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Brush with a Jaguar in Santa Rosa National Park

by Dale Morris

The last hues of red and orange faded into deep blues and star-studded black as the setting sun vanished behind the rocky headland. When the last color had melted away and the cliffs merged with the blackness of the night sky, the surf line erupted with a heaving mass of reptilian flippers and hard keratin shells.

The air vibrated with the sound of slapping fins against wet sand and the grunting of gigantic animals struggling under the unaccustomed weight of their own bodies, the cradling support of the Pacific ocean now gone. They set about their task of digging up the sand, hurling it into the air in all directions as they methodically excavated their nests.

During the next few nights, not hundreds, not even thousands, but tens of thousands of these animals will come ashore at this remote beach in Costa Rica's Santa Rosa National Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

Santa Rosa is a testament to this country's commitment to its wild lands and the creatures that inhabit them. Before Spanish settlers arrived in the New World, a thick band of tropical dry forest skirted the Pacific coast from northern Mexico southward to nearly the border of Colombia. Now, only about two percent of this forest type survives, making it one of the rarest habitats on Earth. Virtually all of the remaining two percent is found within Santa Rosa National Park and neighboring protected areas (collectively called the Guanacaste Conservation Area).

Santa Rosa was originally founded to protect an historical farmhouse, scene of the nationally famous battle of 1856, when a small army of Costa Ricans took up arms and ran out a group of invaders from Nicaragua, led by filibuster William Walker.

But Santa Rosa is more than a whitewashed hacienda and a beautiful dry forest. Within the park's protected boundaries lies Nancite Beach, the only spot in the world where massive numbers of endangered Pacific olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) come to unload their precious cargo of eggs under the warm sands without fear of harassment and poaching from human beings.

My partner, Sasha Gilmore, and I were at the remote beach to collect data on the sizes of these arribadas (the Spanish name given to the mass nesting of marine turtles, which usually last from four days to one week). Our home for a year was the basic but comfortable little park house nestled behind the mangrove trees.

By midnight, this one-kilometer stretch of beach had become congested with 40-kg. (88-lb.) reptiles, in some places, stacked two or three high. The scramble to find a viable nesting spot had become a free-for-all riot. We were knocked off our feet (literally) while making our way as best we could up and down the beach. Our ankles and shins were bruised and swollen from the repeated butting and scraping of turtles that seemed totally oblivious to our presence. They had but one goal, to dig, to lay and to get this arduous job over and done with as soon as possible.

Nothing as insignificant as a couple of humans trying to collect data would get in their way. They ploughed strait through us. With up to 20,000 miniature tanks trundling their way towards us, beach space was at a premium. Sasha and I, armed only with our clipboards and data sheets, were treated with utter contempt. And this was only the beginning!

By the third night of this scenario we were both suffering from severe sleep deprivation. Coffee supplies had long since run out and we had begun to hallucinate. In the darkness we imagined the elongated shapes of nonexistent crocodiles lurking between the turtles, while human shadows flickered in and out of the edges of our vision.When we found ourselves falling into holes and landing flat on our faces more often than we were remaining upright, we decided to conduct our work on a shift basis. We would take turns sleeping in our hut behind the mangroves for a few hours while the other collected the data.

Finally, at three in the morning on the fourth night of the arribada, the number of turtles started to diminish. Eventually, there were less than a hundred turtles on the beach. This felt like a great opportunity to catch a quick nap before we declared the arribada "officially" over. I pulled my white sheet out of my backpack and made myself comfortable above the high tide mark on the beach.Within seconds I had fallen into a deep sleep, with the sound of the waves and the wind slipping easily into my dreams.

It seemed just a few short seconds later that I awoke with a sensation that something warm and wet had just touched my face. In my groggy, sleep-drugged state of mind I could just make out the silhouette of an animal standing over my outstretched feet, an animal which most certainly was not a turtle.In the near complete darkness I came to the conclusion that a rather bold coyote had discovered me on the beach, and had approached to take a closer look. I sat upright, fully expecting the coyote to realize it had made a big mistake, turn on its tail and flee back to the tree line. But the silhouette did not move.When I finally got my flashlight to work and pointed it at the offending animal I got the surprise of my life. Standing not two meters (about six feet) away from me, illuminated in the yellow light of my torch beam, was an almost full-grown male jaguar (Panthera onca).

Then some part of my conscious mind remembered the meter-long steel calipers, used for measuring turtles, which lay on the ground behind me. I grabbed them and began to beat the sand at the jaguar's feet. This went on for some moments, but eventually he turned and trotted away toward the forest. He stopped about ten meters away from me and turned his head to look at me one more time with those wonderful eyes.

Then, with a flick of his mottled tail, he was gone.

As the sun rose and the resident howler monkeys began their bellowing dawn chorus, Sasha and I returned to the scene of my encounter. In the soft sand, the imprint of my sleeping form was clearly discernible, and next to it, the prints of the jaguar's paws were placed on either side of where my head had rested.

All I have to do now is close my eyes and I can see him, framed by the beam of the flashlight: his sleek spotted body, his flicking tail and those beautiful yellow eyes. I can still feel the warm wet sensation on my left cheek.Many people come to Costa Rica with the hope of catching a glimpse of the world's most magnificent cat. And because virtually none of these people will realize their dream, I feel both privileged and honored to have had this experience. But never again, thank you very much.

Of course, jaguars have more to fear from humans than we do from them. The jaguar faces extinction in Costa Rica, primarily because of habitat destruction and persecution by farmers and hunters. But because of a growing awareness of environmental issues among average, everyday people, and partly because the newfound business of ecotourism, the jaguar (in Costa Rica at least) appears to have a more stable future.

You are not likely to see a jaguar on your trip to Costa Rica, but there are a few places you can visit to increase your chances. The Osa Peninsula, particularly Corcovado National Park, has the country's highest concentrations of these big cats. They patrol the beaches at night in search of egg-laying turtles. A patient observer, hiding in the undergrowth and armed with a flask of strong coffee, could get lucky. Jaguars are sometimes active in the early evening before the sun sets and the sky darkens.A walk through La Amistad National Park, along a stream bed in Santa Rosa or just about anywhere in Corcovado could reward you with a glimpse of big padded footprints in the sand or the mud. And even though you probably will not see the animal itself, your entry fee to the national parks will help support and ensure the jaguar's future here in Costa Rica.

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