When Costa Rica’s Simón Bolivar Zoo opened its doors to the public in 1921, no one could have known the success it would achieve. More than 90 years later, what began as a small, local zoo in San José now attracts more than 130,000 annual visitors to its inner-city sanctuary.
What draws people to this majestic space isn’t just the opportunity to see the native animals of the region in one of the only green spaces in the center of San José; what keeps locals and foreigners alike coming is the zoo’s attention to conservation—not only in practice but also in its teaching programs.
“The zoo is tiny in comparison to other zoos, but it is the only green spot right in the heart of San José,” says Eduardo Bolaños Vargas, public relations director for Fundación Pro Zoologicos (Pro Zoo Foundation), which runs the zoo. “But though we are small, we have approximately 300 animals and 70 different species that all demonstrate the amazing biodiversity of Costa Rica.”
The Simón Bolivar Zoo’s mission focuses on preserving the natural habitats of animals and helping to preserve the species. It takes in injured animals and releases them back into their natural habitat as soon as possible. The zoo also runs a program that helps analyze the population of Costa Rica’s indigenous animals.
Along with practicing animal conservation, the Simón Bolivar Zoo helps teach all those who enter its gates about how they can impact the environment for the better. The first part of the teaching program begins on the zoo’s premises. Though recycling is something that has not been widely achieved in Central America, three years ago the zoo took a big first step by instituting different containers for organic waste, paper, plastics, and aluminum throughout the park, encouraging visitors and staff to recycle.
This step, however, was only the beginning. The zoo also instituted new educational programming that teaches children how they can recycle in their own homes; it also uses hands-on activities, such as making animal figures out of recycled products, to instill the educational points through creativity. Besides the children’s recycling program, the zoo also holds other hands-on “talleres,” or workshops, that include topics like how to plant trees and how to feed zoo animals. For school groups, educational programming on such topics as “What we can do to save the environment,” “Endangered animals,” and “The weather and climate” helps teach little ones about the environment and what they can do to help.
For adults who visit, the zoo offers guided tours throughout the area that focus on plant and animal restoration, reforestation with native species, and a tour through the tropical rainforest. “We want to help people experience the natural beauty of Costa Rica and at the same time learn how they can have a positive impact on the environment,” Bolaños Vargas says.
Though there are many larger parks throughout the country, the Simón Bolivar Zoo is one of the most forward-thinking educational leaders in conservation in the region and gives visitors to San José the opportunity to see the rich biodiversity Costa Rica has to offer in an urban environment.
New York City-based freelance writer Jane Di Leo writes for city, regional, and national magazines including Women’s Health and Delta Sky Magazine. E-mail: janedileo@ hotmail.com.