Costa Rica Adopts Enlightened Wildlife Rules

Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) use a Latin phrase to define the noble intentions of their new wildlife regulations, adopted in 2017: in dubio pro natura—when in doubt, favor nature. Following that fundamental principle, the new rules provide 231 articles that itemize how responsible citizens must interact with wildlife in that Central American country.

Costa Rica has long been admired as the quintessence of principled and effective nature conservation in general and wildlife protection in particular. Cruel devices such as steel-jaw leghold traps, strangling snares, and poisons have been prohibited for decades. Commercially valuable wild species such as scarlet macaws, capuchin monkeys, and green iguanas have been vigorously protected in their habitats. But the new rules are taking the country several steps further.

Trade in wild pets (both wild-caught and captive-bred wild animals) is prohibited. The capture of Costa Rican animals from the wild for the pet trade was banned in 2012 (as was hunting for sport). Import of wild animals for the pet trade is now prohibited, as well.

The new regulations anticipate that some people might ignore such provisions, so they include procedures for seizing wildlife from traffickers. Seized animals go to credentialed rescue centers only—and not to just any convenient zoo, hobbyist, or breeding facility. The rules state that “the animal’s well-being must always be ensured” by wildlife officers and others who seize and take possession of illegally held animals.

Wording of the article that prohibits falconry and similar practices has a patriotic ring: “Training of wild animals used to hunt for entertainment or similar purposes shall not be allowed in our country.” How refreshingly explicit!

The new regulations do not shut down all zoos, despite a spirited campaign by many Ticos to include such measures. However, those new rules do impose some new reforms and obligations on zoos. Zoos are now required to provide environmental enhancement—meaning that they must “provide animals with conditions similar to those of their natural habitat” so as to “improve their quality of life” and stimulate their “exploratory behavior, natural instincts, and social life.”

The regulations acknowledge that sometimes wild animals cause damage to the human community that must be addressed. But it must be done cautiously. Someone must complain to the wildlife agency, and an inspector must verify the nature of the damage and which individual animals caused the damage. Lethal solutions against individual animals can be applied only with great hesitancy and when no alternative nonlethal means are available.

Article 216 establishes “failure to report cases of animal cruelty despite being aware of their occurrence” as a “very serious offense” that is punishable under the new regulations. That’s cruelty to a wild animal. Such rules are unheard of in most other countries.

In fact, Costa Rica’s new regulations reflect a much greater benevolence in general toward wildlife than is found in the wildlife codes of more developed countries, including the United States. There is a certain respect, indeed esteem, that can be felt when reading terms such as “intrinsic value,” “respect for their well-being,” and “a healthy and ecologically balanced environment”—a far cry from other countries’ wildlife regulations consisting of tedious legalese. Costa Rica’s new regulations express concern for wild animals and seek to protect their welfare. There are no euphemisms to conceal or justify exploitative interests.

It is all very fitting. The Ticos live within one of the earth’s most astonishing natural treasures. Their country is acknowledged by wildlife biologists worldwide as being among the most biologically diverse on the planet. There are 1,251 species of butterfly alone. Five of the earth’s seven species of sea turtles nest on Costa Rican beaches. Birders have identified 894 bird species­—more than in the United States and Canada combined, all in a country smaller than West Virginia. Costa Rican forests are home to such animals as jaguars, howler monkeys, toucans, and the resplendent quetzal.

Costa Rica has extended legal protection to about 25 percent of its land area, substantially more than most other countries. That’s part of the reason why Costa Rica was rated as the top performer in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (a project of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, the Yale Data-Driven Environmental Solutions Group, and the Columbia University Center for International Earth Science Information Network that uses more than 20 specific indicators to measure environmental responsibility).

The Ethical Traveler—a nonprofit organization that seeks to “use the economic clout of tourism to protect human rights and the environment”—listed Costa Rica as one of the “World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations” in 2017. That list is compiled annually after a detailed assessment of a country’s environmental, social welfare, and human rights status is made. Costa Rica scored number one worldwide in environmental protection (something for AWI members to consider when planning their next vacation abroad).

All in all, Costa Rica’s new wildlife regulations are among the most enlightened, progressive, and benevolent on earth. One can only hope the rest of the world will take notice—and follow suit.