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The Oh, So Magnificent Osa

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

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.

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.

Tree frogs, which are shown here in a mating mass, are typically found in very tall trees or other high-growing vegetation. Except to mate and spawn, they normally don’t descend to the ground.

“To photograph most butterflies, you wait for one to land on a flower,” says Toft. “But blue morphos aren’t nectar feeders, so they don’t go to flowers. They fly in undulating, erratic patterns patrolling their territories and flashing their wings. For years, I tried to shoot them like birds—tracking and waiting for them to land. But it’s impossible, as you can’t even imagine where they’re going to go in the next half second. And on the rare occasion where you actually see one land, it immediately folds its wings up and exposes the black under-sides. Every blue morpho picture I’ve ever seen, the butterfly has a pin through it because someone killed and posed it.”

Like his attempts to photograph a jaguar, Toft questioned the time he was spending chasing the blue morpho at the expense of missing other species. One day while working around a fig tree photographing spider monkeys and agoutis, Toft noticed a blue morpho land on a rotting fig. The brilliant blue wings instantly folded, showing the black undersides.

“I knew that when it flew from the fig, I’d have one chance to shoot this thing. The one picture in the book of a blue morpho is a slow shutter pan with a flash. It’s a picture that I chased and chased down the trail for years until that one rotten fruit day.”

Toft’s patience, knowledge of species and familiarity with the area helped him document the great diversity of the Osa. He also says that digital photography was a great boon to the book. All of the images were taken in the last five years with the latest digital technology.

“In the past, most rain-forest photography required flash, and the resulting images looked like they were shot at night. High ISOs allowed me to utilize natural light, and I could adjust white balance to accurately portray the colors of the forest. The digital era really helped this book be what it is.”

Loaded with an incredible diversity of birds, reptiles, mammals, insects and amphibians, Toft’s book—like the Osa Peninsula itself—is further proof that big things come in small packages.

Photographer Roy Toft is a Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. His work has been featured in National Geographic, Audubon and Discover. For his book Osa: Where the Rainforest Meets the Sea (Zona Tropical Publications), Toft collaborated with author Trond Larsen, a biologist and research fellow with the World Wildlife Fund, Princeton University and the Smithsonian Institution. For more information about the book, visit