“There used to be monkeys here,” my guide, an American who’d lived in Costa Rica for years, told me as we walked through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. “There used to be quetzals, too,” he added, of the extravagantly plumed bird. “You’d see them every day. Not anymore.” Not long after, he stopped on the wooden walkway, built both to protect the forest and facilitate tourist visits. “You know,” he said, looking at the ground, “I’m really tired of saying ‘used to’ about all of these species.”
When I asked him why he thought the birds and animals were leaving, he paused. Climate change, for one, he replied. DDT, which may drift into the forest from banana plantations not far away, for another. (DDT’s banned in the U.S., but still makes it was legally and not to many countries in the Southern hemisphere.) And, he added, looking me straight in the eye, “tourists; the animals just want to move away.” That was nearly 10 years ago. I was reminded of this conversation while listening to a recent NPR story on the Monteverde forest and the mammals and amphibians disappearing there. The golden toad, which once lived in Monteverde, hasn’t been since for nearly thirty years anywhere in the world. It’s deemed extinct, a climate castaway.
What struck me when I was in Costa Rica was this: many people, from fishermen to hoteliers, could document changes in their weather or the habits of mammals, birds and fish. They’d seen or experienced it first-hand: they didn’t need further convincing. What strikes me now is the speed of this change. I learned about all the “used to be here” species nearly a decade ago in Monteverde before global warming was a household word, or nearly so. Those species in Monteverde are still “disappeared” and it’s anyone’s guess whether, or when, they’ll be back. Read my April 1999 editorial on my trip to Costa Rica and environmental justice issues for Satya magazine here.