Curú National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a country in Central America, bordered by Nicaragua to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the east, Panama to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.  It encompasses a land area of 51,060 square kilometers and is home to approximately 2 million people.  Costa Rica is home to approximately 210 species of mammals, around 900 species of birds, 218 of reptiles, and over 35,000 species of insects.

There are a wide range of tropical ecosystems: rainforest, moist forestdry forestpáramo, cloud forest, savannas, mangroves, wetlands, and coral reef.  About 25% of the land is protected as wildlife reserves, refuges, and national parks. Costa Rica is among the top 20 most biodiverse countries in the world.

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Google Maps. (2020). SE Nicoya peninsula, Costa Rica.  Retrieved June 21, 2020.    https://www.google.com/maps/@9.7722882,-84.9629526,12359m/data=!3m1!1e3

The Curú National Wildlife Refuge is located on the southeast edge of the Nicoya Peninsula.   It encompasses approximately 1500 hectares (3003 acres), 2/3 of which are covered by tropical dry forest.  80 has are Nationally Protected beaches where hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), green (Chelonia mydas), and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) sea turtles nest.  The remaining land is a mosaic of mangrove forests, agricultural fields (mangoes, plantains and papaya predominate) and cattle pastures.  The property is owned and managed by the Schutt family. 

 

The area that is now Curú was purchased and developed by Federico Schutt, the son of German and American parents, born and raised in Costa Rica.  In 1933 Schutt purchased approximately 1000 ha. of land, previously owned by the Pacific Lumber Company.   At that time, the property was valued for its hardwoods and had been selectively harvested of Rosewood (Dalbergia retusa), leaving substantial tracts of relatively intact transitional humid-dry tropical forest.  As Schutt began acquiring additional land parcels he realized that felled trees would need to be replaced.  He began reforestation with both indigenous and introduced species, including Bombacopsis quinatum (spiny cedar), Cedrela odorata (bitter cedar) and Swietenia humilis (mahogany)

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Main house at Curú

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Federico Schutt

Historic photos used with permission from the Schutt family, Curú

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Google Earth. (2020). SE Nicoya peninsula, Costa Rica.  Retrieved September 2, 2020.  https://www.google.com/maps/@9.7722882,-84.9629526,12359m/data=!3m1!1e3

Additional land parcels were acquired over the years and, in the early 1970s, Curú encompassed 2000 ha. In the early years, Schutt continued to selectively harvest hardwoods and cultivate bananas (Musa spp.) and oil palm (Elaeis guineensis).  As economic development in bananas expanded, irrigation ditches were dug to provide water to the crops.  In 1973, Sigatoka (Mycosphaerella fijiensis), a rapidly spreading fungal disease which had wiped out banana production on the Caribbean coast in the 1950's spread to the Pacific coast and the entire plantation was destroyed.  Schutt then shifted to Zebu cattle (Bos indicus) and a variety of crops including Mangos  (Mangifera indica),  beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), melons (Cucumis sativus and Citrullus lanatus), and papayas (Carica papaya).

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Banana plantations

Packing bananas for export

Packing bananas for export

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The packed bananas were taken by ox cart to the beach, where they were placed in a small boat.  The boat would then take the bananas to a much larger boat where they would be transported  to Putarenas for export.

Federico met a schoolteacher, Julieta Valle.  They fell in love and married.  In the next few years, they had three children:  Adelina, Federico, and Luis.

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Don Federico and Doña Julieta

L-R:  Luis, Federico, and Adelina

Doña Julieta

At that time, there were no roads on the peninsula so the only way to get to Curú was by boat.  Supplies would be bought in Puntarenas and brought by boat to Curú.  There were over 100 people working and living at Curú, so Don Federico built a schoolhouse for Doña Julieta to teach the children of the workers.

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The San Francisco

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Campesino lodging at Curú

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Taking supplies by boat

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Doña Julieta and school children

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Doña Julieta and school children

Doña Julieta

In 1973, as was occurring in many other regions of Costa Rica, squatters invaded a section of primary forest in the south-western edge of Curú, an area that was highly valued as the source of the river that runs through the central valley of Curú and for its old growth forest.  At this time, forest was popularly viewed as waste land and there was strong governmental pressure to economically “put it to work.”  Squatters were entitled to land they made use of if they could demonstrate improvements (i.e., homes and plantations), and habitation for a minimum of a year and a day.  There were many disputes between Schutt, who was viewed as a wealthy outsider holding the deed to a massive area of untapped resources, and angry locals and squatters who were prevented from hunting and collecting firewood.   Kidnaping threats were made against the Schutt family, so the family was moved to San Jose for their protection and it became necessary to hire armed guards to patrol the land to control poaching and cutting of trees.  In 1975, a judge awarded 422 ha. to the squatters.  The land was rapidly denuded of trees, which led to severe erosion and heavy sedimentary deposition in the bay of Curú, killing the coral reef.  Unable to make a living on the degraded soils and eroded hillsides, the squatters eventually sold the land and moved to other areas of “unreclaimed” forest.

