I had not appreciated the size of these beasts. Seeing them on the camera traps a mere 30 minutes before we collected the footage sent chills down my spine, counteracted only by the sheer excitement of seeing these magnificent creatures living in harmony with the earth, rather than in the confines of the wire-mesh prison in every city’s limits and on every tourist’s to-do list. A strange concept for us sapiens to grasp, let alone experience.
Before I arrived in the Tortuguero National Park on a wildlife conservation internship with GVI, I knew very little of jaguars other than that they are part of the “big cat” family. When I left, I felt I knew them in intimate detail, not only their feeding, mating, and territorial habits, but we’d become in a way a part of their lives as much as they were a part of ours. Two species sharing the same territory at different times, as is the proclivity of cats to timeshare and avoid any conflict. Though, we were there in support, not like the history of poachers fetching near a thousand US dollars a pelt.
We were lucking in that in addition to the GVI training from the Jag team leads, Ian from Coastal Jaguar Conservation (CJC) came in to the GVI camp and presented to us in the kitchen building. Those hard, wooden benches felt so cosy against the reality of the jungle on our doorstep and the things that skulk about in the undergrowth. I wasn’t expecting to have my views change on that front.
It worried me, all those wildlife documentary films of big cat predators lurking in the undergrowth ready to take down their prey in a brutally savage strike, and those folks back home pre-trip flickering terror and admiration in their eyes as I told them what I “knew”. We knew there were often unseen eyes locked on us from the vegetation as we walked the high-tide line of the beach assessing their kills, recording all we could about the nature of the turtle carcasses that came to rest, rather abruptly, on the sand before us.
When we think of big cats we often think of savage killers, but notwithstanding the fact their shells are as tough as nails, the turtle kills were always clean, swift-looking, and precise. Tight jaws and a snap of the neck separating a far-travelled mother giving birth to a hundred-or-so precious eggs and just an opportunistic meal to an apex predator, a simple exchange of nutrients from one being to another. In reality, there was no real sense of danger here for us, as long we were respectful and behaved so. Why are the turtles so precious? Because we’re also apex predators and in our numbers, we have done more damage to them than these surviving jags ever could.
We learn the jags represent a very small percentage of turtle deaths in comparison to human actions, that information is surprising an unsurprising all at once. They predate on the turtles because it’s easier, because we’ve destroyed their home. We have squeezed the habitat forests in our grip (in the name of development!) like the neck of a cartoon character, and here in the real world it chokes the life out of thousands of species. It’s a testament to their quick adaptability that they have learned to survive our doings. Evolution hasn’t been given an inch to effect its grindingly slow changes, through generations of trial and error and testing. Ian tells us of their cunning and intellect, that they exhibit behavioural changes seen nowhere else in the world that buys them time and life in the thinning trachea of the jag habitat running north to south in Costa Rica. Thankfully, organisations like CJC are there on the front line to collect the data governments need to bring back some semblance of balance to our world. And I suppose we should be more thankful that the government of Costa Rica is prepared not only to listen but also to act, in some way, to protect them. Others around the world too easily favour habitat for one species and their largely fictional commerce over habitat for the other 8.7-ish million species we “share” the planet with. For us it means we’re later for work, or we have to take public transport or walk to the shops, or live in smaller houses, but for the jags these corridors are lifelines to food, water, avoidance of overcrowding in a territorial species, and of course reproductive success and genetic diversity.
Ian’s talk was as far from a city-zoo talk as it could be: it was real. We were living in their home, they were the silent watchers, the guardians of the jungle, the natural apex predator, the “all strings of the food web lead to them” big cats. Ian told us of the uniquely evolving behaviours of these resident jaguars, how they learned to deal with overcrowding and territorial disputes, how they differed physically to other races throughout the Americas, how they hunted turtles, and how to examine and record those kills: the flies and detritivores, the discolouration of the bones, the marking of the shells, the drag marks in the sand, the alien act of putting a stick inside from where the neck used to be to measure how much meat has been eaten, and counting eyes. Zero, one, or two?
