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Sunset over La Cangreja National Park

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La Cangreja National Park

In early 1991 (well before we came here), an enthusiastic young student from Duke University named Ann-Marie Parsons, at the time an intern with the Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS), came to Costa Rica to study the virgin forest stand located in the former La Cangreja Reserve, just outside of Mastatal, and bordering our property.

Ann-Marie's research confirmed the existence of a multitude of plant and animal species, many endemic to Costa Rica, several nearly extinct, including two tree species endemic to this small forest alone. La Cangreja National Park and the property that makes up Rancho Mastatal contain the last patches of natural, unaltered forest left in the county of Puriscal. As a result of her studies, Ann-Marie proposed to preserve La Cangreja under a long-term management, protection and sustainable use plan. Tragically, she drowned after completing her analysis, and is buried in the local cemetery overlooking Cerro Cangreja.

In the years following her death, a number of ICADS students and other interested professionals continued Ann-Marie's work. La Fundacion Ecotropica, a local, non-profit institution with whom Ann-Marie collaborated, took on the management responsibilities of the project. Motivated individuals like you can step in and help to continue the important work that was started in the early 90's. We believe that in part by way of projects initiated from interns, this area could become one of the country's premier conservation sites and examples of sustainability. There is a great deal of work to be done, and that is one of the reasons it's such an exciting time to be here.

La Cangreja is the last refuge of virgin forest in a region that at one time extended all the way to the Peninsula de Osa in southern Costa Rica. Over 2000 plant species, many of South American origin, may be found in this small but species-rich area. Plant species endemic only to La Cangreja and the Peninsula de Osa, and two species endemic to La Cangreja alone, live in this biological paradise. These two endemic tree species, Ayenia mastatalensis and Plinia puriscalensis, are members of unique families of plants. The latter produces its fruit from the trunk. These two species belong to six tree types first discovered in La Cangreja. The other four species also exist in the Osa Peninsula.

A poison dart frog perches on a leaf in La Cangreja National Park

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Aside from its genetic importance, La Cangreja also helps ameliorate the region's climate. The Costa Rican government declared La Cangreja a protected zone in 1984 to preserve its water and soil quality.

Today, not only water quality but also water quantity are threatened. Deforestation has caused the water flow of one river in the zone, the Rio Negro, to shrink three times in size from what it was just 30 years ago. People from the surrounding towns of Mastatal, San Miguel, Concepción, San Carlos (Zapatón), Túfares, and San Martín, as well as the hamlets of Vara Blanca, Alto Pérez, and Bajo Pérez feel the effects of this phenomenon, since several of them receive water from the river.

The reserve was promoted to national park status in 2002.

La Cangreja's role in maintaining the water supply is not its only effect on the people of the region. Along with its status as a protected zone (and subsequently National Park) came regulations which restrict farmers from utilizing the land in customary ways. For instance, they may only cut down trees for domestic use, and need a permit to do so. In addition, hunting is prohibited, although, unfortunately, poaching continues. Certain crops, like cacao, cannot be cultivated because they put pressure on the ecosystem. These regulations mean farmers cannot extend cultivated plots and are becoming increasingly impoverished as fertility and yields of cultivated land have diminished.

Vista of the Peaks of La Cangreja National Park

A questionnaire distributed to the farmers living in La Cangreja showed that most are in favor of selling their land. With the funds it raises, the Fundación Ecotrópica and MINAE will purchase land from willing sellers. Once acquired, the land will be conveyed to the Republic of Costa Rica, and the government will delegate to the Fundación Ecotrópica the function of managing it. The Fundación will work with an autonomous public agency, the Institute for Agrarian Development (IDA), to relocate former owners who also previously resided in the Zone to land more appropriate for agriculture.

If La Cangreja is not protected, it may fall victim to the same pattern of exploitation that the barren hills surrounding the national park have suffered. The diverse and threatened species within its boundaries are a resource too important to lose. Furthermore, as scientists have only studied La Cangreja from its lowest point around 1,300 feet (400 meters) to an elevation of about 2,000 feet (600 meters), additional plant species probably remain undiscovered at higher altitudes extending to the summit at 4,281 feet (1,305 meters). The survival of La Cangreja requires a realistic plan of action for protection, management, and sustainable use which this proposal will provide.

