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Back to Regulations Concerning the Private Possession of Big Cats

I. General Overview of Wildlife in Captivity

Wildlife is governed in Costa Rica by the Law on Conservation of Wildlife[1] and the Law of Conservation of Wildlife Regulation.[2] The National System of Conservation Areas (Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservación) (SINAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Energy is the administrative authority that enforces the applicable legislation.[3] Costa Rica is a party to the 1973 Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora.[4]

The Law creates the National Registry of Wildlife at SINAC’s headquarters.[5] All wildlife that is in the possession of zoos, breeding farms, rescue centers, and public or private institutions, or in private hands must be registered.[6]

Keeping wildlife in captivity is prohibited unless it comes from a wildlife management site that has been legally established for wildlife reproduction with the goals of wildlife conservation, reintroduction, or commerce.[7]

Private commercial or nonprofit wildlife management sites that are dedicated to conservation, education, research, reproduction, restoration, and reintroduction of wildlife must be registered with SINAC and have an approved management plan.[8]

Under the Regulation of the Law on Conservation and Wildlife, SINAC may grant a permit for the possession of wildlife species in captivity to individuals as legal custodians when prior inspection determines that the place of captivity meets the standards for adequate health conditions and minimum space.  The inspection and administration costs will be covered by the permit holder.[9]   Article 78 of the Regulation provides a list of wildlife species that need to be in a cage, as well as the size of the cage required for each species.  Big cats are listed with two asterisks indicating that they can be kept only in zoos and rescue centers.[10]

The permit holder must allow duly authorized SINAC officials to the site where animals are in captivity to inspect the site’s physical condition, marking system, records, facilities, and quarantine enclosures, and to corroborate animal deaths and inventories.  These inspections are required at least twice a year and are mandatory when the operating license of the institution has to be renewed.[11]

SINAC may coordinate with the owners of rescue centers, breeding farms, zoos, and reproduction programs to have animals placed in those establishments when the population status of one or more species so requires, or when it is intended either to develop reproduction and captive-breeding programs for the purpose of reintroducing animals into their natural habitat or to encourage captive-breeding programs for commercial purposes.[12]

Private commercial or nonprofit wildlife management sites that are dedicated to the preservation, research, reproduction, restoration, exhibition, and reintroduction of wildlife must be registered with SINAC and have an approved management plan.[13]

A. Permit Requirements to Operate Zoos, Breeding Farms, and Aquariums

Under the Regulation of the Law, anyone who applies for registration and a permit for operating zoos, breeding farms, and aquariums must provide to the subregional office of the corresponding conservation area

  • a written request that includes the owner’s name, address, and telephone number;
  • a copy of the owner’s ID card, including a copy of the incorporation documents if the applicant is a legal entity;
  • the regent’s registration record in the Book of Regencies at SINAC headquarters;
  • the ownership certificate, issued by an attorney or the Public Registry of Realty, and a copy of the plan of the premises where the project will be located;
  • a letter from the property owner indicating that he or she agrees to the establishment being located on his or her property when he or she is not the operator of the establishment;
  • four copies of the Management Plan (Plan de Manejo) (to be updated every five years), which has been duly signed by the regent;
  • a certified copy of the employment contract of the regent and the zoo veterinarian;
  • a logbook in which are recorded all the activities related to the wildlife management of the establishment, as well as the inspections by SINAC officers with their stipulations; 
  • a certified copy of the document showing the legal capacity of the appropriate officer;
  • a copy of the municipal building permits or Housing and Urban Development permits when it is necessary to build a complex infrastructure to develop a project;
  • the inspection certificate of a competent professional expert verifying that the facilities are suitable for the operation of the establishment;
  • a design of the sewage and waste treatment system;
  • a prefeasibility study when it is required because of the magnitude and complexity of the project; and
  • cage and enclosure designs and a list of measures providing for the safety of the animals, staff, and visitors, including a contingency plan for those cases where preventive measures were not sufficient to ensure safety.[14]

The Regulation also provides that, in the case of herpetarium-type zoos containing species of venomous snakes, the infrastructure should consider risk situations, such as natural catastrophe, fire, and theft, to ensure that the animals cannot escape or harm humans and wild and domestic animals.  The infrastructure designs and materials used in the zoo’s construction should consider the ethological requirements of each species.  Three security barriers must be constructed between snakes and visitors.[15]

Additionally, in the case of species included on the list of depleted animals, endangered animals, or animals that are included in the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the permit will be issued for experimental and or scientific purposes until the permit holder has demonstrated technical mastery of the techniques of reproduction and management of animals in captivity and has produced a second generation of animals in captivity from the captive-breeding specimens of the first generation.[16]

