View of the Reventazón hydropower plant in Costa Rica © Olga Puntus/IFC
When it begins operations later this year, Central America's largest hydropower plant—Reventazón—will bring light to half a million homes in Costa Rica. Besides providing finance, IFC brought to the project a group of partners that were charged with minimizing the plant's impact on the region's biodiversity and natural habitats. Among the collaborators: a poop-sniffing, German shorthaired pointer.
Google the dog—known affectionately as "the ultimate search engine"—was part of a project to preserve the jaguar population in the Barbilla-Destierro Biological Sub-Corridor, a vital bridge for Central America’s northern and southern jaguars. Nearly 700 hectares of the corridor are being flooded to build Reventazón’s reservoir, potentially obstructing the flow of jaguars and interfering with a key evolutionary process needed for the cats’ long-term survival: mating within a large and diverse gene pool.
Google's jaguar scat search results provide biologists with a wealth of DNA information that helps them assess the density of the jaguar population, identify the genetic diversity, and monitor the animals’ health. They also contain traces of digested prey that can help scientists track the cats' migration paths—information critical to monitoring the success of the conservation efforts. Before Google, biologists had to capture and sedate jaguars to attach tracking devices, a far more expensive and invasive method.
The idea of using a poop-sniffing dog in Costa Rica came from Panthera, a global conservation organization and one of the main partners working to preserve and consolidate the Barbilla-Destierro Sub-Corridor.
Built by the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), Reventazón is the second largest infrastructure project in Central America, after the Panama Canal. With an estimated cost of $1 billion, the plant will have a total capacity of 305 megawatts. IFC has provided a $100 million loan to the project, which is in line with our strategy to advance the production of renewable energy.
IFC's Environmental and Social Performance Standards require that all projects we finance have a positive outcome in cases where potential risk is identified. In the case of Reventazón, the task was to enhance connectivity of the Bartilla-Destierro Biological Sub-Corridor and increase forest cover to sustain a genetically diverse jaguar population over time.
A group of partners—ICE, biologists, conservationists, government, the World Bank Group, and communities—has taken up the challenge. Since the area is mostly privately owned by hundreds of small farmers, their participation in the project was critical.
To encourage farmers to join the conservation efforts, IFC has helped ICE implement Payments for Environmental Services (PES), a mechanism developed by the World Bank and the Global Environmental Facility. The system allows farmers to receive an annual payment to reforest and preserve forests. Funding comes from Costa Rica’s National Forest Financing Fund (FONAFIFO) and the Environmental Ministry, and ICE has stepped in to double the funds and ensure strong farmer commitment to the program. As of July, participating farmers had set aside 800 hectares for conservation. In addition, ICE is working with conservation organizations to support environmental education and conflict resolution for ranchers who lose livestock to jaguars.
The combination of traditional camera traps and Google’s pioneering monitoring technique have provided important information to measure the success of these conservation efforts.
Google didn’t live to see the project’s final outcome. He died recently at age eight, but his contribution to jaguar conservation remains. Based on the success of Google’s scat searches, IFC funded the purchase and training of his successor: a four-month-old Belgian Malinois born in Costa Rica. IFC’s next project, with help from Panthera: finding a suitable name.
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Published in July 2016