An Interview With Misión Tiburón Co-Founder Ilena Zanella


Though sharks are often portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters in contemporary media, these fascinating fish play a crucial role in a wide array of aquatic ecosystems—though unfortunately for them, large-scale environmental degradation and rampant overfishing have left many shark species in imminent danger of extinction.

Though the future may look grim, there’s no shortage of dedicated wildlife organizations acting to ensure the survival of today’s shark species, with Misión Tiburón focusing on one highly-endangered hammerhead that finds refuge in the mangrove forests of Costa Rica. Following a £100,000 round of continuation funding from the Whitley Fund for Nature—a prestigious conservation-focused charity that’s backed by trustee Sir David Attenborough—Misión Tiburón is perfectly positioned to expand their scope, ushering in even greater protections for these vulnerable fish.

For Forbes, Zanella highlights the origin story and ongoing efforts of Misión Tiburón, offering insight into the realm of both shark conservation and shark ecotourism.

What was your original inspiration for launching Misión Tiburón?

In 2003 when I was a marine biology student at Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, I visited Cocos Island National Park for the first time. I led a pilot study for the administrators of the national park to estimate the impact of scuba diving on the island. Thanks to this study, I discovered my new passion: sharks! Back at university, I decided to learn more about this vulnerable group and dedicate my work to their protection.

At that time, I found out how the fishing pressure has caused drastic declines in shark populations worldwide. According to the IUCN, one third of pelagic shark species are threatened with extinction. This decline has been documented in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, home to one of the greatest concentrations of large marine animals worldwide including more than eighty species of shark. I knew that in Costa Rica, we still had sharks to protect, and it was urgent to fill the information gaps related to this group. I decided to study the major threat to shark populations: fisheries. For my master’s thesis I analyzed the fisheries of the scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) in Costa Rica.

At the time, no university or NGO was dedicated to shark research and conservation in Costa Rica. In 2009 after completing my thesis, my partner Andrés López and I founded Misión Tiburón.

We made this big step with only the two of us, with a dream that with time came true. It was a big challenge for us, but with hard work and dedication the organization established and developed different projects with sharks, manta rays, and rays with the support of local stakeholders and governmental institutions. Our first project was focused to identify and protect critical habitats as nursery ground for the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead shark. In 2010, we started our project in Golfo Dulce, located in the south Pacific of Costa Rica, where after years of work, we identified an important nursery for the species.

In your opinion, what are some of the earth’s best destinations for tourists to learn more about sharks and their role in the global ecosystem?

Cocos Island National Park, where I discovered my passion about sharks without any doubts! It is an oceanic island, located 500 kilometers off the coast of Costa Rica. Cocos Island National Park is an exceptional site worldwide for its marine and terrestrial biodiversity, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. Cocos Island contains important shark aggregation areas (cleaning stations, nursery areas, and feeding zones) representing a “protected oasis” for migratory marine species. The scalloped hammerhead shark is the iconic species of this national park, and if you are a diver, you can have unforgettable dives with hundreds of hammerhead sharks. It is like being in a paradise!

Why is the Golfo Dulce such an important region for shark biodiversity, and what protections does it now receive as a shark sanctuary?

For decades the research and conservation efforts for shark migratory species of the Eastern Tropical Pacific were focused on the oceanic islands of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador, including the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Cocos, Coiba, Malpelo and the Galapagos Islands. Despite these efforts, the pelagic and migratory shark populations around these islands have experienced substantial decline. For example, according to White et al. (2015) over the 21 years of the study period carried out in Cocos Island, the relative abundance of scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini) has declined by 45 percent.

Given this state of decline, the identification of nursery grounds is essential to define effective conservation strategies for shark populations, and it is particularly important in coastal habitats where the marine ecosystems are threatened by multiple human actions (pollution, habitat degradation, and overfishing). Due to the lack of research and conservation efforts in the identification of nursery grounds for the scalloped hammerhead shark, in 2010 we started to study its population in Golfo Dulce, an estuary on the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica which is connected by a seamount chain to Cocos Island.

For more than a decade, we have conducted the foundational research, established trust-based relationships with the fisheries sector, and built collaborative partnerships with government institutions and local communities, all of which have led directly to groundbreaking conservation measures for scalloped hammerhead sharks, including the designation of Costa Rica’s first shark sanctuary. In fact, based on Misión Tiburón data, in May 2018 the President of the Republic of Costa Rica signed an executive decree for the creation of the Scalloped Hammerhead Shark Sanctuary Golfo Dulce.

The scalloped hammerhead shark is protected in the sanctuary, its fishery or commercialization is not allowed. It is important to clarify that in Costa Rica, despite being critically endangered, it is legal to fish and to commercialize the species, you can actually easily find this species in the markets. So, the protection of the scalloped hammerhead in the Golfo Dulce nursery ground, an important aggregation site for the species, is a crucial step for its conservation.

What further developments are you planning across the Golfo Dulce with this year’s round of continuation funding from the Whitley Fund for Nature?

Golfo Dulce is rich in marine diversity, but the local communities have the lowest social and economic opportunities in Costa Rica, characterized by cantons that have high rates of extreme poverty and low rates of social development. Thanks to the Whitley Award in 2019, we strengthened the shark sanctuary, engaging local stakeholders in shark conservation and empowering local leaders. The communities started to believe in the environmental and social economic benefits generated from nature and ocean conservation.

Winning The Whitley Award was a pivotal moment for the project. We received national and international attention, we felt that after many years, our efforts and dedication were finally recognized. We felt very grateful and energized to keep working. Also, thanks to the fund’s implementation, and the alliances and strategies built, Misión Tiburón innovated in new fields of action: a) the mangrove restoration and b) the promotion of livelihood alternatives for vulnerable community stakeholders such as women in social risk and fishers.

The mangroves offer multiple ecosystem services to local communities, and they have taken a leading role as carbon sinks to combat the effects of climate change. Mangrove ecosystems are one of the most valuable coastal ecosystems in the world, but also one of the most vulnerable. We are very excited to receive the Continuation Funding from WFN, the two-year grant will allow us to promote the recovery of the valuable mangrove ecosystems in Golfo Dulce used as nursery ground by the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead shark. This new phase of the project aims to protect and to restore the sanctuary’s blue carbon sinks, consolidating the engagement of local communities into climate action and promoting activities based on the blue economy.

What’s your favorite type of shark to work with, and your favorite type of shark overall?

The scalloped hammerhead shark is my favorite, I believe it is the most beautiful animal in the world. The newborns and juveniles are incredibly cute! I feel blessed to have the opportunity to take in my hand a vulnerable juvenile, and then see the big aggregations of adults in Cocos Island. It is amazing!



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