Hello Costa Rica, where “Pura Vida” is a way of life: living a simple life and being happy with what you have. It has made Costa Rica the world’s happiest country and helped its tourism industry bring in more money than banana, pineapple and coffee exports combined. With 25 per cent of its land area being national parks, even the wildlife enjoys a special place to live.
The words of Señor Fernandez, the old prospector, come back to me as I lie groveling on the jungle floor. “A jaguar can sense which man is most afraid of him,” he’d told me, “…it’s always this one that he follows.”
Up the trail ahead of me, I can see the slim figure of Aida Bustamente crouched in the undergrowth, studying a jumble of prints in the sand. Lithe and cat-like, she is known in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula as The Jaguar Lady – and I already realize that she isn’t afraid of much at all. Her partner, Ric Moreno, is a little farther up the trail among the thick forest shadows. Between them, they have probably racked up more jungle hours on the trail of jaguars than almost anyone alive.
For much of the last decade they have been working to establish accurate figures on the populations of Latin America’s most endangered big cat. In all those years they have had just a handful of unforgettable sightings of the elusive king of the jungle. For them, this is just another day in the office and I am in no doubt whatsoever that, out of the three of us, it is only my heart that’s hammering like an old tractor engine.
Then I remember that Señor Fernandez had at least some words of reassurance for me: “It’s unlikely that a jaguar would want to eat you though,” he said, “it’s just that…well, all cats have a mischievous streak.”
Aida and Ric are now convinced that somewhere in the bushes around us a 135 kg super-predator with five-inch fangs is lurking. And if they are right, there is little doubt in my mind who the mischievous jaguar will have his eyes fixed on.
The word ‘jaguar’ is often said to come from an old Mayan phrase meaning “the beast that kills with one leap”. I am painfully aware, however, that the jaguar’s prey is very unlikely to ever witness the leap before a single crunching bite crushes the back of the skull. Osa is perhaps the most biologically intense place on earth – and this section of the jungle is particularly packed with wildlife. I am starting to imagine things as “safari syndrome” kicks in: the scuttling panic of a basilisk lizard out of the foliage is the first sudden lurch of a springing big cat; the ungodly roar of howler monkeys echoing out of the distant valleys sounds like the low, impatient growl of something much closer, and infinitely bigger.
Mother Nature seems to have a cruel sense of humor
We have been on the trail since before daylight, but were delayed on the beach by a nest full of leatherback turtle hatchlings that had chosen an unfortunate moment to make their first frantic dash to the waves. Mother Nature sometimes seems to have a cruel sense of humor and a hungry kite was snatching the tiny turtles just as they neared the waterline. We stood by and kept the kite at bay until the last of them made it to the water. As we stepped off the palm-lined shore and into the shadows of the jungle, a blue morpho butterfly fluttered past – as big as a dinner-plate and as radiantly blue as the speck of fallen heaven that the indigenous people here considered it to be.
Throughout Latin America the sight of a blue morpho is said to be a good omen and I could only hope it was a sign that I was soon to get my first sighting of a jaguar. The rainforest here was packed with signs of prey and within half hour we even found an agedtapir that had backed itself into a swamp in a last ditch attempt to evade the king of the jungle for another day or so. Then we found the tracks of a very large jaguar. I had tracked lions and leopards before and was surprised by the size of a pugmark that somehow seemed to radiate such power. Over the course of the morning we have followed the spoor in such erratic circles that, by now, I’m now not entirely sure who’s following who.
“One of the men I hunted with was always afraid of jaguars,” I remember the prospector explaining. “He’d never go out of camp alone and always insisted on sleeping in the middle, between the others. But el tigre would sometimes follow us and, when we turned back to camp, it always looked like the jaguar was deliberately treading on the tracks of the man who was most afraid.”
I’ve never heard of anyone who was attacked by a jaguar
Olman Fernandez has lived most of his life on this wild region and spent several years in the late 1970s and early ’80s prospecting for gold in the mountains around Corcovado National Park. Our talk was memorable for several reasons – not least because, throughout it, Señor Fernandez continued to shave his back and shoulders with an over-sized bush-knife.
“We’d see jaguars most days,” he told me as the knife rasped a sheen of fine hair off a leathery shoulder. “We didn’t shoot anything we couldn’t eat and had no livestock to protect so they didn’t have to fear us. I’ve never heard of anyone who was attacked by a jaguar and there was really no reason to be worried.”
