Judge Safeguards Rare Snake Species in Costa Rica, Uncovers Influence Trafficking.
Environmental Tensions: In Search of a Balance between Conservation, Bureaucracy, and Collaboration.
Recently, the newspaper La Nación, the most important in Costa Rica, echoed a news story that would normally go unnoticed. Generally, nobody is interested in the conservation of snakes, especially not of a large venomous viper, despite it being endemic to the south of Costa Rica and critically endangered. In 2020, CRWild and Bushmaster Conservation Project launched a project for data collection on the species in Rancho Quemado, Osa Peninsula. With many difficulties and determination, they managed to acquire expensive equipment and visited the region, preparing some interested local collaborators to carry out the data collection following a protocol to avoid disturbing the animals or approaching them dangerously.
In the community, the species went from being considered a danger to a magnificent animal worth protecting. The secret lies in education, and that's why in 2021, CRWild started a series of visits to inform the community about the objectives of the project, which had obtained the approval of ACOSA (Osa Conservation Area). This project was designed and approved for 5 years, renewable each year. During the first year of renewal, the report to ACOSA mentioned that not much had happened, except for one individual that was found dead, likely hit by a vehicle, and it was recovered to be preserved in alcohol for educational purposes.
During the second year, while the project renewal had been sent to SINAC for approval, which shouldn't take more than a month, the responsible official informed us that it was already approved and awaiting the director's signature. During this period, in which we continued with the project as usual, three specimens appeared consecutively, of which the first two were captured, and, according to the protocol established and approved by SINAC, transmitters were installed on them.
We were notified about the presence of a third individual crossing the road, at serious risk of being hit by a vehicle. Unfortunately, some irresponsible individuals were throwing stones at it, which could have triggered a dangerous accident. Faced with this delicate situation, the established protocol was immediately activated. Local authorities were requested to intervene and rescue the individual, which would become the third animal approved by the project.
The officials from SINAC were notified by phone, and they explained the detailed situation to the field officers. Additionally, it was established that this individual was important for an ongoing research project. However, the field officers decided not to follow the instructions of their own collaborators who were aware of the project's situation and proceeded to confiscate the animal. Later, they got in touch with another project and ultimately released the individual, as it was published on the social media accounts of SINAC and the organization Plato Negro ORG. It was announced as a seizure related to wildlife trafficking and broadcasted on national television, various social media groups, and advertised in several newspapers.
During this period, the issue in question arose. A 5-year project cannot be halted while waiting for a response from an official entity (which ultimately took 5 months to answer and was approved for 5 years), especially when there was an opportunity to obtain one of these rare animals. These are mere formalities that should be understood and rectified afterward. The animal in question would have been a valuable source of data for our project.
It is worth noting that about 10 years ago, an initiative emerged for the study and protection of the black plate, called Plato Negro Ecology and Conservation (https://platonegro.org/es/), led by biologists Marcelo Carvajal and Guido Saborío, who was then an official of Ministerio de Ambiente (Sinac), and Roel De Plecker, funded by the Orion Society. Although any initiative regarding the conservation of this or any other species is always commendable and should be supported, when our project was conceived, they were invited to participate in something bigger and more ambitious, to which they never responded.
We managed to secure support, funding, and a team of professionals like never before seen in Costa Rica to study one of the rarest and most endangered species (Bushmaster Conservation Project) and the only veterinarian experienced in the genus, Randall Arguedas. However, due to pressure from the internal official of the Plato Negro Ecology and Conservation project at ACOSA, they managed to halt our project after the responsible official had assured us that the renewal was guaranteed. They made us wait for 5 months and, in the end, denied it with reasons that are still unclear.
In addition to the denial of the renewal (SINAC-ACOSA-DT-PI-INV-009-2021), an administrative order (SINAC-AREA DE CONSERVACIÓN OSA-PROGRAMA DE INVESTIGACIÓN-OA-001-2022) was issued to remove the transmitters from the specimens. Initially, it was thought that three specimens were affected, but it was clarified that only two males were involved. However, from the beginning, it was decided not to comply with the order for ethical and health reasons concerning the specimens. Consequently, an appeal was filed on November 11, 2022, before the Administrative Court. The response to this appeal was finally received on July 20, 2023, and in it, the order issued by SINAC was revoked.
Currently, we are focused on continuing with the project, which is of vital importance to keep discovering one of the most fascinating and unknown species. We are convinced that this project can contribute benefits to the natural history of this species, as well as economic and ecotourism benefits both to the Rancho Quemado community and to other areas where it develops.
Despite the obstacles we have faced so far, we firmly believe that the time lost has been unnecessary, causing significant delays in an internationally significant project. It has shown how an official entity, created for the protection of wildlife, can represent the opposite. It is crucial that we all work together towards a common goal. We are saddened that another project, which theoretically shares the same purpose, is trying to undermine us due to conflicting interests. The logical approach would be for both teams to collaborate, or at least not interfere with each other, and for the authorities to remain neutral and support the project and the Rancho Quemado community. The sole interest is to conserve the species and its habitat, generating benefits for the community.
Indeed, it is vital to remember that ultimately, we are working for the benefit of knowledge and sustainable development. If we all support each other and work together, we can achieve our goals more effectively and benefit all parties involved. We have confidence that, despite the difficulties, we will overcome the challenges and achieve valuable results for science and local communities. Collaboration and mutual support are key to ensuring the success of our endeavor, and through this unity, we can make a positive impact on both the species we are studying and the well-being of the communities around us.
We are delighted to know that a positive result has been achieved in the Administrative Dispute Tribunal and that Judge Alana Fonseca Lobo has been a fundamental part in this fight against bureaucracy and mismanagement. Our lawyer, Walter Brenes (from Energy Law Firm), has been a great support throughout the process, and we are indebted to his work. It is gratifying to see how the judicial system can contribute to the conservation of a species and ensure that justice is served in situations where the administration has failed.
The independence and authority of the tribunal are crucial to ensure that fair and equitable decisions are made in cases like this. It is a demonstration of how the justice system can be a valuable resource to protect the rights of researchers against injustices supported by conflicts of interest. In the end, the species, its habitat, the Rancho Quemado community, and the knowledge we will gain about this little-known, venomous animal of medical importance all benefit.