The Guanacaste Conservation Area to Rescue Dry Tropical Forest

As a UNESCO World heritage site (1999), the Guanacaste Conservation Area attracted my eyes when I was thinking about the itinerary in Costa Rica. Located in the North-western side of the country, close to the Nicaragua’s border, it is the land of the second most extensive protected dry tropical forest in the World (just after the Kakadu National park in Australia). This was my first experience of the rich wildlife of Costa Rica.

Outstanding Universal Value

The Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) comprises 163,000 hectares of land and sea in the Northwest of Costa Rica. Encompassing several contiguous protected areas of various categories, the property is a mosaic of diverse ecosystems. The 104,000 hectares of land encompass a continuum of roughly 100 kilometres from the shore of the Pacific to the lowland rainforests in the Caribbean basin. Along the way, the gradient passes a varied coastline, the Pacific coastal lowlands and much of the western side of the Guanacaste Range peaking at Rincón de la Vieja at 1,916 m.a.s.l. The many forest types comprise a large tract of tropical dry forest, one of the most highly vulnerable ecosystems in the world. Furthermore, there are extensive wetlands, numerous water courses, as well as oak forests and savannahs. The largely intact coastal-marine interface features estuaries, rocks, sandy and cobble beaches rimming the 43,000 hectares of marine area with its various, mostly uninhabited near-shore islands and islets. Major nutrient-rich cold upwelling currents offshore result in an exceptionally high productivity of this part of the Pacific.

Entrée en terrain protégé, Costa Rica ou Gringoland

Entrée en terrain protégé, Costa Rica ou Gringoland

The visually dramatic landscape mosaic is home to an extraordinary variety of life forms. Next to the approximately 7,000 plant species, more than 900 vertebrate species have been confirmed. Some notable mammals include the endangered Central American Tapir, at least 40 species of bat, numerous primate species and several felids, namely Jaguar, Margay, Jaguarundi and Ocelot. Among some 500 bird species are the endangered Mangrove Hummingbird and Great Green Macaw, as well as the vulnerable Military Macaw and Great Curassow. A very rare bird in Costa Rica is the smallest motmot (Hylomanes momotula), resident of a narrow elevation belt on the Guanacaste volcanoes, Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, where it is easy to see.

Diversity of reptiles and amphibians is likewise high with charismatic representatives like the vulnerable American Crocodile and Spectacled Caiman. Several species of sea turtles occur in the property, with a nesting population of the critically endangered Leatherback and a massive breeding population of the vulnerable Olive Ridley. Invertebrate diversity is extraordinary with an estimated 20,000 species of beetles, 13,000 species of ants, bees and wasps and 8,000 species of butterflies and moths. I could not see a lot but…
The property is globally important for the conservation of tropical biological diversity as one of the finest examples of a continuous and well-protected altitudinal transect in the Neotropics along a series of marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The enormous variation in environmental conditions favours a high diversity, with two third of all species described for Costa Rica occurring within the relatively compact area.


My experience of 3 days within this ACG (Santa Rosa National Park section) was incredible, camping alone close to big trees, could see many wild animals early in the morning or late afternoon, layed down in the beautiful grey-sand beach of Naranjo, learnt about the history of the Park and the independance of Costa Rica at the museum La Casona, etc… Really worth a visit!

A Corridor for Wildlife


Tropical Dry Forest with the "Indio desnudo" tree

Tropical Dry Forest with the « Indio desnudo » tree

A striking feature of ACG is the wealth of ecosystem and habitat diversity, all connected through an uninterrupted corridor from the Pacific Ocean across the highest peaks to the lowlands on the Caribbean side. This makes the ACG an ideal place for the conservation of dynamic ecological and biological processes at the scale of a landscape. Along the extraordinary transect the property allows migration, genetic exchange and complex ecological processes and interactions at all levels of biodiversity, including between land and sea. The vast dry forest is a rare feature of enormous conservation value, as most dry forests elsewhere in the region are fragmented remnants only.

The largely intact coastal-marine interface is remarkable, particularly in a region where coasts have disproportionally suffered from human pressure. The Pacific and the connected coastal ecosystems like mangroves, wetlands and estuaries mutually protect each other and the associated biological and ecological processes. The remoteness and the rocky, swampy terrain provide a high degree of natural protection of this interface. The ongoing natural regeneration of the large, previously exploited tropical dry forest ecosystem within the property is an indicator of intact processes, favoured by the size, conservation efforts and functioning interaction with neighbouring ecosystems. Adding to the integrity are several connected protected areas in the vicinity of the property, which help avoid genetic isolation, buffer disturbance and facilitate conservation and natural regeneration. Small peripheral areas are regularly bought and added to the protected area and lend themselves for future incorporation into the property.

