Corcovado National Park is located on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica and is considered the crown jewel of the internationally renowned Costa Rica National Parks System. Corcovado has 45,757 hectares of land and 5,375 maritime hectares under protection. Yet Corcovado also forms part of the larger Osa Conservation Area, which includes the contiguous Golfo Dulce Forestry Reserve, the Guaymí Indian Reservation, and the preserves of Isla del Caño, Piedras Blancas, and the Terraba wetlands. Additional lands targeted for preservation seek to protect a biological corridor between Corcovado and the Talamanca Mountain wilderness to ensure gene pool diversity of the spectacular array of wildlife that calls Corcovado home.
Corcovado is one of Costa Rica's most remote parks. There is no road access to any portion of the park's perimeter. By foot and horseback, the Park can be reached from Drake Bay, Carate, El Tigre, and La Palma. Boat access from Drake provides access to the San Pedrillo and Sirena ranger stations. The grass air strip at Sirena Ranger station supports aircharter access by light aircraft.
Corcovado National Park boasts great variety of descriptive sobriquets attesting to the splendor of its natural history and resident wildlife. National Geographic famously named it as "the most biologically intense place on the planet," and this characterization is memorialized in nearly every abbreviated web description of the park in existence. The park contains the largest contiguous expanse of primary tropical rain forest north of the Amazon basin, it is frequently reported, and the park is widely known to contain within its boundaries 2.5% of the biodiversity of the entire planet. While this biodiversity is partly explained by Corcovado's geographic location along the land bridge connecting the North and South American continents, the diversity of forest types within Corcovado itself is a strong predictor of zoologic diversity as well. At least thirteen distinct vegetation types identified within the park boundaries provide habitat for a mind-numbing list of animal species.
Corcovado National Park is remarkable for a reason completely different from its biodiversity and ecologic splendor as well, one likely to bear on environmental protections in other Latin American nations now and in the near future. Corcovado has been at the crossroads for the past fifty years of environmental conservation and resource exploitation. With attractive gold and timber reserves in great abundance, the conservation advocates that succeeded in establishing the park have had to battle the dramatic apparent economic favor of rapacity over conservation. But timber and gold are short-lived economic windfalls for few, and the protection of Corcovado promises long-term and stable returns for many. Sustainable development has enabled ecotourism to provide an alternative to subsistence farming, logging, and mining, and the testament to its success is in the evolving public pride in the environmental protection of public lands in this country. But the implications are planetary as most of the world's vital remaining unspoiled habitat is contained by societies struggling with economic issues not unlike those that Costa Rica has and continues to overcome through diligence and national discipline.
The economics, politics, and natural history of the Osa Peninsula have been a robust battleground of contrarian forces since the recognition of wide-spread and rich alluvial gold deposits first emerged from the jungles and into the imaginations of prospectors and miners in the early thirties. At first restricted to the prodigiously rich gold deposits on the beach sands of Madrigal and offshore Carate, as prospectors and miners struck inland, rich and relatively accessible deposits of river-run placer gold turned the Osa Peninsula into a wild-west gold rush during the 1980's. During that time, five years after the formation of Corcovado National Park by presidential decree, but not yet ratified by the legislature, the peninsula swelled by several times to a population of perhaps thirty thousand, and the mountains crawled with a new class of homespun entrepreneur and fortune seeker—often content to be far from the scrutiny of the law—and the societal strata that supported their efforts, the merchants, middle men, drug peddlers, bootleggers, poachers, hired guns, prostitutes, and bar owners.
At the outbreak of World War II, Carate was the site of one of only two offshore gold dredges in the entire world. Gold was “re-discovered” on the Rio Claro in the 30's, and nearby Madrigal Beach was so rich it clouds the imagination. By the mid-eighties, relatively large placer mining operations were underway in both the Tigre and Carate Rivers, both of which have headwaters within or adjacent to Corcovado National Park. A network of mountain trails provided passage from Puerto Jimenez over muddy mountain trails too steep for horses and across gentle burbling streams that swelled from torrential rains into raging red torrents. As placers were tapped, the unyielding gold pioneers struck after eluvial and colluvial concentrations still deeply buried by tunneling into the soil in crude passages that claimed many lives through cave-ins. The reward was high with occasional shovels of ore yielding as much as fifty grams and people still do it today, though with less and less frequency. The park remains the prime target for big gold, and illegal hand miners remain a threat to the park’s environmental integrity.
Before the gold rush, the entire region was poised to be tapped by an international logging consortium. Conservationists poured out of the woodworks and lobbied the government to protect the area, and five years after a landmark 1970 law that set aside national territory for formation of a model national park system, Corcovado National Park was formed by executive decree on October 24, 1975 during the presidency of Daniel Oduber, who was later awarded the Albert Schweitzer Award from the Animal Welfare Institute for his action on behalf of conservation.
It was not until the mid-eighties, however, that the federal government forbade further hand mining within the boundaries of the park and mounted a costly eviction program that engendered years of ill will and conflict between the government and one of its most vulnerable and indigent group of citizens. Years later, the lawsuits are settled, the protests stilled, and the evicted scored cash settlements. And Corcovado National Park is no longer the firebrand of social unrest that it came to symbolize in the late eighties. As conservationists push to capitalize land buys that will complete a protected corridor to the Talamanca, ecotourism is the now the region’s prime economic motor and incentive for preservation by the peninsula’s citizenry and many yearly foreign visitors.
Costa Rica's National Park system falls bureaucratically under the control of the Ministry of Environment Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET). Four ranger stations inside Corcovado Park provide housing and facilities for rangers and support for park visitors and academic researchers. The park headquarters of Sirena Ranger Station is well staffed and offers year-round dorm housing and hot meals. The ranger stations of San Pedrillo, La Leona, and Los Patos do not offer public camping, dorm lodging, or meal services. The Park Service has an office in Puerto Jimenez that provides administrative oversight. In 2016 day-to-day management of Sirena was awarded as a concession to a the Asociacion de Desarrollo Integral de Carate de Corcovado, which today oversees Sirena public operations and manages park entrance permits and overnight lodging and meals reservations. Every visit to Corcovado, including day trips as well as overnight expeditions, requires advance reservation. For those that seek multiple day expeditions, it is best to reserve one month in advance to ensure availability. During the months of December through April, Sirena is typically booked to capacity, with very limited options for those without advance reservations.
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