We learnt of their rosettes and IDs, the characters of each residents, all of their habits and quirks. And most importantly what to do if you are unexpectedly greeted by a jag out in the wild, where there is no fence, no glass screen, no khaki-wearing handler waxing lyrical over a microphone, nothing but the heaviness of the respect of one species toward another and the anxiety of both species wanting to get away unscathed in the cold war of stand-off survival – we, it turns out, herd together. The lesser species, making ourselves look as large as possible (that’s a cat trick if ever there was one) and back away slowly. Then we cancel surveys for the rest of the day while the adrenaline and cortisol normalise in our systems. I never saw one, but fellow volunteers did. Once on a night walk along the beach to survey green turtles – it sat patiently waiting for them to leave the turtle so it could dine, but it decided to move off to another spot after scaring them all to near death – and once on a turtle nest-check survey on a sunny morning when a desperate paca (large rodent species) ran from the undergrowth onto the beach with a jag on its heels. Both skidding to a halt, the paca circling in indecision in a stalemate between humans and a cat. The paca bolted and the jag gave up the chase leaving bewilderment and astonishment the only prizes for the volunteers. We would need this information not only for our safety on a daily basis in the jungle, but for the higher-risk activity of doing “Jag Walk”.
Each week a select few would make the 15-mile trek on sand. Some of us would go in rain, when the hem of the ocean on the horizon was indecipherable between the greyness of the sky and the sea, and some in the picture-postcard blue skies and golden sand with the unrelenting tropical sun bearing down on us. But, all of us went in wet crocs and sandy socks, one way or another, through the strong clawing fingertips of the Caribbean Sea waves trying to claim the beach and all that lies upon it for its own greed. It’s some of the best exercise you’ll ever get, trust me.
Out on the beach we learned how to move, against our instincts, towards a fresh kill, part in fear for jags returning to feed and appearing from the bushes – the casts of vultures squabbling and organising themselves in a pecking order to skittishly tear chunks of flesh from inside the carapace was a good sign a jag wasn’t present, but it wasn’t fool proof – and part in realisation of what is required to put those camp-learnings into real practice. The only things we were not prepared for were the eeriness of fresh jag tracks on the beach as wide as your outstretched fingers, really bringing home the size of these animals, and that smell of up-close rotting turtle when we surveyed them. It is truly something. Some things must be experienced to be believed…
Jag Walk felt like an expedition, some of those in camp who had not done it yet viewed it with the excitement and trepidation of a kid awaiting a first-time fireworks display, or an appearance by some Rockstar on stage, almost feverish in their expectations, asking lots of questions to the survivors on their return. Going into town had this effect too when you live in the jungle, without the rest of it! The truth is, it was right to be excited and nervous, when was the last time you walked 15 miles in such harsh conditions, so openly, with no real support lines (apart from the sat phone)? It was just you guys, the packs, and that hard, unwavering shoreline stretching out into the distance where it fizzled out into the haze of the heat rising from it. You were alone and you felt it. It was an exhilarating feeling. Setting out with the group into the wild, breaking every boundary known to you that had been set by normal life in suburban “Wherever”. You worked carcass after carcass and serviced camera traps until you had forgotten when the day started and when it might end. But it would end. The only real reminder of civilisation was trudging through Costa Rica’s share of the 8-million tonnes of plastic dumped into the oceans each year, somehow all of it at times found its way under your feet.
You arrive in Tortuguero town like some intrepid explorers returned from deepest Africa to the comforts of civilisation. I felt like I hadn’t seen a town in years. And that beer tasted so sweet. Of course, for Ian and CJC this was just another day in the office, a survey repeated countless times with solid devotion to the science and protection of these magnificent creatures, and the belief that things will improve. But for us it was an achievement, and we felt irrevocably connected to the jaguars by the end. I was lucky enough to share the walk with Ian and so we, and our esteemed GVI staff volunteer-leaders, were keen to eek all the knowledge and wisdom out of him we could get (Sorry Ian!). After all, we were talking to someone who figuratively wrote the book on Costa Rican jags. I am grateful for that, and for the work CJC do to conserve these beautiful animals. I am no longer fearful when I stand in the jungle knowing I am being watched by a jag, but I am far more respectful of them and I am ever more conscious of the ground beneath my feet and what I leave behind in my footsteps.
Strangely, as you draw your life choices into focus and question the importance of everything you do back home, you come away with a feeling that things may one day get better, I think I know where CJC get that from, now. I feel like I’ve really grown, closer to the natural way of life on earth, closer to the daily survival of the Jaguar. I wish I could go back…