With Help of Facebook, Costa Rica Bans Hunting of Wildlife

This week in Bangkok, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is meeting to discuss regulations that aim to prevent the extinction of many of the world’s most threatened species. Today, Conservation International’s Carlos Manuel Rodriguez highlights a recent victory for some of these species in his home country of Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican Congress recently made a historic decision: with support of eight out of nine political parties, they approved a bill that bans the hunting of wildlife for recreational purposes. It is the first country in Latin America to do so.

This political decision was possible due to a new legal mechanism called the popular initiative, which allows citizens to formally present new legislation in Congress. Its main requirement is that all proposed bills must have the signatures of 5% of the country’s registered voters. So after two years of hard work, conservation organizations presented a reform to the Wildlife Law with the support of 177,000 Costa Ricans.

The prohibition bans sport hunting of all terrestrial animals. Previously, hunting had been permitted outside of protected areas — which make up nearly a quarter of the country’s land — and put pressure on wildlife populations. Popular as hunting may be, this new bill reflects an even more popular sentiment that rejects this practice.

One likely reason for this shift in attitude is that Costa Rica makes a high profit from ecotourism. The country annually receives more than 2 million tourists, who contribute up to US$ 2.2 billion to the local economy. About 80% of tourists visit a protected area during their stay, hoping to spot monkeys, parrots, reptiles and other tropical species that have made Costa Rica a world-renowned tourist destination.

While in discussion in Congress, this bill generated much public debate until something unexpected happened that tipped the balance toward the conservationists’ proposal. Last September, a hunter published a set of photos on his Facebook page of a recently shot black jaguar in the Caribbean lowlands.

The next day police were knocking at his door; he was immediately prosecuted. But the public uproar took place on Facebook, where thousands of Costa Ricans expressed their opinions — most condemning the jaguar kill — and some even threatened the hunters. (You can see the Facebook post and comments here, but be warned, the photo is pretty graphic.)

In decades of working on conservation issues in Costa Rica, I have never seen the public have a reaction like this. The newspaper and TV coverage of this event definitely helped influence the later approval of the bill in Congress. Many people may think of Facebook as simply a useful social tool, but in this case the use of Facebook was instrumental for this historic decision which I am proud of as a Costa Rican.

Congress’ decision to support the citizen’s proposal was made despite strong lobbying and public debate by hunting associations. These groups argued that since most hunting in the country is done illegally, a ban won’t impact those hunting activities. Additionally, they emphasized that law enforcement capacities have previously proven to be poor and limited.

In response to these legitimate points, lawmakers responded by assigning a new financial mechanism in the new law that will add $2 million to the government budget exclusively for enforcement efforts. Subsistence hunting by indigenous communities is still allowed, as is using hunting as a strategy to manage introduced or problematic species.

Implementing this prohibition will become a major challenge for Costa Rica. New regulations are needed regarding arms possession and trade, monitoring and compliance needs to be radically prioritized and much should be invested in education and awareness, particularly in rural communities.

Still, I have no doubt that this law marks a big step for Costa Rica and the wider world: further proof that people are beginning to value wild animals more alive than dead.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez is vice president and senior advisor for global policy in Conservation International’s Center for Environment and Peace. He was formerly the environment and energy minister for Costa Rica.