SINAC has a month to resolve an application.  If the application is rejected, the requested technical recommendations must be completed within fifteen days, after which the file is closed.  Appeals must be lodged with the Regional Directorate of Conservation Area.  If the appeal is not successful, the applicant may appeal to SINAC, and if this appeal is not successful, the applicant may appeal to the head of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE).[17]

Once the Management Plan is approved by the SINAC sub-regional office, the licensee must publish an edict in a newspaper of wide distribution announcing the intention to install a zoo, breeding farm, or aquarium, giving eight working days to hear objections.[18]

B. Trade in Wildlife

The State regulates the trade and trafficking of wildlife through SINAC.[19]   The exportation, importation, and trafficking of any wildlife species designated on SINAC lists as being in danger of extinction or reduced is prohibited, unless the animal comes from an authorized wildlife management site.[20]   SINAC is the administrative authority whose main function is to meet the objectives of the Convention and grant or deny wildlife export and import permits.[21] The maximum marketing quotas for wildlife are established by the appropriate regional offices of SINAC where the enterprise is registered, taking into account technical criteria, existing inventories, and inspection reports.[22]

In granting permission to export, the following must be previously verified:

  • 1) The animals were not purchased or hunted in violation of the Law and its Regulation;
  • 2) There is an appropriate scientific report;
  • 3) The transport and handling of the animals is appropriate as stipulated by the Directorate of Health and Livestock Production of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock;
  • 4) The administrative authority of the importing country has authorized the importation of the animals . . . and their products or byproducts.[23]

Native and exotic wildlife extracted or traded in violation of the Law and its Regulation will be seized and relocated promptly to their natural habitat; if this is not possible, they will be relocated to wildlife management sites in accordance with the technical criteria of the appropriate authorities.[24]

C. Circuses and Shops

The Law prohibits the temporary or permanent exhibition of native or exotic wildlife in circus entertainments throughout the national territory.  The Law also prohibits the importation of wildlife that is part of circuses, traveling public entertainment, and the like into the country for the purpose of public display.[25]

The Regulation of the Law prohibits the possession of captive wildlife on the premises of commercial establishments, such as hotels, bars, restaurants, shops, factories, and any other place with similar activities.[26]

D. Penalties

Trading and trafficking in wildlife without the authorization of SINAC is punishable with a fine or imprisonment.  In the case of species whose populations have been declared to be reduced or at risk of extinction, the fine is ten to forty times the violator’s minimum salary, and the prison term is from one to three years, along with the confiscation of the animals.  In the case of species that are not endangered, the fine is one to five times the violator’s minimum salary, and the prison term is from four to six months, along with confiscation of the animals.[27]

Importing or exporting wildlife without the appropriate SINAC permit is also punishable with a fine or imprisonment.  In the case of species whose populations have been declared to be reduced or at risk of extinction, the fine is ten to forty times the violator’s minimum salary, and the prison term is from one to three years, along with the confiscation of the animals.  In the case of species that are not endangered, the fine is one to five times the violator’s minimum salary, and the prison term is from four to eight months, along with confiscation of the animals.[28]

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Norma Gutierrez
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
June 2013

 

[1] Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre, Ley, No. 7317, La Gaceta [L.G.], Dec. 12, 1992, available as amended at http://www.pgr.go.cr/SCIJ/Busqueda/Normativa/Normas/nrm_repartidor.asp?param1=NRTC&nValor1=1&n Valor2=12648&nValor3=92418&param2=1&strTipM=TC&lResultado=2&strSim=simp

[3] Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre art. 11.

[4] Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna ahttp://www.cites.org/eng/disc/text.php, as amended, June 1, 1979, TIAS 11079, and April 30, 1983, http://www.cites.org/eng/disc/gaborone.php (Gaborone Amendment).  Costa Rica ratified the Convention on June 30, 1975, and it entered into force for Costa Rica on September 28, 1975.

[5] Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre art. 19.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. art. 14(d).

[8] Id. art. 20.

[9] Reglamento de la Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre art. 65. 

[10] Id. art. 78.

[11] Id. art. 72.

[12] Id. arts. 68, 86.

[13] Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre art. 20.

[14] Reglamento de la Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre art. 45.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[]18 Id.

[19] Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre arts. 18, 25.

[20] Id. art. 18.

[21] Id. art. 71.

[22] Reglamento de la Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre art. 87.

[23] Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre art. 72.

[24] Id. art. 18(bis).

[25] Id. art. 27.

[26] Reglamento de la Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre art. 23.

[27] Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre art. 95.

[28] Id. art. 96. 

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Last Updated: 09/16/2014