Tales from the Jungle: Jaguar Encounters
by Mike Boston of Osa Aventura
I love 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.
Jaguar encountered at Playa Corcovado
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!
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.
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.
Waterfall at Playa Llorona
The five-mile 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.
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 away.
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.
This encounter 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.
Aerial view of Playa Llorona
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!
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 inmy 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 shooting.
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.
It continued 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.
Crossing the Rio Llorona
Nelson stowed 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 wade cross.
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……
Mike Boston is a biologist, wilderness expedition guide, and the president of Osa Aventura. You can contact him at at firstname.lastname@example.org