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L-R: Adelina, Federico, Don Federico and Luis

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The family in San José

Don Federico with Federico, Luis and Adelina

Separated from his family during the squatter invasion, Schutt grew attached to the monkeys and he began to worry that if no one protected them, they would disappear.  He developed a plan to protect both the flora and the fauna.  His vision was to make use only of valley areas for economic pursuits and all upland areas, at risk of erosion when denuded and not as easily worked as the lowlands, would be protected, and animals that entered the cultivated areas would not be harmed or driven out.  Thus began Schutt’s plan for sustainable development, long before the concept was commonly discussed.  Crops located on sloped areas were removed and the forest was allowed to regenerate.  Taking advantage of tax incentives, Schutt selected tress identified in the Reforestation Law that passed in 1977 which encouraged the replacement of uncultivated farmland with forest.  Don Federico died in 1982, but his plan of management continues to be carried out by his family.

 

In 1981, 80 ha. along the coast were designated as a wildlife refuge to protect nesting sea turtles.  In the mid-1980s, the Schutt family began encouraging research to aid their conservation efforts and ecotourism as a source of additional income.  Researchers sank rubber tires into the bay to create an artificial reef to replace the one that had been killed by the accumulation of sediments from erosion following the squatter invasion.  The growth and development of the artificial reef continues to be tracked by researchers.  Various groups of students have participated in classes with the School for Field Studies and the American Colleges of the Midwest, and researchers have brought groups of Earthwatch and University Research Expedition Program (UREP) volunteers to carry out field research projects.  One of the outcomes of these programs is a management plan developed by students with the American Colleges of the Midwest who provided guidelines for sustained forestry, crop and cattle production, research,  and tourism. The management plan is regularly updated.

 

232 species of birds have been counted in Curú. The most common species are motmots, white-fronted amazon parrots, laughing falcons, woodpeckers,  heronskiskadees and wrens.  In 1995 Adelina Schutt enacted a program of reintroduction of Spider monkeys (Ateles spp.) supported by La Asociación Preservacionista de Flora y Fauna Silvestre (Apreflofas) followed in 1998 with the reintroduction of  Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) with support from the Amigos de las Aves.  Throughout the year boatloads of tourists as well as individuals on foot visit in hopes of seeing monkeys and birds.

 

Among the mammals are rare species such as ocelots, pumas, margay cats, collared peccary, agoutis, anteaters, and river otters. The easiest spot to watch howler and capuchin monkeys is around the administration at the beach where they come to pick up food. Sometimes you can also see other orphaned animals of which the rangers take care.  One of the trails in Curú leads to a big cage where you can see spider monkeys. Only old or handicapped animals are kept in the cage, the other members of the group live in the wild. Spider monkeys were driven to extinction on the Nicoya Peninsula and a reintroduction program has brought them back into the forests of Curú.

 

On the beach sea turtles lay their eggs.  Artificial reefs have been built in the bay of Curú which have helped to increase numbers and diversity of maritime life at the coast.

 

Of vital importance to the marine ecosystem is the habitat of the mangrove forests. An immense number of small organisms live in the nutrient-rich mud and build the basis of the marine food chain. Here are breeding grounds for many Pacific fish, and lots of water birds feed and nest in the thickets. In Curú all five of Costa Rica's mangrove species are represented.

 

Over 500 species of plants have been documented at Curú.   On some higher elevations of Curú there are still small patches of primary forest left but there are no trails and access is allowed to scientists only. However, the trail system of Curú provides ample opportunity to explore different habitats with abundant wildlife

 

Besides offering a site with naturalistic observations of primates, Curú is one family’s effort at sustainable development and land-use research.  The presence of human economical pursuits mixed with protected wildlife areas will allow one to explore the ecology and social life of white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus).

References

Baker, Mary E. 1998. Fur Rubbing as Evidence for Medicinal Plant Use by Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus capucinus) Ecological,

Social, and Cognitive Aspects of The Behavior. Thesis (Ph. D.)–University of California, Riverside.

Personal Communications from Adelina Schutt, 1991-1996​

All historic photos used with permission from the Schutt family.