Mike is an honor’s biology graduate of the University of Portsmouth and is the owner / operator of Osa Aventura, the premier guiding outfitter for Corcovado National Park, and has led groups into the Park for the past eighteen years. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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! This still remote backwater of an amazing country possesses a spontaneous and fickle charm that confounds one’s expectations and a seductive serenity that beguiles those of us fortunate enough to experience it. The Osa has a way of enriching one’s experience of life and 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 precious memories and have many a tale to tell.
One of those memories from Christmas day, 2001, however, stands head and shoulders above all the rest!
I had arrived at Playa Llorona with a group of seven enthusiastic people having just hiked the 7.5 kilometer trail from San Pedrillo. The trail meanders through some of the most majestic rainforest in Central America among trees towering as high as 60 meters above us. Our progress had been interrupted by a large heard of menacing white-lipped peccaries, considered to be the most dangerous mammal in the Neotropics.
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. But several males stood menacingly on the trail facing us with the coarse hairs on their backs raised and sniffing the air. The atmosphere was tense and the air reeked of their musty odor. We were at a safe distance though and stood our ground until the herd finally disappeared.
We arrived at Playa Llorona around midday, 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. As I stood above the creek I saw a jaguar some distance away. “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 look. The jaguar must have shared my intentions, however, for when next I looked up it was staring at me from only 10 meters 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!
Jaguars are large, powerful cats weighing up to 140 kilograms. 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 is not entirely clear, but it certainly makes one feel more at ease when entering the forests that jaguars haunt. However, my hitherto rather blithe regard for how dangerous jaguars can be was severely shaken on that Christmas Day!
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 coming towards me. “Damn it!” 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 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. We both got a glimpse of it before it turned to disappear completely.
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 too 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 its 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 almost certainly would have 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!