Beautiful buttress roots

photo by Paul Jahnige, January 2005

Save the Crab
The goal of the project "Save the Crab" is to conserve La Cangreja, the last virgin rain forest in the county of Puriscal, Costa Rica, for the use, study, and enjoyment, in a low-impact manner, of the people of Puriscal county, the nation of Costa Rica, and the world. To meet this goal, the Fundación Ecotrópica will implement a long-term plan with the following three major objectives: protection, management, and sustainable use.

The protection objective is to preserve the La Cangreja National Park and the three essential buffer areas, beginning with the purchase of a nucleus of five farms which are the most threatened and contain the largest proportion of the remaining virgin forest. Purchase of these core farms constitutes Phase One of the protection objective. Phase Two will be to conserve the key resources within surrounding farms through direct purchase of land, purchase of perpetual conservation easements on land, or help to owners entering into sustainable natural forest management and regeneration contracts with Costa Rica's Forestry Department (DGF).

The management objective is to establish a comprehensive implementation plan providing coordination and oversight for all activities within the national park, and to provide security for protected lands from the threat of squatters, poachers, timber theft, and illegal grazing. At the recommendation of taxonomist Quírico Jiménez Madrigal and former regional Forest Service chief Hector Arce Mora, cleared lands will be allowed to regenerate naturally. Deforested areas of La Cangreja left to regenerate for at least ten years without human interference already show substantial genetic diversity, evidence of an aggressive natural regeneration process.

The sustainable use objective is not only to protect the biodiversity of La Cangreja, but also to provide a livelihood and a quality lifestyle for the people of nearby communities without deteriorating the environment. The cooperation and support of area residents is absolutely essential to the purposes and success of this project. Components of this objective include environmental education programs for area residents and visitors, the establishment of a small scientific research station, and the creation of various job opportunities related to resource use and scientific tourism.

The duration of the project "Save the Crab" is six years, after which time these objectives will have been achieved, and the activities will have become self-supporting. Examples of low-impact, income-generating activities include:

  1. the marketing of dead or fallen precious wood, branches, roots and vines for use by craft and furniture artisans,
  2. the cultivation of seedlings for sale as exotic ornamentals or for forest regeneration enrichment plantings, and
  3. the offering of guided eco-scientific tours over forest trails and to the scientific and management facilities of La Cangreja.

The Fundación Ecotrópica will design a detailed program to evaluate the implementation of the project for participating organizations and funding entities. It will also provide progress updates and financial reports on a regular basis.

The Biological Importance of La Cangreja by Quírico Jiménez M.

The national park La Cangreja in southern Puriscal County is a biological paradise of special importance as the last remnant of the species-rich forests of the region. La Cangreja has a varied topography, including the transition between very wet and pre-montane rainforests, a precipitation that exceeds 4,000 mm annually, high humidity, and poor soils. As a result, it boasts an extremely diverse flora and a high rate of endemism.

Prior to 1993, approximately 800 species of flora were identified. An impressive number of species could yet be discovered, as the group of small plants such as ferns, araceas, orchids, bromelias, grasses, and vines have barely been collected, let alone studied. Undoubtedly, more than 2,000 species of plants could exist at the site. In the last few years, various new tree species have been discovered in La Cangreja, some of which are endemic to Costa Rica and found only in this Protected Zone. Plinia puriscalensis (Myrtaceae), named in honor of Puriscal County, and Ayenia mastatalensis (Sterculiaceae), named after the community of Mastatal near La Cangreja, are two such species. Both of these small trees are numerous in the Zone, but if they disappear from there, they will be lost forever.

Various other tree species, endemic to Costa Rica as a whole, were identified for the first time in La Cangreja. Caryodapvhnopsis burgeri (Lauraceae), discovered in La Cangreja and later collected in Golfito and the Osa Peninsula, is known as the only Lauraceae in the country with opposite leaves. The genus Caryodaphnopsis, a genus of the Philippines with three species in South America and one in Central America, was first identified for Central America in La Cangreja. Unfortunately, this tree is in grave danger of extinction. Therefore, it is considered a "living fossil," as its wood has been used for years in the region.