Right now, I’m doing my best to merge with the leaf-mulch and to try, by sheer will-power, to convince myself – and whatever telepathic super- predator might be in the vicinity – that I am not in the least worried. Most big cat attacks are cases of mistaken identity: a Matabele woman gets mauled by a leopard while doing laundry by the Zambezi River; a Bengali palm-tapper gets disemboweled by a tiger while he’s shimmying back down a tree. An Englishman becomes the first documented victim of a jaguar attack while he crawls on all fours down a jungle trail, imitating a white-nosed coati. Not the cat’s fault, of course. A classic case of mistaken identity.
For good or ill, Aida, Ric and I have managed to insinuate ourselves into the middle of a troop of about 50 coatis. The cute, pointy-nosed animals (members of the raccoon family) are all around us. They look like dogs but are agile climbers and deceptively vicious fighters. Dozens scrabble among the undergrowth on both sides of the trail looking for bugs. Others swing nimbly from the branches over our heads, stretching to reach the last fruits. This in itself is risky since coatis can become aggressive if, as is the case here, they have young to protect and a large coati is quite easily capable of killing a dog.
Nine jaguars have been killed in this area in two years
For the moment they seem to be ignoring us, however, and the Jaguar Lady is convinced that we are in an ideal spot to see a jaguar. She is sure that there is one in the vicinity and that this large troop will have attracted it. Presumably she is also counting on all the bustling and rustling around us also to mask the heavy footfalls of the clumsy foreigner she has been lumbered with.
Aida is one of Costa Rica’s greatest authorities on the big cats but after eight years studying endangered jaguars here, the Jaguar Lady is still not so confident of a happy ending to Osa Peninsula’s big cat tale. “Jaguars need huge territories and lots of prey to thrive,” she told me as we sat in the simple fly-screen hut that acts as her base. “An increasing population soon pushes young jaguars out into buffer-zones and finally into cattle country. We know of nine jaguars that have been killed in this area in the last two years.”
In what became the world’s biggest camera-trap study, Aida and Ric set 134 camera-traps in a 100-square-km study area. Six wild cat species (jaguar, cougar, ocelot, jaguarundi, margay and oncilla) are found on the Osa Peninsula and all are endangered. Very little is known about the habits of wild jaguars but this study has already shone valuable light on the territories, habitat, abundance and threats to jaguars on the Osa Peninsula.
A central part of Aida’s philosophy is that if you can guarantee a safe haven for the apex predator then you have a good chance of ensuring stability for the rest of the environment. Aida and Ric have spent countless hours tracking through Corcovado National Park and its all-important buffer zone, and it is rare that they have a day without patrolling, either on foot and on their quad-bikes.
A suite that had just been abandoned by Julia Roberts
The first time I visited Osa a decade ago, I was backpacking through Central America and had an assignment to cover one of the world’s premier eco-lodges. Unlike the jet-setting elite who usually fly in to Lapa Rios by private charter, I hitched here in the back of a truck. I accepted my welcome cocktail in the lodge’s spectacular lobby and washed off the road-dust in a suite that had apparently just been abandoned by film star Julia Roberts. I would like to say that the bed was still warm but, like everything else there, it was crisply made and coolly perfect.
Even at first glance I was astounded by a density of wildlife that I had not seen outside of the best parks in East Africa. Lapa Rios seemed to have established itself as a wildlife corridor in a way that few places have managed; three types of monkeys swung from the trees over my veranda; toucans and macaws flew past in endless rainbow-hued phalanxes; coatis and fluffy anteaters ambled up the main pathway, even through the lodge building itself, with all confidence that the guests would simply step aside and cede them right-of-way. From the swimming pool one afternoon, I even watched migrating humpback whales breaching in the bay.
Since the 1960s Costa Rica has been forging a reputation as the jewel in the crown of Latin America’s natural sanctuaries. Today about a quarter of the entire country’s total area is protected. The country has long been unique in the region for the fact that it does not even have an army; after a brief civil war in 1948, the victors had the truly revolutionary idea of disbanding the national army and turning the barracks into a fine arts museum.
National security is guaranteed instead by the Rio Treaty, which says that “an attack on Costa Rica constitutes an attack on the entire western hemisphere”. Costa Rica was thus spared the widespread fighting that engulfed her neighbors during successive wars and revolutions, and the years that invariably followed when weapons were ubiquitous and hunger endemic. Many say that it is for this reason more than any other that the country retained so much of its wildlife.
