The concept of biodiversity hotspots has fascinated me for years - these are the 34 areas that harbor the most threatened species on Earth. By definition, a hotspot has already lost 70% of its original habitat. These areas make up less than 3% of land on Earth but are home to 60% of remaining species. These are the places where some of the most beautiful and unique creatures live and where the greatest threat of extinction exists.
My girlfriend, Mary, and I escaped the polar vortex freezing our midwestern home for the Central American paradise of Costa Rica. We traveled to this part of the world in search of warmth, adventure and of course, wildlife. The country has some of the most ambitious biodiversity protections in the world but still, only 27% of the land is protected. We visited three of these protected areas. Los Quetzales National Park was nestled within a rugged and mountainous central area that seemed to have relatively intact habitat, even outside of the park. We also visited the coastal rainforests of Manuel Antonio and Marino Bellena National Park, which were both small pockets of wilderness surrounded by a sprawl of oil palm plantations.
Los Quetzales National Park is home to a cloud forest, a unique ecoregion in the central mountains. The landscape seemed remote, absent of major development. A few lodges, restaurants and stores lined the sides of small towns. The landscape was dominated by steep, forested peaks that are home to a some unique wildlife that influences the local culture. Signs of businesses featured images of tapirs, a unique ground dwelling mammal or the resplendent quetzal, a colorful tropical bird and the namesake of the local national park. We never saw either of these species but we felt their presence while driving along the winding and sometimes sketchy mountain roads. We did spot a handful of birds on our hike through the park but the sprawling and abundant habitat made sightings few and far between.
When we traveled to the rainforests of the pacific coast, wildlife sightings exploded. We hoped to spot a sloth on the trip and were treated to multiple sightings. The resident monkey species - white-throated capuchins, squirrel monkeys and mantled howler monkeys jumped around in the canopy above us, sometimes coming close and down at eye level. The primates of the area kept our stay full of amazement. The town of Manuel Antonio is built into the forest, with an economy driven by ecotourism. Wildlife moved in and out of the national park and all about town. It was common to see sloths, capuchins and squirrel monkeys in the yard of our Airbnb and at restaurants. We had dozens of memorable encounters with agile monkeys foraging the trees throughout town and sloths slowly lumbering above town. A nocturnal two-toed sloth climbed across the patio awning at Cafe Milagra, not 15 feet away from our table. It slowly made its way across the metal awning and up to a power line where it crossed the street and eventually made it down into the trees on the other side. An amazing site but a sad reminder of how humans are encroaching on natural habitat.
Sightings of colorful birds, reptiles and weird forest animals called agoutis were common in our yard as well. For a few days we were living inside a tropical paradise, teeming with life. We were surrounded by a local population that seemed to fully embrace the creatures they were sharing the town with. It was beyond refreshing and energizing to be amongst such biodiversity. It wasn’t until we left the forested area of Manuel Antonio and drove through oil palm plantations and eventually into the capital of San Jose that I realized how rare the things that we saw were. The concentration of wildlife is focused on Earth’s remaining protected areas, we were within some of the last refuges for biodiversity on earth. Costa Rica does truly embrace its places, and while ample public funding is protecting a lot of what remains, those areas are still only the fringes of the country. And other biodiversity hotspots don’t enjoy the same favorable environmental ethic as Costa Rica. The trip has renewed my sense of urgency on global biodiversity loss.
Biodiversity loss remains, in my opinion, the largest global problem facing Earth today. The Earth is experiencing its sixth mass extinction at the hands of humans - habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth and over-harvesting all threaten the remaining life on Earth. I think we, as a species, have a moral obligation to understand our impact on biodiversity and to use our ingenuity and resources in such a way that leads to us coexisting with nature, not dominating it. If not for the air and water quality benefits, climate stability, aesthetics and economic opportunities that people get from nature then we should protect biodiversity so our kids and grandkids have the opportunity to see the world and all the creatures we share it with.