Costa Rica, its people, and its rich and varied nature. But, I
especially love the Osa Peninsula: it feels wild and remote -
and it is; it possess a spontaneous and fickle charm which repeatedly
confound ones expectations; and it has an intrinsic and seductive
serenity, which conspire to beguile and impassion those fortunate
enough to experience it. The Osa Peninsula has a way of enriching
ones experience of life and ones memories of it. In the years
that I have spent adventuring on the Osa, exploring its jungles,
swamps, rivers and shores, encountering its wildlife and meeting
its people, I have amassed a wealth of memories, and have many
a tale to tell.
To glimpse a
jaguar is the ultimate prize of every eco-tourist to Costa Rica.
Few expect to see one, and for those whose expectations are higher,
disappointment is almost inevitable. But some visitors to Corcovado
National Park each year, perhaps only one or two, are fortunate
to see a jaguar - very fortunate indeed!
encountered at Playa Corcovado
February 1997, at 4:00am
By Nelson Chenkin
I number among those
fortunate few. Indeed, in the years that I’ve been exploring the
pristine forests of the Osa Peninsula, I’ve encountered two jaguars.
And they were not brief encounters!
Jaguars are large cats,
but enigmatic ones. They are the third largest in the world, and
quite capable of killing people. Yet, jaguars have never had the
man-eating reputations of lions, tigers and leopards of Africa
and Asia. Authenticated records of jaguars having killed people
in Central and South America are few. Why this should be so is
not entirely clear, but it certainly makes one feel more at ease
when entering the forests where jaguars haunt. However, my hitherto
rather blithe regard for how dangerous jaguars can be was severely
shaken on Christmas Day, 2001!
This day was the third
of the 9-day `Multi-sport Tour of Osa’ that I operate in conjunction
with Banana Adventure Tours. This multi-activity adventure thoroughly
explores the Osa from Drake Bay, in the north, through to Carate,
in the south. On this particular Multi-sport Tour of Osa I had
seven, very enthusiastic participants. On Christmas Day, 2001,
I took them on a hike to a remote area of Corcovado National Park,
Playa Llorona forms
the northern portion of an eleven-mile stretch of beach that boarders
the Corcovado Plane in Corcovado National Park. The Rio Llorona
bisects the beach here, forming a tidal lagoon - home to large
crocodiles and bull sharks! The lagoon gives way to extensive
areas of mangrove swamp, including impressive stands of Pterocarpus
officinalis, the sangrillo or blood wood.
Playa Llorona marks
the northern extent of the Corcovado Plane. Immediately to the
north and west rises the Los Planes Plateau, and the beach here
gives way to cliffs and rocky promontories. Nearby, a beautiful
waterfall cascades from the coastal cliffs of the Plateau, and
offers refreshing relief to the hot a weary hiker.
hike from San Pedrillo Rangers Station to Playa Llorona, across
the Los Planes Plateau, takes one through some of the most majestic
rainforests on the Osa. These forests abound with wildlife. En route
my group of seven and I were obstructed by a large herd of fifty
or more white-lipped peccaries. These feisty, pig-like beasts are
perhaps the most dangerous mammals one is likely to encounter in
Neotropical rainforests. If threatened, males will vigorously protect
the herd. Their aggressive disposition is perhaps because white-lipped
peccaries are among the favored prey of the jaguar.
at Playa Llorona
The peccaries filed
across the trail in twos and threes, initially unaware of our
presence. The first one to get wind of us cracked its teeth in
alarm, sending a ripple of agitation through the herd. A crescendo
of teeth cracking erupted as the herd sped off. Several males
stood menacingly on the trail, facing us and sniffing the air.
The atmosphere was electric and the air reeked with the musty
smell of these beasts. We were at a safe distance though, and
stood our ground until the herd finally disappeared.
We arrived at Playa
Llorona hot, but exhilarated. My group prepared to swim in the
sea. I had a headache. So I retraced my steps back into the forest
to a creek for water, to drink with my headache tablets – I have
a hardy constitution and drink from the creeks to avoid having
to carry water!
Some fifty yards or
so back into the forest fringe of Playa Llorona I stood looking
down upon the small creek that I had come to drink from. In the
distance I saw a Jaguar. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to get closer’.
Perceiving no threat from the cat, and fully expecting it to flee
if it saw me, I began to sneak along the creek quietly, to get
a closer. The jaguar must have shared my intentions, however,
for when next I looked up it was staring at me from only 15 yards
To be in such close
proximity to a large cat, without the intervention of bars for
protection, is a sobering experience to say the least. For about
five minutes we stared at one another fixedly, neither of us moving
a muscle. My mind was racing, wondering how the hell I could get
the others to see this incredible spectacle. However, I reckoned
that it would not be possible, thinking that if I so much as moved
the jaguar would run away. So I decided to savor this rare encounter
to myself for as long as it lasted. At any moment, I thought,
the jaguar would retreat. I was wrong!
