Conservation and Community Development: Costa Rica

Matapalo Sea Turtles Conservation

Program Description

Matapalo is a developing coastal city in the Puntarenas province of Costa Rica, home to a wide array of wildlife including sloths, monkeys, turtles, marsupials (opossums & raccoons) and iguanas. Animals are often illegally hunted for food or income, as well as accidentally killed by urban and agricultural expansion. Lack of employment contributes to the illegal poaching of sea turtle eggs and killing of animals for meat. Occupation of animal habitats by large ranches and human settlements also directly reduces the populations of many species. This decrease in space has caused wild species that inhabit remaining natural areas to become not only at risk of becoming domestic pets, but also of acquiring human-borne diseases. Animals die or become orphaned by electrocution, traffic accidents, and drowning in agricultural fields in the rainy season. Fragmentation of forests as a result of the proliferation of crops and land set aside for livestock is further isolating species and causing population decline to the point that wildlife in the area are no longer biologically stable.

The human population often lacks knowledge of the role these species play in the natural environment, as well as how to mitigate risk to them and the entire surrounding forest system. Orphaned and injured animals are frequently found in the area, though research is severely lacking in animal behaviour and populations of Matapalo to explain the phenomenon. Sloth behaviour remains particularly elusive especially with regards to how they fare after rescue centers release them into the wild. Research on them, anteaters, raccoons, other mammals and more about sea turtle nesting behaviour is needed in the area.

Roberto Solano Cordero is the lead biologist overseeing the project. Roberto is a biologist by profession although he also carries titles as an educator among other things. He has worked with Matapalo Sea Turtles Conservation for 10 years, which was formerly a part of ASVO, a conservation and volunteer organization. Due to the community’s requests, he returned to continue the work ASVO had formerly coordinated. In his role at Matapalo Sea Turtle Conservation, Roberto oversees projects in sea turtle, and other species conservation as well as training and education in the area of sea turtle ecology and biological management. Roberto has also worked for the National Maritime Patrol, the National Coast Guard Service, the Ministry of Education, as well as different associations and non-governmental organizations dedicated to conservation. Roberto has been a teacher, naturalist guide for tourism, environmental consultant, project manager, volunteer coordinator, and youth leader. He strongly believes in experiential learning as it is the best way to gain fulfilling work experience that will help shape future career paths.

The Mammal Research Institute (a new initiative of the Matapalo Sea Turtle Conservation organization) will cover a number of projects, however, the focus of this internship will be on sloth monitoring and conservation. The Mammal Research Institute and Conservation Center will receive confiscated or rescued animals for their evaluation for treatment. It will have the capacity to conduct first aid when necessary but otherwise will send animals to the appropriate treatment centres for their injuries or condition. Once treated or of adequate age (if they were orphaned), the center will receive the animals to be prepared for release back into their natural habitat. Researchers will tag them in order to study and track them in the wild, adding to the small but growing body of knowledge of these animals. The center’s research will be aimed at developing adequate management techniques and can also be used as a site to raise awareness of the risks posed to animals by vehicular traffic. This project aims to assess the status of sloths and other endangered species in Matapalo. Little is known about their behaviour, populations and what happens with them after being released back into the wild by rescue centers. The center will have a range of environmental education activities to be developed as part of the project, coupled with community outreach in order to further the protection of the environment.

While the center’s main beneficiaries will be the animal species, which increase each month, it aims to benefit the community in several ways as well. It will address a humanitarian need to help animals in Matapalo by acting as a resource to call or send hurt animals to. Residents of Matapalo were employed to lead the construction of the center as well as other paid roles to ensure the community benefits from the project. Environmental education activities will ideally promote interest in local youth to participate in conservation and provide them livelihoods by giving them the opportunity to learn English and pursue careers in ecotourism in their futures. Tourists are currently involved in night walks and helping with the turtle hatchery. The Sloth Monitoring and Conservation Center will further provide ways for both foreigners and locals to get involved in conservational efforts in Matapalo.


You will be staying with a host family in modest accommodations.

Placement Objectives/Role


  • Initiate research the populations and behavior of local mammals (including sloths, monkeys, raccoons and anteaters)
  • Assist in the development of key administrative systems necessary for the creation of an animal research & rescue centre


  • Participate in activities related to turtle nesting and hatching, including night walks and egg rescues
  • Raise public awareness on wildlife care for greater society to understand their role and the value of conservation of wild species.
  • Link professionals from different sectors in the development of the centre, such as biology, social areas and communication, economics, architecture and engineering areas.
  • Provide support for volunteers through a leadership role in the conservation of sea turtles
  • Engage local community through providing informative programs and volunteer opportunities
  • Coordinate and conduct conservational education programs at the local secondary school

Program Dates

Date Activity
Jan – Apr 2017 Orientation and pre-departure learning sessions (all successful applicants will be expected to be in attendance at all sessions)
Late May – Aug 2017 12 weeks of fieldwork in an International Service Learning placement
Sep/Oct 2017 Re-entry debrief and public engagement presentation on campus

Please note these dates may be adjusted but will be confirmed before you receive an offer of a placement.

Program Costs

The costs below are per student and are yet to be fully determined, but will be within the following ranges.

Location Program Fee
Costa Rica $4,600*