Walking to the “most biologically intense place on earth”
Corcovado National Park in southwestern Costa Rica is an amazing place to visit. It is one of the last large expanse of lowland tropical rainforest in Central America. Lowland rainforest is particularly important for conservation because much of the biodiversity in the tropics is located there. Unfortunately, lowland rainforest contains valuable tree species for logging, and it’s relatively easy to convert into agricultural land. Forest conversion not only destroys natural habitat, but the resulting habitat fragmentation makes it difficult to maintain viable populations of organisms with large ranges. Corcovado, with 263 square miles of continuous forest, is the largest primary tropical forest on the American Pacific coastline, and it is home to populations of some of the rarest animals in the New World tropics – Jaguars, Baird’s tapir, harpy eagles, scarlet macaws, white-lipped peccaries, and the Central American squirrel monkey.
Our class – Introduction to Field Ecology – is currently staying for a week at the Sirena ranger station in Corcovado. Getting here is not easy. One option is a 15-min flight from Porto Jimenez on a small plane. Two of our students, Braedon Wieseler and Amy Niemela, volunteered to fly in with all of our equipment. They saw the pristine forest from above, and bravely endured the landing on the little airstrip cut out of the forest near the station.
The rest of the class made it to Sirena by traveling across the Osa Peninsula from the little town of La Palma. We traveled the first 10 km in an old military vehicle; most of the habitat was subsistence farms (banana and oil palm) and river beds. One of the highlights was seeing the rare King Vulture perched on a branch overlooking a dead horse in the riverbed. Another highlight was seeing pairs of scarlet macaws flying in unison above us.
The second part of the excursion was a 23km walk through the forest. Walking 23km through pristine rainforest is the type of experience that one never forgets. Check out some video here and here. Sure, it was hot and humid, and the blisters are still healing, but the sight of huge palm fronds, giant strangler figs, the occasional spider monkey group, and all of the other biological complexity was enough to keep our spirits high throughout. It took us about 7 hours, and was the most demanding hike some folks had ever taken.We knew we were close to the station when we started hearing the crashing waves of the Pacific.
Emerging from the forest at the Sirena station was exhilarating. There are a few tourists here (that come by plane, boat, or an equally long hike along the beach), and a small staff. All of the supplies for the station are transported in by boat or plane. The station has photovoltaic cells for generating some electricity, but power is only available here for about 3 hours in the evening. There is a kitchen that makes us 3 hardy meals each day, but there are no other supplies available. Our group is in bed by 9:30 and up at 6, unless someone takes a morning hike at 4 (the pristine beach is a popular location). Everyone is excited about being here and they are developing interesting research projects. We’ll report on those in the near future.