A visitor traveling south along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica will experience a diversity of landscapes, from cattle ranches, farm land, and tree plantations to crocodile-filled rivers and lush rainforests. They will observe the high-rise condos of Jaco and the beautiful landscape of Manuel Antonio marred by an overabundance of hotels, restaurants, and all variety of establishments dedicated to the entertainment of tourists.
Traveling south from the Quepos-Manuel Antonio area the visitor will encounter vast plantations of oil palms as far as the eye can see up until arriving at the Savegre River. The river itself, though large, is not remarkable, but even before entering the bridge spanning its width, the change in landscape is notable. On the south side of the bridge, a mere 200 to 300 meters to the left, a small rainforest-covered mountain range rises up from the flat lowlands. This coastal ridge forms the backbone of a natural corridor which is one of the few places on our planet where biodiversity is increasing and has been doing so for the last 30 years.
This is the story of a place on the south-central Pacific coast of Costa Rica which is today known as the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor. Eighty kilometers long and averaging 15 kilometers in width, the corridor is bounded to the west and north by the Savegre River and the Los Santos Forest Reserve, and to the south and east by the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande de Térraba. In the middle, where three regions meet, is a small town called Dominical and a river called Barú. As the story unfolds the significance of the three regions and how they have affected the way people live and use the land will become clear.
The Path of the Tapir is characterized by a narrow strip of coastal lowland and two small mountain ranges—the coastal ridge and the Tinamastes ridge—both of which run parallel to the coast. It is bisected by 11 rivers which originate within its bounds. Estuaries where mangroves thrive branch off near the mouths of eight of those rivers where they empty into the Pacific Ocean. Large extensions of mangrove are also found at the rivers on each end of the corridor, the Savegre and the Térraba. To the northwest the beaches are straight and open, sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky, but always incessantly pounded by the Pacific surf. Southeast of the Barú River, rocky points and coves predominate, the exception being the Ballena Marine National Park with its sandy coves protected by the rocky reefs extending outward from Uvita Point to Ballena Island and several smaller rock islands.
The Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor is a place where tapirs once roamed, but have been locally extinct since 1957 when a hunter shot the last one. To some people Baird's Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) resembles a small cow and to others a large pig. This is Central America's largest land mammal, as high at the shoulder as the waist of a tall man with a mass equal to that of a couple of linemen from a Super Bowl Team. Its head is big and elongated with a nose that might be described as a sawed-off trunk or a lengthy upper lip. This prehensile snout grasps the foliage that forms the tapir's diet and pulls it into its mouth. Each foot would cover a dinner plate. All four feet have three functional toes and the front feet each have a vestigial forth toe high on the outside. These digits are really hooves, making the tapir an ungulate, the only one in Central America with three toes.
Although tapirs no longer roam in the corridor that bears their name, they may still be found at both ends. The dream of the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor project is that people will work together to restore natural habitat, especially along rivers and streams, thus connecting larger protected areas of rainforest. The ultimate sign of success will be the migration of tapirs into the corridor from the Los Santos Reserve on the north and Corcovado National Park in the south.
In the early stages of researching the different aspects of this story, it became apparent that the geological forces that formed Central America as a whole and this region in particular have continually exerted a powerful influence on the place and the people who have inhabited it. As we will see, a single geological aspect, the coastal ridge, played a major role in the way humans have used this land since they first arrived in the Americas. With this in mind, we will begin 15 million years ago when the forces that created Central America were already moving the first pieces into place. We will see how once the connection between North and South America was complete, species from each continent migrated across the land bridge, mixed and concentrated in Central America. Later humans entered the picture and the spectrum of flora and fauna changed as did the landscape. This is the story not only of a place, but also of those who inhabited the place, how they lived, and how they used the land.
The historical happenings that took place prior to the last century were necessarily gleaned from written sources; the stories about indigenous people represent my portrayal of how people may have lived at that time. The people in the last century of this story are real. Their stories were told to me in personal interviews and, in most cases, their names have not been changed. Some of them are still alive and well. A few of the details, such as thoughts and conversations, were created for the purpose of making the story more readable.
The last section includes stories of me and my family, how we came to Costa Rica in 1970 and ended up living at a cattle ranch called Hacienda Barú, located near the town of Dominical in the middle of what later became known as the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor. It tells about the people and organizations involved in the creation of that corridor project, and how Hacienda Barú has evolved from a cattle ranch into an internationally known ecological tourism destination.
This is the story of a place where tapirs and jaguars once roamed and may someday return.