A Former Prison Island is Now a Paradise of Biodiversity

Fagjun | Published 2017-05-12 05:30

Plants have overrun a crumbling building on the prison island.
[Photo by Christian Ziegler]

An island with a dark past has blossomed into an ideal place for biodiversity to thrive.

The island of Coíba lies 23 kilometers southwest of Panama. From 1919 to as recent as 2004, the island was a prison colony. It housed dangerous criminals, as well as political dissenters who angered dangerously powerful people. Sharks and crocodiles roamed the waters around the island, deterring escape.

Living—or, more accurately, serving time—on the island had been dangerous. For some time after the prison closed, people still considered Coíba to be the place where the condemned went to die. They thought of Coíba as a dangerous place, so even when the prison closed, hardly anyone ventured out to the island.

Burgeoning Biodiversity

The scarlet macaw had been safe on the once-isolated island.

This isolation was a boon to the flora and fauna of the island. People had deemed the island too dangerous for tourism, so about 80% of the island was left on its own. Thus, various plants and animal species grew and thrived where detention cells and prison guard quarters once stood.

The former prison island is now one of the 38 islands that comprise Coíba National Park. Coíba National Park is also a UNESCO Heritage Site that boasts a high level of biodiversity. Coíba Island is the largest island out of the 38 with an area of 503 square kilometers.

Stepping onto the island now doesn't inspire feelings of dread. Visiting Coíba is like stepping into a time machine and traveling back to a time when the Earth was new. There are 1,450 plant species, at least 30 bat species, 172 bird species, and 70 ant species on Coíba. The scarlet macaw and the crested eagle, both of which have all but disappeared on the Panamanian mainland, are doing well on the island. Humpback whales, killer whales, and 18 other marine mammal species also call the waters around the island home. 33 known species of sharks and four turtle species also live in the island's surrounding waters.

Because of Coíba's geographic location, several species exist only on the island. 10 bird subspecies, seven ant species, and more are endemic to Coíba.

From Prison to Paradise

Human activities are threatening coral reefs around Coiba.
[Photo by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute]

Of course, Coíba didn't stay isolated for long. Commercial entities wanted to develop the island as a tourist spot, though the Panamanian government seemed more interested in conservation efforts.

Of course, people were still interested in visiting a place that time seemingly forgot. Now that the island has become more popular and has slowly been stepping out of the shadow of its past, it has become a tourist destination in recent times.

However, the easier accessibility of the island is a double-edged sword. The island's understaffed patrols now need to deal with illegal poachers and fishermen that can and will harm the rare species on the island. Illegal fishing in particular has become a problem, especially for the coral reefs.

Conservation efforts are important to preserving the beauty and of the island and the health of its numerous flora and fauna. Luckily, researchers and conservationists have taken a special interest in the island. This may pressure the Panamanian government to step up efforts in keeping Coíba's rare species safe.

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