The year 2020 and a coronavirus has changed the world as we know it. The fragile, precarious nature of our existence as a species has been brought to light by the ‘jump’ from animal to human of a highly infectious, and to the human body, highly damaging organism. It has set in motion a chain of events which is having untold costs across all sectors of humanity. All over the world the name of Covid-19 has become part of the daily mantra. We pose daily questions about the impact on our immediate health and that of our loved ones – many of whom we cannot see for reasons of shielding or halted travel and transport distance or political legislation, if not a combination of all 3.
We are all taking steps at this unsettling time to manage our lives and finances in the face of economic changes that asail every one of us, and the repercussions on the global marketplaces has the potential to be felt for generations. An inability to move at will has had an impact on most people but the awareness of the full breadth of this impact is often restricted to our immediate sphere and our immediate concerns.
Unfortunately, the multifaceted impact of Covid-19 on conservation projects and their ability to fulfil their roles is not reaching most people’s awareness and the ever increasing toll of financial and social responsibility for protecting and supporting multiple ecosystems is falling at their feet, and sadly theirs alone.
At the Playa Tortuga Conservation Project in Costa Rica, the concept of ‘idyllic’ has recently been replaced with ‘vulnerable’, ‘cut off’ and ‘at risk’. The tropical rainforest reserve on the Pacific coast which manages sea turtle research, crocodile monitoring and research, and mammal surveys amongst its many roles is sadly facing the decimating impact of Covid-19.
In the case of this project, as with many, the impact is not solely through direct infection from the virus, although that is an ever present threat and worry for the project managers and workers. No, the impact here comes as a result of the halt to international travel by the projects much needed volunteers, and the decrease in employment across every sector in the country with its resulting economic hardship, social instability and possibility that the people of the region will be looking to the rainforests and beaches to feed and finance their families and their lives. Project manager, Oscar, says
“Costa Rica had the first case of Covid-19 on March 6th. By March 20th the state closed the airports until [at least] 30th June. We had our last volunteer [in March] and were waiting for some new people, coming in the middle of the month. Sadly, all the people cancel their trips from March to June. So, no volunteers and we have started to feel the panic of what to do to hold people’s jobs and pay the bills.”
With 80% of Costa Rica’s economy based on tourism the far-reaching effect of this hiatus in global travel is only just beginning. The impact on projects that are used to having to run on a few months of solvency at a time and are dependent on a constant, if small, cash flow, is enormous. With no backing from bigger agencies, these small but essential projects and the wildlife they support are in grave danger of being wiped out.
Oscar is currently keeping staff on at the project as a way of ensuring their livelihood and that of their family, alongside his need to hold on to the small progress the project has made in their aims. Their local social education programme has been focused on demonstrating the ways that their ecosystem and its animal inhabitants are worth more alive, and ensure they are all diversely ’richer’, rather than dead. Previous efforts in environmental education to reduce poaching and the refocusing of local interest in their immediate flora and fauna is at risk of being totally undermined following this sharp halt to tourism in the region. Poaching is always a threat and the potential for it is even greater during the pandemic.
The lack of volunteers means no finance or practical, physical assistance for the overwhelmed project workers. Setting camera traps. Monitoring and documenting species numbers. Maintaining or building necessary parts of the project’s physical, administration and online infrastructures. Beach patrolling against the turtle nests being damaged by the tide or poaching. These are all vital aspects to the running of the project, which, minus the help to achieve their aims and minus the volunteers fees to pay the project workers themselves, is taking what could be a fatal hit for the turtles, snakes, caiman and other animals under their care.
Such a sharp and unexpected halt to tourism in the wider community provokes the knock-on effect of a halt to jobs and finance for the local region’s inhabitants. The effect of which is likely to be that families turn to the rainforest and beach for food in the form of turtle eggs and meat, and to the jungle for animals to eat or sell as meat or live commodity. In spite of what people may have learnt from the education programmes and believe to be right, in the face of their families’ well-being, people will go to any and all necessary lengths to ensure their loved ones survival.
Lockdown protocol has also impacted upon the project’s ability to work. In Costa Rica all beaches and national parks have been closed to the public, a move which has included project workers and researchers like those employed by Oscar. In addition to this there is a county wide ban on the use of vehicles between 7pm and 5am, the impact of which is that the projects cannot get out to check the caimans, crocodiles, and snakes in their natural habitat. Sadly they have missed 9 weeks of data, so even the current situation for these already endangered animals is unknown.
Past visitors to the Playa Tortuga Project have been amazed and thrilled by the biodiversity of the region. Spending time living in a rainforest with tree boas, howler and capuchin monkeys, river otters and beautiful birds and butterflies has for many been an enlightening experience. Seeing the use of technology, in the form of camera traps, to spot elusive ocelots at night time and wading through rivers to catch and tag caimans are memories which have the potential to be solely the provision of the past volunteers. Without the necessary support, both financial and physical, there is a real risk of not only the devastation of these regional species but of the project and with it their means for the future.
Stoical and committed to his life’s work, Oscar says that “It is hard without extra hands. We are a few but our staff is a group of good people, people who cares about nature. We spend hours in the day in our forest. We continue following the monkeys, macaws and bats, and studying our trees. Botany is a challenge in the tropics.”
Ever one to view the positive aspects of what he has and to work towards a positive future he continues, “as the nature does, we need to adjust our lives to this new world. Adaptation is the key. It is time to innovate, to work harder, to be kind.” An attitude, which under the circumstances and alongside everything else he is doing, seems superhuman and admirable, but which at the end of the day is still in need of additional, external ongoing support in order to help him and his team manage the very real environmental crisis which is playing out as part of the coronavirus situation.
Written by WorkingAbroad Blog Writer, Rae Hadley
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