Ecotourism In Costa Rica Is Putting Wildlife At Risk

For 14 years Jason Vargas has made a living by dangling raw cuts of chicken breast in front of massive crocodiles.

As the main tour guide for Crocodile Man Tours, based at the Tárcoles River, Vargas usually spends his workdays wading barefoot down the river’s banks, putting himself within inches of the beasts’ deadly maws for the amusement of tourists. Born and raised near the Tárcoles, in the country’s Central Pacific, Vargas’ unusual career path has roots tracing back to a childhood fascination with the giant reptiles.

“When I was a boy we used to drive up and down the river in a boat,” Vargas said. “Eventually we started throwing the crocodiles food and I just became obsessed with it.”

Vargas’ death-defying antics have turned him into a celebrity. He has been the subject of news stories, a French documentary and an episode of Animal Planet. But his success came to a screeching halt in May when officials from Costa Rica’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) held a meeting and told all Tárcoles tour operators to stop feeding the crocodiles.

“If we had 100 people on our tours before, now we have about 50,” Vargas said. “The hotels in San José and Jacó can’t sell a river boat tour as well as they can sell a crocodile feeding tour.”

But Vargas’ tour woes are of little concern to SINAC, which says operations like his make crocodiles more aggressive, and have spurred a sea of other croc-related complaints from the rest of the tourism sector.

In the past year, crocodiles have lounged on beaches, attacked surfers, closed down national park entrances and eaten a man alive. The mounting number of incidents has sparked public concern, and members of the tourism industry are now asking for a crocodile intervention.

Though Environment Ministry officials have appointed a task force to assess the state of the crocodile population, they say it may be the tourism industry, not the crocodiles, that needs to change.

Watch Jason Vargas feed crocodiles on the Tárcoles River:

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Ecotourism In Costa Rica Is Putting Wildlife At Risk

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