As expected in a country that has both unique habitats and widespread cutting of its forests, there are numerous species whose populations are declining or in danger of extinction. The number-one threat to most of Costa Rica’s endangered species is habitat destruction, followed closely by hunting and trapping.
The legendary resplendent quetzal – the bird at the top of every naturalist’s must-see list – teeters precariously as its home forests are felled at an alarming rate. Sightings of the large, squawky scarlet macaw are a highlight of birding in Costa Rica. But trapping for the pet trade has extirpated these magnificent birds from much of their former range. Although populations are thriving in the Península de Osa, the scarlet macaw is now extinct over most of Central America, including the entire Caribbean coast.
Sea turtles get a lot of attention in Costa Rica, with a wide variety of programs supporting population growth.
Central America’s largest land mammal, Baird’s tapir, is a sought-after source of protein, making it a target for hunters. The tapirs’ habit of commuting between feeding patches and waterholes on distinctive ‘tapir trails’ makes them extremely vulnerable to hunting. Tapirs are now restricted to the least accessible wilderness areas. Similarly, the gigantic West Indian manatee is an easy victim for hunters, especially since they are extremely placid and have no defenses. Manatees still populate the canals of Parque Nacional Tortuguero, though they are elusive.
Costa Rica’s sexiest endangered species is undoubtedly the sleek, speedy jaguar. Jaguars require a large area to support enough prey to survive. Annually, an individual jaguar needs the equivalent of 53 white-tailed deer, 18 peccaries, 40 coatis, 25 armadillos and 55 ctenosaurs. That is for one jaguar! Owing to clearing for cattle ranches and overhunting of jaguar prey, suitable habitat for viable populations of jaguars now occurs in only a handful of protected areas, such as Parque Nacional Corcovado and Parque Internacional La Amistad.