Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

Big Spotted Felines


“Baarooom” resounded the hollow buttress-root of the Chilamate tree with each blow of the thick branch. Carmelita wasn’t sure which was louder, the “baarooom” of wood against wood or her pounding heart. Again she struck the hollow root. “Baarooom.” 

“Carmela honey,” her father’s voice penetrated the darkness before his silhouette came into view. “What’s wrong? What’s all the noise.” 

“Oh daddy,” she cried. “Thank god you’ve come. It’s el tigre come to eat our pigs, and probably me too. It was my turn to guard them. I tried to scare him away, but he keeps coming closer.” 

Hacienda Baru

The elder Morales took the club from her hand and struck the root, “baarooooom … baaroooom …  baaroooom.” He paused to listen. Nothing. “Baarooooom … baaroooom … baaroooom.” Another pause. Again he hefted the stout stick, but before he could swing, the jaguar’s snarl, ripped from within the jungle, through the coal black night, close-by, too close. He began shouting, “Go away devil cat. Leave our pigs alone.” 

Carmela saw the torches first. “Daddy, everyone’s coming, look!” Her uncle was in the lead followed by a cousin, her mother and aunt. All were carrying short sticks tufted with dry, frazzled pulp from the chonta palm and dipped in fat, flames dancing off the ends. They surrounded the group of 19 pigs and sang and shouted at el tigre. Again her father struck the root. “Barooom … barooom.” Time passed; the small group continued their vigil. Finally came the mighty roar of el tigre, this time from far away. “There’ll be another time,” it seemed to bellow. Carmelita’s father patted her head. “You’ve done your job well, honey. Go get some sleep now.” 

Nine year old Carmela Morales was traveling with her father, two uncles, an aunt, and three cousins. They were herding 19 pigs from their home in Boruca to the market town of San Marcos de Tarrazu, near Cartago. The incident described above took place in the year 1909, in Barú, where two rivers meet. This was not the only occasion when the jaguar tormented their camp. In fact, before the trip was over, el tigre would pick-off, one by one, eight of the 19 pigs including the only two belonging to Carmela’s family. 

Even when there were lots of jaguars in Costa Rica, actual sightings were rare. A friend of mine lived in the Osa Peninsula from 1960 to 1990. For thirty years he walked through every corner of what is now the Corcovado National Park. Not a day passed when he didn’t walk in the jungle, and during all that time he saw only four of the big spotted cats. Three of those were following herds of peccary (wild pigs.) Another friend, named Joaquin, was a park ranger for eleven years, during which time he was lucky enough to sight three jaguars. One was stalking a group of peccary and one was chasing a peccary. The third encounter was more dramatic. Joaquin was bending over to drink water from a stream when he felt a presence nearby. Raising his head from the stream he found himself staring into the eyes of an adult jaguar, no more than five meters away. The two contemplated each other for a few moments, finally the big cat turned an ambled away, apparently unconcerned about the human. 

The jaguar in the story at the beginning of this article probably wasn’t after Carmelita, but rather the family’s pigs, the jaguar’s favorite prey. Cristino Ríos tells of the days prior to 1940 when many families from Uvita cultivated bananas, most of which they used to feed their pigs. Once each year a group of several families would band together and drive a herd of pigs to the market in Tarrazu, near Cartago. The pigs were never left without an armed guard, otherwise the big cats would make short work of them. Cristino tells of the time he saw a jaguar sneaking up to the pig pen. He shot the big spotted cat broadside with a 28 gauge shotgun. It didn’t appear to be badly hurt, but turned and ran away. A couple of weeks later, a neighbor killed a jaguar with a 22 caliber rifle. Cristino went to see the dead cat, an old male. Upon close examination, he found buckshot under the skin on the same side where he had shot the jaguar a few weeks earlier. It had probably given up hunting in the wild and had taken up going from one farm to the next in search of domestic pigs. 

Though many of the pioneers of this region have had face to face encounters with jaguars, I know of only one person who was actually attacked by one. Nitos Gómez was walking home from work one day when a jaguar jumped out of the forest and charged him. He was carrying a 28 guage shotgun at the time and used the gun like a staff to fend the animal off. Finally he was able to maneuver the weapon into a position to shoot. Though stunned by the buckshot, the big cat was still able to escape. The following day Nitos and his brother Chuta decided to follow the cat´s trail. Just inside the forest from where the attack took place, they found the decomposing, partially eaten carcass of a peccary, which el tigre had presumably been eating when Nitos surprised him. In reality the jaguar had not attacked Nitos with the intention of hurting or killing him; it was merely defending its prey. The two brothers tracked the cat for two days. The trail ended at the mouth of a cave. The stench from inside told them that el tigre was dead, but neither felt sure enough about this to venture inside. 

In the 1940s, when Lencho Espinosa was a young boy, he had a face to face encounter with a jaguar that he will never forget. It took place near Dos Bocas where he was hunting wild pigs with his uncle Marvin. 

