The ethereal yaguara of costa rica

“The beast that kills in one bound.”

That’s what Yaguara, or jaguar, translates to from its original Guaraní Indian.

The largest cat in the Americas, jaguars have been revered through countless native mythologies for their stealth, beauty, and power. Spots like dark roses bloom from their pale coat, and in the dappled light of jungle forest they blend seamlessly with shadow and stillness.

These golden-eyed cats span from southern Arizona to northern Argentina, but their numbers are thin. Endangered throughout their territory, every haven for their populations is precious.

A Jaguar in the forest
A Jaguar in the forest

Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica was founded in 1975 to protect the forest during a gold rush. Now, it’s considered the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s park system and estimated to shelter around forty jaguars. 

But that’s not all that’s found in the Corcovado. According to Osa Conservation, the entire Osa Peninsula houses 2.5% of all global biodiversity. Impressive, considering the landmass itself is less than .001% of a percent of the globe’s total surface area. National Geographic once rightly dubbed Corcovado “the most biologically intense place on Earth.” 

Looking out across treetops in this jungle oasis, you see a rough sea of leaves. In early morning the trees are mostly still as mist rises from their verdant crowns in breathy ribbons. Before rain, the jagged carpet of green shakes and rustles in the wind. Neither time is silent: everywhere, the chittering of birds and thrum of insects rises in an exotic chorus.

When I’m in such remote wildness, my moments of awe feel like stolen treasures. Who am I to be sitting in this cathedral of sound, surrounded by this lush, dripping color? By what stroke of luck do I get to witness to such perplexing beauty of bird wings, flowers, snake scales?  

Corcovado National Park sunset
Corcovado National Park sunset

Visiting any biodiversity hotspot on the planet engages you in a delicate interplay between humanity and biology.

We care about what we know, what we’ve seen, what we’ve interacted with, first-hand. A video of a three-toed sloth on the internet is an adorable diversion. But looking directly into one’s eyes in its native jungle—that can be a profound experience. 

Ecotourism is at the heart of conservation efforts around the world. It doesn’t eliminate all local needs; illicit logging, mining, and poaching can still take place. But by bringing in tourists, a new, less-destructive economy is offered to the region. And as more people engage with the land and build their own relationship to it, the more people care about protecting it.

Of course, there are nuances. Too much tourist traffic can threaten a habitat, can do more harm than good. Some creatures need spaces that are fully human-free. But without supporting local economies, any conservation effort is likely to fail. That’s why Wheel and Anchor makes sure to support small-scale businesses like ecolodges and naturalist tours, people and programs that are dedicated to sustainable travel. 

Animals on the Osa are largely unfamiliar with humans. They’re not used to being touched or fed or captured. Unhabituated like this, they are a delight: It’s possible to sit from the comfort of a porch or the depth of the jungle and see marvels. 

One of Costa Rica’s 54 species of hummingbird may whir past, or howler monkeys can start up their stuttering hoots as you sip an evening cocktail. From leaf-cutter ants trailing along the forest floor to glass frogs clinging to the undersides of leaves, the wild beauty of the forest encompasses everything. 

Costa Rican hummingbird
Costa Rican hummingbird

Corcovado is one of the most likely places in the world to see a jaguar. They can be seen from a distance, perhaps prowling beaches as they look for one of the four species of sea turtles that lay eggs in Corcovado. They have been found in rivers, wrestling Cayman or small crocodiles. Thankfully, humans are not on their menu.

The chances of glimpsing one during a day hike is slim. Their stealth is so great, even people who research them can go years without seeing one. Instead, they use expansive networks of heat-triggered trail cameras to track the massive cats. 

When they do happen, sightings are ethereal. First the massive shadow of a being is there, then in perfect silence, it’s gone again. 

It takes a huge amount of protected land to host an apex predator like a jaguar. To have so many of them is a testament to the biological richness of the park, as well as the excellent effort from conservationists and tourists alike to protect these commanding creatures.

Coming into the Corcovado is coming into a space where you are invisible to the animals that surround you. You are witnessing, without cages or boundaries, the authentic and behavior of some of the world’s most fascinating species. 

It’s places like this that I feel like a participant of something greater: a single individual in an immersive and natural existence, in concert with the ecosystems of life.

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