Protection and Management Requirements

The ACG  is a conservation complex composed of contiguous protected areas which has expanded over time. This is a specificity of the protection system in Costa Rica through 11 Conservation Areas (AC) that emerged in the 70’s. Each of the AC gathers several protected areas (which covers around the 25% of the country surface) so as to reduce administrative expenses and overall to develop dynamic conservation based on ecosystems and landscapes, including biocorridors.

The ACG’s property of 160,000 hectares continues to have potential for further extension, which is an explicit management objective. The formal conservation history goes back to 1971 when Santa Rosa National Park was created to conserve a stretch of land and sea of high conservation valuable, the first conversation project in Costa Rica. Over the years new national parks, a wildlife refuge and an Experimental Forest Station were established and added. Most of the property is state-owned, except for a corridor owned by the parastatal foundation Fundacion de Parques Nacionales. Purchase from landowners (ranch owners) was done through negotiation or expropriation. The administrative unit is headed by a Director and under the overall authority of the Ministry of Environment and Energy. Oversight and participation is foreseen through technical, local, as well as regional councils. The integrated management has the dual long-term objective of conservation and restoration. More specifically, management objectives include incorporation of adjacent areas of conservation interest, payment for environmental services schemes; ecological research and outreach programs. The property enjoys a diverse funding structure with both governmental and non-governmental sources. Entrance fees (US 10 $) and biological station and accommodation incomes likewise contribute in addition to a heritage fund established through a debt-for-nature swap (National Parks Fund). Others funds come from a Fidecomiso (Trust Fund) including donations and country debt conversion. In third position is the governmental source coming directly from the Ministry. Despite this diverse funding structure, additional and sustainable funding schemes are needed to enhance the operational management capacity in the face of mounting challenges.

If you want to read another analysis of the conservation system of Costa Rica, please read this post extruded from my own experience!


Dealing with Threats

After historic use by local indigenous groups, the remote and economically marginalised region was exploited for around four centuries in opportunistic form. Past human impacts include clearing of forests for pasture, logging and indiscriminate hunting. However, the poor soils, erratic climate and geographic isolation set natural limits to resource use and land conversion which is why no transformation beyond the natural restoration capacity appears to have occurred.

On land, current threats stem from agriculture outside the property, namely pollution by pesticides, deviation of water for irrigation and introduced exotic grasses. Other possible developments outside the property requiring careful balancing between negative impacts and benefits include increasing tourism, road construction and hydropower. Fishing by local fishermen have shown a decrease in the size of fish and an increase in the effort required per catch, which constitutes a clear indication of declining populations. Stronger efforts in marine conservation are needed to respond to uncontrolled commercial and sport fishing but also to regulate tourism along the coast.

The major threats on the dry tropical forest are: forest fires, logging, hunting, climate change, tourist development. The latest is affected by the coastal tourist development very close, North of the Guanacaste peninsula, where mass tourism

Bosque seco tropical, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Bosque seco tropical, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

is covering most of the coast with beautiful beaches…

« Tourism is one of the uses authorized in the national parks » reminded Juan Carlos Carrillo Espinoza, coordinator of the Ecotourism Program of the ACG. A management plan establishes use zonation of the ACG. It includes 7 sites in free access without booking, 4 sites of restricted access for students and scientists and 1 site closed for public in natural management process.

The ACG receives yearly a bit more than 100,000 visitors, the half are from Costa Rica. There is no effect since the designation of the UNESCO as a (natural) World Heritage Site in 1999. Efforts will be pursued to promote this aspect to potential visitors and countries.

An ecotourism program was launched in 1989, reorganized and updated in 2008 to develop a new strategy for tourism in the ACG. Juan Carlos Carrillo Espinoza is in charge of the program along with 11 employees in his staff. But it will be needed 13 more employees in order to cover all the tourism issues in the ACG. The program is dealing with improvement of information and service to the visitor, of online and on site promotion, maintenance of trails and infrastructures, logistics for scientists stay in the biological station,  and others specific projects like the creation of a unique visitor center in the Santa Rosa section or wheelchair accessible trails in the Rincon de la Vieja section.

Many challenges in the future but they are on the good way!!!



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