I was reminded of the
original purpose of my visit to the creek by the bitter taste
of the headache tablets in my mouth. So I stooped to drink water
from the creek. Suddenly, the jaguar crouched, lowered its ears,
and began stalking me. ‘Goddamit!’ I thought, ‘you were supposed
to run away!’
Never in my life have
I been so exhilarated, so pumped with adrenaline and so concerned
for my life. I knew that I would have no chance against a cat
larger than myself. While stooped, I picked up two stones, preparing
to stone myself out of this seemingly bleak situation in which
I had now found myself.
I moved backwards,
slowly. But the jaguar, with its eyes fixed on me, kept coming.
At what point it discontinued
its advance, I can’t remember. For the next few seconds my fight-flight
response was so heightened that it blanked my memory. My next
recollection was running back to the beach, shaking and still
clenching the two stones, to tell my group. All but one of them,
Carroll-Anne, were swimming. In a frenzied state I said to her,
“There’s a jaguar back there, come and see it!” Seeing my shaken
state made her reluctant to follow.
The jaguar was still
there upon my return, but had moved further into the forest. However,
we both got a glimpse of it before it turned disappeared completely.
I was glad to have a witness to my story!
In retrospect, I realize
that my actions during this encounter with the jaguar were wrong,
and had put my life in Peril. Initially I underestimated how perilous
face-to-face meetings with jaguars can be. Under certain circumstances
jaguars will attack people, sometimes fatally. Perhaps I had come
close to providing those circumstances.
I was very excited,
but not at all concerned when I stood staring at the jaguar, as
I was sure that it would flee at any moment. Had I maintained
my upright posture during the encounter, the jaguar may well have
done so. But, cats are very impulsive in nature, and I realize
now that by stooping to drink water from the creek I had invoked
it’s hunting response. Furthermore, by moving backwards after
it had begun stalking me, I had prolonged this response. If I
had attempted to run away at this moment the jaguar may very well
launched a full-blown attack on me. Realizing this at the time,
I made absolutely sure that the jaguar was no longer pursuing
before attempting to run back to the beach to tell the others.
on Christmas Day, 2001, is perhaps the best Christmas present
I had ever received. I don’t regret behaving inappropriately in
the presence of this large cat, for otherwise the encounter may
not have been so exhilarating. My only regret, though, was not
having a camera with me.
My first encounter
with a jaguar came on a February night in 1997, while leading
my `Osa Extreme’ adventure expedition through Corcovado National
Park. It was on the fifth day of this 10-day adventure that we
undertook the 16-mile hike from Sirena Station, in the center
of the Park, to San Pedrillo Station in the north.
This is an awesome
hike. It is long and passes through some of the most remote and
beautiful parts of Corcovado. From Sirena, the first 11 miles of
this trail is all beach. This beach is the second longest on the
Osa Peninsula and frequented by nesting turtles. Jaguars patrol
this stretch beach nightly and prey on these turtles – their abundant
pugmarks in the sand attest to this!
view of Playa Llorona
in Corcovado National Park
Intersecting this stretch
of beach are three rivers: the Rio Sirena, the Rio Corcovado and
the Rio Llorona, each equidistant from one another. The estuaries
formed by these rivers are influenced by the tides, which make
them fordable only at, or near low tide. This adds an imperative
to the hike, therefore. An hour and a half before low tide is
the soonest one can leave Sirena Station to ford the first River,
the Rio Sirena. The second river, the Rio Corcovado, over five
and a half miles away, does not usually present a problem as we
arrive there just after low tide. But, unless one hikes the next
five and a half miles quickly, the Llorona, the third river, is
likely to be too deep to cross. Building a raft on which to float
ones pack is often the only solution.
This hike presents
two further problems. Firstly, the beach hike offers no shade.
By day, therefore, one is at the mercy of the baking sun. I solve
this problem by undertaking the hike at night. Bathed in either
moonlight or starlight, hiking at night along this stretch of
beach is awesome. Often, bioluminescence causes the breakers to
flash green and the sand beneath our feet to sparkle.
The remaining problem
faced on this hike is not so easily solved. These tidal estuaries
are home to large crocodiles, and each incoming tide brings bull
sharks, both of which feed preferentially at night. When crossing
these rivers, one can only entrust ones fate to luck or whatever
vestige of compassion these two infamous predators may posses.
They certainly add spice to the hike!
On that February night
in 1997, at 1:30am, I departed Sirena Station for the hike to
San Pedrillo Station. With me were three rather nervous people,
a middle aged American couple and a young Canadian woman. We had
watched the bull sharks patrol the mouth of the Rio Sirena the
previous day, and were now a little apprehensive about making
the crossing. The eyes of three crocodiles glowed in our flashlight
beams as we crossed, so we were quite relieved when made it safely
to the other side. Two more crossings and 16 miles of beach and
jungle now lay before us.
