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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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A squirrel monkey peaking from around a leaf in Corcovado National Park.
“When I first started going to the Osa in 1990, I didn’t see certain species outside Corcovado National Park,” says Toft. “Everything that was good eating, like peccaries and agoutis, ended up on dinner plates. Now, I see these animals in the buffer zones around the park. It’s great to watch an area improve over time because so often we experience the opposite.”

Despite the successes, much remains to be done. Conservation programs and enforcement agencies are short of funding. New laws are needed to stop illegal logging, poaching and mining within the protected areas and shark finning off the coast. Even greater threats come from outside the parks and reserves. Pesticides, fertilizers, sewage and deforestation impact entire watersheds. The resulting pollution and erosion flow to the sea and degrade coral reefs. Massive development schemes have been proposed—resorts, casinos, a cruise ship dock, pulp mill and tuna farm. And the threat of large-scale industrial agriculture looms in the form of palm oil plantations to produce biofuels.

But the Osa is a small area with limited resources and fresh water, and the locals in the region have a long history of successful activism fighting the big schemes. The overall conservation goals include reclamation and reforestation in damaged areas and the creation of wildlife corridors to connect the Osa’s protected areas. Corridors within the Osa and to the jungles of Panama would allow large predators like the jaguar room to hunt and breed.

As the largest and most powerful feline in the New World, the jaguar is the iconic cat of the Osa and one of the most elusive species to photograph. When Toft began shooting for his book, he spent several trips setting up remote camera traps, waiting on trails for days and patrolling beaches for sea turtles killed by jaguars.

“For my book, I wanted to make the best photographs possible, but I couldn’t afford 10 years and unlimited funds to do it,” he says. “I was having no luck with jaguars and quickly realized that I was burning cash for one animal while missing so many others.

“On many magazine assignments, I focus on one specific species, but for this book my goal was to document the diversity of the Osa, and I had to take a different approach. Every day I would shoot the small things like snakes, frogs and insects. I would work those subjects until the scarlet macaws flew by or troops of monkeys showed up. The beautiful thing about the Osa is that all of those species will eventually come.”

While a jaguar was one of the few species in the Osa that didn’t come before his camera, Toft was able to include in his book images of wild jaguars that he made in Brazil and noted as such. Ironically, the most difficult species he photographed was the most visible: the blue morpho butterfly. At six inches across, with iridescent blue wings, it’s the quintessential brilliant insect in the Osa rain forest. It’s common to see several blue morphos in one day as it’s not a rare or elusive species. Photographing one is a different story, however.


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