Costa Rica is a land-bridge for animals from both South and North America
Compared with their Central American neighbors, Ticos (as the Costa Ricans are called) have traditionally had a relatively respectful live-and-let-live attitude towards their wildlife. It is a respect that does not seem always to be entirely mutual. In one evening at a beach comedor (diner) I witnessed two kitchen raids within 20 minutes: first by a coati and then by a raccoon. Costa Rica benefits as a land-bridge for animals from both South and North America. For example the scrub that I am now lying in, as I wait for “the beast of Corcovado” to pounce, could just as easily harbor a deadly North American rattlesnake or a deadly South American fer-de-lance.
Today Corcovado’s 67,000 hectares represent Central America’s last great Pacific Coast rainforest. The park was gazetted in 1975 but it was not until about a decade later that Olman Fernandez and the other gold-panners were (mostly) evicted. According to one old hunter (who asked not to be named) only about half of these prospectors were compensated. He believed that the international donations that were designated to help the others mysteriously disappeared and hundreds of families were deprived of a means of income.
Without education, or even an understanding of basic subsistence agriculture, some turned to illegally poaching what meat they could out of the park that they felt had cheated them. Even today, local people tell of standoffs between heavily armed hunters and underpaid park rangers who are understandably reluctant to get into a firefight.
Few people believe that hunting jaguars specifically for skins is still going on here, but bushmeat poaching is not uncommon and as the prey is depleted, so the jaguars are forced to search farther afield, eventually into livestock ranges. Aida personally raised funds through donations for what became Central America’s only large system of compensation to ranchers for livestock killed by big cats, and recent work with GPS tracking collars means that she is even able to warn them when a jaguar looks like it might be passing through ranches.
The second strongest jaws of any predator on earth
“A jaguar will only ever eat meat from a carcass that it killed itself,” the old hunter told me. Thus the cat-killers could reassure themselves that they’d shot the guilty cattle-killer and not an innocent scavenger. The king of the Latin American rainforest has the second strongest jaws of any predator on earth (after the hyena) and even its skull can prove bulletproof to anything but high-caliber weapons. However, it’s a relatively simple matter to tree a jaguar with dogs and then take time to shoot him out with whatever weapon is available. The old hunter took pains to reassure me that in the old days only cattle-killers were hunted like this.
“The teeth and claws were sometimes used to make necklaces and charms but we didn’t sell skins,” he said. “Today a skin that might be worth US$500 in San Jose could get you 25 years in prison. A person would have to be stupid to try that. There’s easier money in cocaine.”
In a remote part of Panama, however, I was once offered a jaguar skin; on that same trip a hunter posed proudly while I snapped a shot of him with a photograph of an ocelot he had shot. The Kuna people of Panama’s Darien Region are perhaps the only people in the world who hunt big cats for meat. We were on a long expedition across the region and, out of necessity, were hunting for meat where possible – but I went to great pains to explain very explicitly that our hunters were not, under any circumstances, to shoot jungle cats for the pot. The Kuna have an uneasy relationship with the local jaguars and we saw cemeteries deep in the jungle where every grave was spread with woven ‘plates’, shaped like a Star of David.
“They’re designed to look like jaguar footprints,” my guide explained. “When el tigre comes to dig up the bodies he’ll think that another jaguar has already been and leave.”
I have heard their harsh cough at night
Over the years I have spent weeks hoping to see jaguars in other jungles in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. I have heard their harsh cough at night in camps in Chiapas and Darien, but never seen one in the wild. This is now my third visit to Osa Peninsula and we have been following the fresh spoor of this big male jaguar since shortly after dawn. Now I am flat on my belly among the troop of coati and every tingling, adrenalin-stoked nerve-ending seems to be intent on sending a message to my brain that I am considerably closer to a jaguar than I have ever been before.
I keep my camera ready and stare into the bushes along the path, trying to make out the rosettes that allow a jaguar to blend so perfectly with its surroundings. Of course I know that when the attack comes, it will be so lightning quick and unexpected that I could never hope to be in the right position.
And, of course, I know in my heart too that the king of the Central American jungle will ultimately elude me. There is a high price to pay for seeing the world’s most elusive cat in his wild habitat and it is a price I will be happy to keep paying.
It’s enough to know he is out there – and that dedicated people like Costa Rica’s Jaguar Lady are working so tirelessly to ensure that he always will be.