We do not need to use
our flashlights on the beach, as the ambient light from the moon
or stars is sufficient to illuminate our way. However, every 50
yards or so, I shine my flashlight ahead to look for wildlife.
On previous occasions I had seen turtles, tapirs and ocelots,
so I was quite optimistic about seeing animals as we began our
hike along the beach. However, as time passed and nothing appeared,
my optimism began to diminish.
Some two hours into
our hike, just as my diminishing optimism was giving way to despair,
I caught a glimpse of a pair of green eyes in my flashlight beam,
some distance ahead. ‘A jaguar’, I thought. I kept my flashlight
fixed on the spot and picked up my pace. I felt sure that if it
was a jaguar, it would disappear into the forest upon seeing my
flashlight. So I was anxious to confirm my suspicions from the
pugmarks it will have left in the sand.
The green eyes appeared
in my flashlight beam again. Saying nothing to the others, I picked
up my pace still more. The eyes appeared yet again!
As I approached I could
make out two forms on the beach ahead. The green eyes again appeared,
and as I neared I could make out the form of a jaguar crouched
on the sand. Closer still, I saw that it was eating a turtle.
Aghast at the scene
before me, I halted. I prayed that the jaguar would remain there
until the others, now some ways behind me, arrived. I flashed
my flashlight in their direction to spur them on. The jaguar turned
its head to look at me again, its eyes gleaming in the beam of
my flashlight, and then continued to feed on its kill.
We could scarcely believe
our eyes as we stood about 10 yards away watching the jaguar nonchalantly
eat the turtle. Our hearts pounded with excitement. The jaguar
seemed only mildly perturbed by our presence, for it continued
eating, glancing back at us quizzically only occasionally. Our
flashlights had obviously confused it.
After feasting our
eyes on this amazing scene for what seemed like ages, Nelson asked
me if we could move closer, to within flash range of his camera
– three meters! I asked Judith, his wife, and Tannis, the Canadian
woman, to stay behind as Nelson and I inched forward. The jaguar
looked at us again, and then continued eating once more. Nelson
began taking photographs, his flash going off repeatedly.
The jaguar then left
its kill and began approaching us. Our hearts pounded audibly.
Like a seasoned photographer though, Nelson continued shooting.
The jaguar then began walking past us, at which point Nelson ran
out of film and had to make a quick change. He then continued
The expression on the
jaguars face as it came towards us was one of curiosity, not malice.
That was reassuring! In my experience I have found that animals
are very often bemused by a flashlight. Being dazzled by the beam,
and unable to see what lies behind it, animals often remain motionless
or show little fear. It was certainly the case with this jaguar.
to walk past us up to the forest fringe of the beach. There the
jaguar lay down. Nelson, still shooting, and I followed it. By now
its curiosity had turned to suspicion, and it rose and disappeared
into the forest.
With our minds reeling
from the encounter we now turned our attention to the ill-fated
turtle. It was a Pacific green that had been intercepted by the
jaguar before it had had a chance to lay its eggs. The jaguar,
a relatively small female, had overturned the large turtle, delivering
a fatal bite to its head. It then began eating into it from the
hind flippers to get at the unlade eggs.
his two reels of film as though they were made of gold, declaring
that they were his most treasured possessions. Time was pressing
though, and the tide rising. We had still to cross the Rio Corcovado,
a short way ahead, and the Rio Llorona, some six miles away. We
could talk of nothing else but the jaguar and our good fortune as
we hiked. But, as we proceeded it was becoming apparent that we
were not going to reach the Rio Llorona before it was too deep to
the Rio Llorona
We scoured the beach
around the Rio Llorona for suitable materials from which to construct
a raft. Fortunately, balsa logs, fishing floats and bits of rope
were in copious supply. We began construction ever mindful of
sharks and crocodiles. Beaming with pride at our handwork, we
launched our raft, placing our packs on its deck. It floated admirably,
and we began swimming across the Llorona pushing the raft. Judith
and Tannis were very worried about crocodiles. Sharks concerned
me much more. However, Nelsons only concern was getting his two
roles of film across safely!
An adventure of a lifetime!
This was the unanimous opinion of us all. Nelson promised to send
me copies of his jaguar photographs as we bid each other farewell.
I couldn’t wait. Some weeks later a package addressed to me arrived
at my door. The photographs! However, I opened the package to
find only one picture of the jaguar inside, and several shots
of the hapless turtle. I was disappointed! In his accompanying
note, Nelson told me that he must have been just outside the flash
range of his camera, and that, with some enhancing, had managed
to develop only one shot. My disappointment, however, was to a
degree mollified by the knowledge that images of this jaguar encounter
will for always be stamped on my mind.
To be continued……
a biologist, wilderness expedition guide, and the president of
Osa Aventura. You can contact him at at firstname.lastname@example.org