Posted by: Adam Kay | January 24, 2012

Beef and conservation in a tropical dry forest – notes from Palo Verde National Park

Beef and conservation in a tropical dry forest – notes from Palo Verde National Park

Entering the Palo Verde forest

A main reason that the Introduction to Field Ecology course comes to Costa Rica is so that we can use the rich biodiversity zones as natural laboratories for student-led research projects. Although there is a lot of biodiversity at individual sites, it is amazing how different the flora and fauna can be among the various sites. So far, we’ve traveled from a high elevation, oak-dominated forest at Cerro de la Muerte, to a lowland seasonally wet forest on the Pacific coast (Corcovado), to our recently departed dry forest location (Palo Verde). Visiting such different sites in a short period of time can make your head spin, but it has made for a great adventure.

marshlands at Palo Verde

Palo Verde National Park is a 19,000-hectare area in Guanacaste Province in NW Costa Rica. One main feature of the park is the extensive marshlands around the Rio Tempisque. This area provides important breeding grounds for resident bird species and feeding areas for migratory species; the Tempisque also has the highest concentration of American crocodiles in Costa Rica. In addition, the park has some of the best patches of dry forest left in Central America; the relatively open canopy in these forests make it easy to see mammals (we saw agoutis, collared peccaries, coatis, white-tailed deer, and monkeys) and snakes (here is a video of a rainbow boa that we saw).

Maya Peters at “La Roca” – a limestone perch

Tropical dry forests are one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on earth. Tropical dry forests can actually be quite wet – for example, the average rainfall at Palo Verde (150-200cm/year) is about 3 times higher than the average precipitation in Minneapolis. However, a tropical dry forest has an extensive dry season that has a dramatic effect on the biology of the system. The fertile soils and mild climates in these areas make them well-suited for human activity, including logging, agriculture, cattle ranching, and, more recently, tourism. It’s estimated that only 1.7% of the original tropical dry forest cover remains in Central America (Olson et al. 2001).

a 6-ft croc on the Tempisque

Many Costa Ricans moved into the Guanacaste region after the 1930’s to search for fertile land for subsistence farming. However, the main pressure on the forest came from 2 sources directly related to activities in the United States: timber extraction and beef cattle production. Guanacaste was a major source of mahogany, an excellent wood for building because of its workability, durability, and lack of knots. Much of the mahogany in the region was logged before 1960 for shipment to markets in the US. After 1950, much of the forest in Guanacaste was cleared for pasture. The intensity of ranching was fueled in large part by the increase in beef prices that were associated with a massive increase in demand for beef by American consumers. The impact of beef prices on forest clearing wasn’t limited to Guanacaste. This phenomenon, termed the “Hamburger connection”, led to forest clearing throughout Central and South America (Myers 1981).

Dan, our guide Raphael, Braedon, Tyler, and Evan in the marsh

Since the mid-1980’s, forest cover has actually increased significantly in Guanacaste province due to declines in beef prices and changes in socioeconomic patterns (Calvo-Alvarado et al. 2009). Ranching became less profitable in the region because the Costa Rican government withdrew their support for the industry, and because beef consumption in the United States began to decline as consumers became more health conscious. In addition, beach- and eco-tourism have become much more common in Guanacaste, and tourism is now the most important industry in Costa Rica.

the group in a cactus grove

This background provides context for our stay at Palo Verde. The accommodations at our site were simple but more than adequate: cold-water showers, bunk beds with mosquito netting, a classroom that even had air conditioning. We spent the morning and late afternoon hours out in the forest doing research projects on ant lions (Jordan Goetting, Tyler Abrahamson, Matt Scott), the bull-thorn acacia (Leah Ruhland, Maya Peters, Katelyn Bojan, Tom Langer), ant foraging (Mark Painter, Braedon Wieseler, Dan Oseid, Amy Niemala), and dragonfly activity patterns (Evan Nolander, Liz Chambers, Cory Birkestand). The mid-day “unforgivable hours” – when the temperature reached 100F – were spent resting or doing writing and data entry in the classroom. We also found time for an occasional hike to limestone promontories that looked out over the marshlands, a boat ride along the Tempisque, and a surprisingly intense soccer game. No one seemed to mind the fact that our resource use was much lower than it would be back home. Simple was good, and this theme was part of some of our late night conversations about conservation and the earth’s ecology. Given the direct connection between activities of Americans and the pressure on biodiversity preservation in this region, we begin to understand that we can really make a difference. And spending time in this amazing place should help motivate us to help simplify the American lifestyle because we can see first-hand what is being lost.

Calvo-Alvarado J, McLennan B, Sa´nchez-Azofeifa B, Garvin T (2009) Deforestation and forest restoration in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Putting conservation policies in context. Forest Ecology and Management 258: 931-940.

Myers N, (1981) The hamburger connection: how Central America’s forests became North America’s hamburgers. Ambio 10: 3–8.

Olson DM, et al. (2001) Terrestrial ecoregions of the world: a new map of life on earth. BioScience 51: 933–938.


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