The Costa Rican government has announced a plan to close the country's two public zoos next year and release some of the resident animals back into the wild, although the foundation that runs the two facilities disagrees with the plan. Affected would be Simon Bolivar Zoo in San Jose and the nearby Santa Ana Conservation Center.

The country's Environment and Energy Minister Rene Castro said at a press conference last week that the decision to close the zoos came from "a change of environmental conscience among Costa Ricans." The country recently banned sport hunting (although illegal poaching remains a problem), and it banned animals in circuses back in 2002.

At the press conference, Deputy Environment Minister Ana Lorena Guevara said the animals that cannot be returned to the wild will be handed over to animal rescue organizations. If that doesn't work out, she said the government will find a place for some of them in other conservation zones.

Simon Bolivar Zoo, which celebrated its 97th anniversary this year, is home to 71 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Among them are the near-threatened wild cat known as the margay, the endangered tapir, the African lion and the white-faced capuchin monkey. The zoo also includes a massive botanical garden, which will remain. The government says it hopes native birds, mammals and reptiles will populate the garden naturally and the park will be used for research and education.

The Santa Ana Conservation Center, according to its website, "is dedicated to research, captive breeding of species of tropical wildlife, environmental education, conservation and rehabilitation of habitat and recreation ecotourism." The Costa Rican government has not yet decided what will become of the property.

A spokesperson for Fundazoo, the foundation that runs the two zoos, told the Associated Press that it has asked a court to block the planned closure and says its contract to run the facilities runs through the year 2024. The spokesperson said the zoos are the only facilities with specialized veterinarians and nutritionists and the animals might suffer in the hands of other organizations. Fundazoo's mission is to educate the public on the conservation of wildlife. In addition to education, the group conducts research into animal nutrition in captivity, the botany of native species, waterfowl veterinary medicine, jaguar reproduction and the conservation of rare species.

Costa Rica is one of the Earth's most important biodiversity regions, holding more than 4 percent of all known species. More than half of the island is forested and nearly 30 percent of the country is protected as national parks or forest reserves.

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