The species Unonopsis theobromifolia (Annonaceae) is another new species endemic to La Cangreja, the Carara Biological Reserve, and the Osa Peninsula, and fortunately, this small tree is fairly common in all these locations. Ternstroemia multiovulata, of the family Theaceae, is a species of which two known locations are La Cangreja and the Osa Peninsula. The small, scarce tree Peltostigma guatemalense (Rutaceae) is another species first found in La Cangreja. Rutaceae also exists in the Cordillera Volcánica, a mountain range in the Northwestern province of Guanacaste.

La Cangreja also contains seventeen species of timber trees which are often used commercially in Costa Rica. The following nine of these seventeen are threatened or endangered species because of the over-exploitation they have suffered: Tachigalia versicolor (plomo), Caryocar costarricense (butternut), Caryodaphnopsis burgeri (quira), Tabebuia guayacan (guayacan, corteza), Astronium graveolens (gonzalo alves), Peltogyne purpurea (purple heart), Couratari guianensis (cachimbo), Platymiscium pinnatum (Panama redwood), and Myroxylon balsamum (balsam). Many of these woods, such as purple heart, Panama redwood, and gonzalo alves are fine woods used principally in crafts and cabinetry.

Other, more common timber trees found in La Cangreja are Bombacopsis quinatum (spiny cedar) and Cordia alliodora (laurel). Both are rapid-growth species often used in Costa Rican reforestation projects. Also found are Cedrela odorata (cedar), Simarouba amara (olive), Vochysia ferruginea (botarrama), Carapa guianensis ( crabwood), Ceiba pentandra ( ceiba), Tabebuia rosea (roble sabana), Schizolobium parahybum (quamwood), Hieronyma alchorneoides (bully tree), Virola koschnyi (banak), Terminalia oblonga (sura), Terminalia amazonia (roble coral), and Calophyllum brasiliense (Santa Maria). The majority of these species produce high-quality woods used to construct furniture, doors, frames, floors, and paneling.
La Cangreja also possesses species widely used for their medicinal properties. Infusions of the wood of Quassia amara (big man/hombre grande) and Neurolaena lobata (gavilana) leaves are used against digestive ailments, and an infusion from Simarouba amara (olive tree bark) fights intestinal parasites, especiallyamoebas. The vine known as Bauhinia manca (monkey's ladder/escalera de mono) has been employed against diabetes, and the Mikania guaco (guaco ) vine is being studied as an antidote for poisonous snake venom.

Unfortunately, hunting has greatly reduced the Zone's animal species. The area is too small to provide the space to sustain large mammals, and as a result, the only large mammals observed margays, deer, tolumucos. Other animal species in the Zone are: Didelphis marsupialis (zorro pelon), Cebus capucinos (white-faced capuchin monkey), Choloepus hoffinannii (2-toed sloth), Dasypus novemcinctus (armadillo), Sylvilagus floridanus (rabbit), Sciurus variegatoides (squirrel), Canis latrans (coyote), Procyon lotor (raccoon), Agouti paca (agouti), Mustela frenata (weasel), and Nasua nasua (pizote).

Although the area includes a wide variety of bird species, some find themselves threatened or endangered as their habitat is rapidly disappearing, Such is the case for Tinamus major (gongolona or mountain hen), Procnias tricarunculata (calandria or bell bird), Pteroglosus frantzii (fiery-billed aracari), Dendroica petechia (reinita), Lopostrix cristata (esucurú), and Caroodectes antionae.

La Cangreja represents the last patch of natural, unaltered forest left in all the county of Puriscal, with vegetation similar to that of Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula, but with a relatively high rate of 5-8% endemism, The site offers an excellent germoplasm bank with rare, endemic, and endangered species. Seeds could be harvested from these species for reproduction in a nursery for timber trees that could be used in reforestation projects with native species. The potential value of this small patch of forest is impossible to calculate, given that its species, whose chemistry has not yet been studied, could possibly cure some of the worst diseases known to humankind.

Besides its own intrinsic value, La Cangreja is a place where nature still maintains its complex, evolving system, The fragile equilibrium of its ecosystem is in danger of extinction, not only in the county of Puriscal, but throughout the world. This gives it special ecological importance. If we lose the opportunity to protect it right now, we will undoubtedly lose it forever.

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