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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Oh, So Magnificent Osa


A photographer documents the biodiversity of a remote corner of Costa Rica

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Costa Rica is known for pace-setting conservation policies, setting aside large national parks and reserves and becoming a global magnet for ecotourism. Sustainability surveys regularly rank it among the world’s top-10 countries in preserving its environment. Above: A red-eyed tree frog resting on a heliconia.

In the Osa Peninsula, big things come in small packages. Covering just three percent of Costa Rica’s total land area, the Osa packs a wallop in terms of biodiversity, supporting more than 50 percent of the country’s animal and plant species. Healthy populations of scarlet macaw, Baird’s tapir, white-lipped peccary and spider monkey—species in decline or extinct elsewhere in Costa Rica—thrive here. The Osa’s endemic species include the yellow-billed cotinga, black-headed bushmaster and two species of poison dart frog. Bordered on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, the peninsula provides nesting beach habitat for four species of endangered sea turtles. The rich marine waters support coral reefs, humpback whales and dolphins. With such a diverse array of species and habitats, composing wildlife pictures in this photographic tropical paradise should be a snap, right? Wrong.


A golden-looking carpenter ant.
“In rain-forest photography, everything is working against you—humidity, light, canopy species and armies of stinging ants,” says Roy Toft, whose new book Osa: Where the Rainforest Meets the Sea is a culmination of two decades spent traveling the area. “The Osa is a hot, sticky place where it rains over 200 inches a year. The first day you arrive, everything you own is wet, and it stays wet. If you stay for a month, you can see the tendrils of fungi growing on the inside of your optics.”

Despite these challenges, Toft documented an impressive number of species in cloud forests, wetlands, beaches and underwater. “There are many wonderful coffee-table books about Costa Rica, but in every one the Osa only gets one or two pages,” he says. “I’ve been traveling to the area for 20 years, and in 2004, I decided to pursue a book that would serve as an ambassador for the place. Books have so much power, and I wanted to produce a flagship publication that people of the area can be proud of and scientists can drop on the desk of a politician to highlight how amazing it is.”

Photographers who return to a wild area over the course of several years or decades are witnesses to many changes, often for the worse. Loss of habitat and species, whether through human settlement, resource extraction or poaching, seem to be the norm. But for Toft, the opposite has been true in the Osa. Over two decades, he has seen the region improve. How can this be?

Prior to 1975, farmers and cattle ranchers cleared parts of the rain forest to make way for crops and livestock, homesteading the Osa. Foreign-owned gold-mining operations penetrated the region with heavy equipment, causing destruction of river systems. In 1975, Costa Rica established Corcovado National Park, the biological heart of the Osa and the sparkling jewel of the country’s park system. Over time, buffer zones around the park also were created, and today a network of parks and reserves protects much of the Osa. Outside the protected areas, the government compensates small and medium landowners who maintain forest cover on their property. More scientists are studying the area, and small ecotourism lodges now operate with a lesser footprint than the farmers and miners of the past. Today, the Osa boasts the largest expanse of lowland rain forest along the Pacific coast of Central America.

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