The two men had been following a large bunch of white-lipped peccary. They moved up to the ridge line and skirted the herd. After about 30 minutes they worked their way back down to where the pigs would probably be. Coming around a big tree next to the creek they came face to face with a herd of around 150 peccaries. Lencho scampered up a tree for safety. Marvin held his ground, raised his 28 gauge shot gun, fired, and hit a big boar broadside with a full load of buckshot. The boar dropped to its knees momentarily, but quickly regained its feet and bolted off with the fleeing herd. “He won’t git far,” shouted Marvin. “Git yer butt down outta that tree and let’s go.” 

They followed the blood trail about 300 meters but never spotted the boar. Suddenly they came face to face with a big sow. Marvin fired head on at close range. She dropped near a large fallen kapok trunk, and lay on her side kicking and twitching. Marvin nodded at the dying sow. “I don’t wanna waste no buckshot on her. Bleed her out and gut her. I’m gonna go after the herd an’ see if I kin git us another one.” Young Lencho didn’t have a gun. He didn’t even have a real machete, only a broken hand-me-down about a foot long. It would do to remove a pig’s entrails. Lencho cut her throat and watched the blood pour out on the ground. 

Suddenly from behind him Lencho heard a loud “thump, thump” of something striking the hollow kapok trunk. He whirled around to find himself face to face with a jaguar, the mighty claws of both paws gripping the trunk, enormous head and chest at eye level. The boy leaped over the sow to put her between him and el tigre. The big cat eyed him. Lencho whacked a limb of the fallen trunk with his knife, hoping to scare it away. It flattened its ears and crouched. The eyes narrowed to form small black beads. The sow kicked a leg and shuddered a dying spasm. Lencho slapped her belly with the flat side of his knife, “whap.” Again, “whap.” The jaguar raised up slightly, thumped the trunk again with its paws and looked at the sow. Its tail began to wag, the last thing a jaguar does before attacking. It occurred to Lencho that el tigre was more interested in the pig than in him, and also that it had probably taken the wounded boar. Then he remembered his uncle Marvin. 

Tio, tio,” he shouted, for all he was worth. “It’s el tigre come to eat our pig.” 

“I’m on the way,” echoed the distant shout. 

The jaguar perked up its ears and snapped its head toward Marvin’s voice. Then, like magic, it disappeared. Lencho heaved a sigh of relief. Thinking back on the incident he doesn’t recall being afraid, but was certainly impressed by the power and magnificence of the big cat. 

Jaguars have played a fascinating role in the history of this region. Everyone I know who lived here prior to 1950 has told me of at least one personal experience with a jaguar in the wild. Remembering the stories told to me by these pioneers always makes me feel a little closer to these magnificent beasts. To my knowledge the last jaguar sighting in the twentieth century was on Hacienda Barú in 1957. Manuel Angel Sanchez, then administrator of the hacienda, reportedly shot and killed a jaguar that had killed two of his hunting dogs. 

In May of 2009, Dennis Garber was leaving his home in Punto de Mira, about seven kilometers from Dominical. He backed out of his driveway in his flat-nosed KIA truck and started up the road, which was forested on both sides. Just as he was clutching to shift into second gear he caught a movement out of the corner of his left eye. The large spotted cat walked calmly out of the forest and into the road. Dennis braked abruptly and shut off the motor. El tigre stopped in the middle of the road, turned and looked at the truck. In spite of the intense emotion he was feeling Dennis forced himself to remain calm enough to look at the magnificent animal objectively, estimate its height at the shoulder, body length, tail length and carefully observe its form and general appearance.  After a short pause the jaguar crossed to the right-hand side of the road, walked a short distance in the same direction Dennis was headed and veered off into the forest. 

Dennis backed up the truck, pulled into the driveway, ran into the house and told his wife what he had just seen. They got out a mammal field guide and checked the photos and measurements. Everything matched. Dennis Garber had just observed an adult jaguar, the first to be seen in this area in more than 50 years. Other sightings have been reported to ASANA and to me personally, and some of these may very well be valid, but most of were related second hand. Dennis’ experience is totally convincing. 

The March 2009 issue of National Geographic Magazine has an excellent article by Alan Rabinowitz, world expert on jaguars. The author is working to consolidate an international jaguar corridor that begins in Mexico and extends to Panama. This is the same corridor that was originally called the Path of the Panther and later the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Rabinowitz has taken the reins in the project and is coordinating with the governments of the Central American countries to make it happen. The jaguar that Dennis Garber sighted could be using our area – known as the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor — as a corridor between the Los Santos Reserve and the Corcovado National Park. It is also possible that it has taken up residence here. Only time will tell. 

Due to the thrill of seeing a large spotted cat, ocelots, though much smaller, have been mistaken for jaguars. If you see either, it is important to observe it carefully and estimate the height at the shoulder and the body and tail lengths. If any of you readers sees a large spotted cat, please contact me at [email protected]. The information will help to determine the status of these beautiful animals in the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor. 

I have never seen a jaguar in the wild, only in zoos. Even when seeing them through bars, I always stand in awe of their utter beauty, the velvety coat, the rippling muscles and the raw power. For me, a wild sighting would be the epitome of all possible nature experiences. In reality though, I must accept that it will probably never happen to me.