Speaking of running, Jesus Christ Lizards are so called because they run on water.


Conservation Haven?

To date in Costa Rica we’ve described and visited three great wildlife areas/projects and will be volunteering at a fourth. But we’ve also seen another side that is worth mentioning.

Costa Rica has a reputation as an advanced conservation and ecologically minded state and has been recognised for closing zoos and banning the keeping of wild animals as pets, managing large areas as national parks and more. Together with the abundance of wildlife, it paints an attractive picture to those of us interested in environmental protection. Delve deeper and ask locals, however, and the stories you hear can be a bit different and less consistent:

  • Some believe that the government pays lip service only to conservation and is actually in hoc to business, promoting conservation where it brings money but paying little heed otherwise. Just today we met a nature and wildlife conservation activist who claims that he has been threatened and harrassed, his dogs have been killed, and he has seen “sympathetic” conservation officers re-posted to other locations.
  • Costa Rica is heavily implicated in the shark fin industry.
  • Costa Rica (arguably acting on Japan’s behalf) is trying to extradite Paul Watson, president and founder of Sea Shepherd, to face a charge stemming from 2002 in which (Watson claims) that he and his crew were filming illegal shark-finning activities but while doing so (according to Costa Rica authorities) used their boat to ram the fishing vessel.
  • Ineffectual policies and enforcement thereof, as evidenced by the recent murder of a volunteer patrolling Costa Rican beaches to protect sea turtle eggs from illegal poaching.
  • Funding for rescue centers and sanctuaries has dried up since they are not classified as zoos. In some cases the government is passing animals from closed zoos to sanctuaries, whilst simultaneously denying permission for them to build larger enclosures. There seems to be a distinct lack of joined up thinking; either that or they just don’t care.

We are both disappointed that Costa Rica doesn’t fully live up to its own purported values, but here is hoping that it will get there….soon. When that day comes, it really will be a wildlife haven and a model for other countries.

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1 Response

  1. Toby Bailey Toby Bailey says:

    Having visited the Sloth Sanctuary and not felt fully comfortable there, we have since met a former volunteer and heard a few stronger opinions about it. Here is a link to the blog of another volunteer that worked there, we have not met this person and cannot vouch for their experience, neither can we claim any expertise in this area:

    It’s very hard to know what to make of it all, but there seem to be quite a few people concerned about the place and therefore we wouldn’t want to be seen to promote it as a model project. We’d also revise our comments on the owners being world experts on sloths, which was something claimed on the tour. Doubtless they have a lot of experience dealing with these animals, but it is no longer clear to us that it is always in the animals best interest (even if the intention is good).

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