Tortuguero Park and The Birth of Costa Rica Ecotourism

seaturtle feb2011 Tortuguero Park and The Birth of Costa Rica Ecotourism

Tortuguero Park is world famous for its sea turtles and, though so remote that there are no roads to or within it, over 110,000 people visit each year. It’s the third most-visited park in Costa Rica, a magnet for tourist dollars and euros, and the birth mother of Costa Rica ecotourism.

All because of the sea turtles that nest in the Western Hemisphere’s largest green sea turtle preserve. . . and one man, a Florida professor, armed with a pen, named Archie Carr.

Dr. Carr was fascinated by sea turtles, one of the earth’s most ancient species. Once land animals, they went to sea 65-75 million years ago, perhaps millions of years before T.Rex was T.Rex. They survived eons while others came and went, through ice ages and mass extinctions.

Then, along came a creature, whose appetite seemed limitless and the ability to go anywhere it wanted, that threatened to extinguish 75 millions of life in a couple of decades.

While people watched I Love Lucy and Charlie’s Angels, caravans of Mexican horses met the female sea turtles as they came ashore to nest, and left laden with sea turtle eggs. In less than 20 years, beaches that once saw a billion eggs laid were ravaged to the point that only two nesting turtles remained.

With the development of the Interstate Highway System and air conditioning, Americans headed to the sunny beaches from Florida to Texas. The best views, the highest priced properties, were on the same beaches that turtles used. Condos and high rises squeezed the animals out, not only in America but across the planet.

It didn’t take long for big companies, like Heintz and others, to realize the enormous lucre in making soup from sea turtles. A few beaches were ravaged at first, then a few thousand, then nearly everywhere on the planet.

Including Costa Rica.

The plunder was exacerbated by two things: all the turtles that came ashore and were butchered were females and, of course, it’s tough to produce future generations of sea turtles when all the eggs are poached (excuse the pun).

Enter Dr. Carr, the godfather of Costa Rica ecotourism (he died before anybody called it that). Fascinated by sea turtles but disturbed by the exploitation that threatened their very existence, he wrote about their plight in The Windward Road.

Like Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring, it proved to be seminal, a call to arms.

And, people responded. Conservation groups formed to save the turtles at Tortuguero (and later, across the planet). As public awareness increased, people traveled to Costa Rica to see the famous beaches, leaving behind lots of money.

From a trickle to a flood they came and, with them, the birth of Costa Rica ecotourism.

Tortuguero became a national park in 1975, preserving not only the beaches but the jungle—and even more people started coming.

Soon, Costa Rica reversed decades of logging, planting trees, restoring the jungles. Wildlife began to flourish again, more and more people kept coming, the country prospered, and the lessons of Costa Rica ecotourism began to be emulated across the planet.

Thanks to Archie Carr.

And, of course, the sea turtles of Tortuguero Park.