In 1991, the Austrian musician Michael Schnitzler started using Austrian donations to purchase the southwest Pacific coast of Costa Rica near the lowland rainforest to protect it from exploitation and destruction – a project called “the rainforest of the Austrians”.
The two Viennese biology students Werner Huber and Anton Weissenhofer were attracted by this project and went into the fields to search for primary, pristine, rainforest. In the end, they were successful, but it was quite hard for them. Both are now scientists at the Department for Tropical Ecology and Biodiversity of Animals at the University of Vienna.
And so in 1993 the two made their way back on to Costa Rica. They got support from the “Rainforest of the Austrians” and could buy a small house near the small village of La Gamba, not much more than a shack. But it is located quite near to the rain forest, with around 3,000 different species of plants, one of the most biodiverse in the world. On one hectare, as studies have shown in recent years, there are up to 180 different species of trees throughout the region, there are 600 different species of trees – in Austria, there are just 50.
The interest in the station rapidly rose. Therefore, in 1996, the station moved to a bigger house, directly adjacent to an area of primary rainforest. Further they began with the installation of a botanical garden, with a numerous groups of plants, such as tropical plants, as well as bromeliads and heliconias collections, an orchid house and a beehive houses. Finally, in 2000 a new apartment was built that can accommodate 40 people. Since 2007 there is also a laboratory.
Without the “Rainforest of the Austrians”, which is part of the 150 square kilometer National Park, Piedras Blancas, the station would not exist, says Schnitzler. The “Association for the Promotion of Station La Gamba” was founded, which owns the research station since 2006 and since then membership fees, donations, sponsorships and contributions are used to fund the station. In addition, until 2011 there was a base subsidy Ministry of Science for the station, which now comes from the University of Vienna.
Around 4,000 overnight stays are recorded each year in the research station, it provides scientific instruments for students. Researchers from Austria and other countries have the opportunity to research projects or to do internships. More than 90 theses have been completed in the station, according to Weissenhofer and also numerous books and publications appeared, not only in the field of botany and zoology, but also from the fields of ecology, conservation, sociology and anthropology.
In order to improve the link within the local population, a social fund was established by the station, which helps children from La Gamba to finish school. Schnitzler says the connection between the “Rainforest of the Austrians” and the research station is quite excellent.
On December 5th the 20-year anniversary is celebrated at the University of Vienna. Furthermore, a book will be published, which describes experiences of the last 20 years of the tropical station.