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INBiopark: A Living Museum

by Richard Garrigues

"Look! Look! A hummingbird!" exclaimed several delighted schoolchildren. Their teachers peered into the shrubbery and spotted the tiny bundle of feathered energy as it momentarily perched on a branch before zooming off again, and they, too, were infected by the contagious enthusiasm.

The thrill of this brief observation kept a current of excited conversation running through the group as they proceeded down the cement path past blooming heliconia plants, large-leafed philodendrons and lanky cecropia trees before stopping and gathering around a stately tree fern where their guide began another fascinating explanation.

Little discoveries like a rufous-tailed hummingbird or a clearwing butterfly help bring to life the marvel of the vast variety of flora and fauna found in Costa Rica. And promoting the country's biodiversity is what INBiopark (INBioparque, in Spanish) is all about.

Scheduled for an official opening to the public in November, INBiopark already has been hosting local student groups as part of its social outreach program.

Convinced that an experiential approach is the best method of inculcating a true appreciation of nature and a sense of responsibility for the conservation of all forms of life, the National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio) began development of the INBiopark idea in 1997.

What is INBiopark? Essentially, it's an ecotourism complex constructed on five hectares (12.5 acres) of land adjacent to the existing INBio research and administrative facility in Santo Domingo de Heredia.

Utilizing the knowledge and experience of its botanists, four distinct ecosystems are being recreated: tropical rain forest, tropical dry forest, premontane moist forest of the Central Valley and freshwater aquatic habitat. The latter is being made possible via the creation of an artificial lake, complete with a below-waterlevel viewing area and a waterfall (actually a clever and aestethic way of keeping the pond aerated). Since the forest habitats are not in an enclosed climate-controlled building, but out in the open air and therefore all receiving the same amount of sunlight and rainfall throughout the year, one can't help but wonder how they can exist side by side. The answer is through an ingenious system of drainage (or lack thereof in the case of the rain forest habitat) and soil mixtures that adjust the amount of moisture available to the roots of the plants growing in each ecosystem.

Additionally, there will be a live butterfly exhibit and a section showing many of the different crops (fruits and medicinal, aromatic and ornamental plants) that have come from the area's native forests. A wide, wheelchair accessible, cement walkway winds through the entire complex, and visitors can take an informative tour with a well-trained bilingual guide or follow a self-guiding route with descriptions provided in a pamphlet written by INBio's experts.

However, before any of the above is experienced, visitors will first be treated to a state-of-the-art information center with material presented in English and Spanish. Three main themes are displayed: the importance of biodiversity, INBio's activities in relation to cataloging and prospecting Costa Rica's biodiversity, and a comprehensive overview of Costa Rica's system of conservation areas (i.e., national parks and other protected areas).

The information center is actually divided into two separate buildings connected by a trail leading to a simulation of a parataxonomist's house that will offer a glimpse of the tools used in the collecting trade. Parataxonomists are the backbone of the INBio project. They are largely people from the Costa Rican countryside who have been trained to collect plants, insects and mollusks (the three principal groups being studied by INBio) that are then brought to the institute for identification and, in many cases, for testing to determine the presence of chemical compounds that might be of use for human purposes such as medicines, pesticides, or genetic improvement of existing crop species. This testing is what is known as bioprospecting.

The country's system of conservation areas is, of course, the primary source of material for the INBio collections since it is the last stronghold of Costa Rica's varied native flora and fauna. One of INBiopark's goals is to increase the rate of "bioliteracy" among its visitors in hopes that an improved understanding of our interrelationship with nature will stimulate people to then visit the country's different national parks, biological reserves and wildlife refuges with a more appreciative attitude towards the environment.

A tour of INBiopark is estimated to take from two to four hours, depending on the level of thoroughness chosen by the visitor. Other amenities include a restaurant featuring typical Costa Rican food, a gift shop with natural products derived from the country's biodiversity and a library for those wishing to learn more about the wealth of organisms and ecosystems to be found here.

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