“Besides the lions and tigers and other animals which we already know, or which have been described by illustrious writers,” scratched Peter Martyr with his inky quill , “the native forests of these countries”, (referring to the dark space that became Central America), “harbour many monsters.”
Martyr, an Italian writing in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, was the greatest of all correspondents. He never travelled to the new world, but he is responsible for De Orbo Novo, the best and most exciting book about discovering it. His role, at the behest of the Duke of Milan, the Pope, Queen Isabella of Spain and various other highly-placed political players of the day, was to debrief explorers on their return to Cadiz, and to send detailed accounts. His long letters caused a considerable stir at the time; not only were they highly entertaining and evocative tales of derring-do, but they also contained intelligence that was key to political domination. De Orbo Novo covers three decades of correspondence.
Martyr was an astute and well-connected player, (he helped build interest and support for Colombus’ early expeditions), but also the archetypal Renaissance man, thirsty for knowledge, fascinated by interesting facts, gossip and drama. He provides vignettes of indigenous Indian society, the latest on the power struggles between rival leaders – or caciques, physical descriptions, information about medicinal plants and the custom in some parts of burying a favourite widow alive with her late husband. He keeps up with pirate activities and, of course, the endless wild goose chase for gold, as well as the fortunes (misfortunes) of the early settlers. He makes a special note of anything with potential scientific value and takes great care with his descriptions of flora and fauna. His is the first published description of both the potato and the pineapple. He liked the potato, however, he notes regretfully, he never actually got to try a pineapple himself, the only one that hadn’t rotted on the voyage back to Spain having been eaten in its entirety by King Ferdinand, but he has it on good authority from sailors that they are delicious.
He interprets the information he gets to make a good fist of describing the new world mammals. Of course there aren’t lions or tigers, so he got that wrong, but it’s fair enough to say there are ‘monsters’.
“One animal in particular” he continues in this particular bulletin to Pope Leo X, “has Nature created in prodigious form. It is as large as a bull, and has a trunk like an elephant; and yet it is not an elephant. Its hide is like a bull’s, and yet it is not a bull. Its hoofs resemble those of a horse, but it is not a horse. It has ears like an elephant’s, though smaller and drooping, yet they are larger than those of any other animal.”
I could add “it is there yet it is not there, it is endangered yet it is common”. This is the tapir, or danta. The population of tapir, specifically the Baird’s tapir, native to Central America, is in decline, but the population in the Osa seems to be healthy and rising. Every morning their prints are all over the beach. Everyone from the park rangers to the guides at the hotel has seen at least one – and often. And I know there is a tapir that totters north-south past the house on the beach every night between 6.30pm and 7pm, because I hear it, but never see it, and one night it ate all my bananas. But this elusive (yet not elusive) animal joins the puma on my ‘seen by all but me’ list.
I made a concerted effort to find one a few days ago, leaving at first light and following fresh tracks in the sand and through the plantains and then the forest into Corcovado National Park. Ending up in a swampy, muddy, dark place, I found something amounting to a tunnel through the foliage. At the end it widened out into an area of flattened leaves, and a muddy chute led to a small stream. There was a horsey smell (tapir) but also something else. I was quite happy thinking this was a tapir’s lair, and then I got to thinking how similar it looked to a puma’s lair, and how pumas had also been spotted along here, and decided to back out, at which point the skies opened and it got dark again and poured with rain, and I had to run back through the sea because the tide had come in.
But I have seen a tapir in Costa Rica. It was in a shallow concrete bunker, completely exposed behind railings, a shy and pathetic animal trying to make itself invisible while people threw Coke cans at it. This was Simon Bolivar Zoo, back in 1995. I loathe zoos. I’ve heard the self-serving good for education, breeding and research spiel numerous times.I find it extraordinary people still use it or believe it given that you can learn an infinitesimal amount more about an animal from a well-crafted wildlife film, and breeding programs are being carried in-situ all over the world using frozen sperm, dart guns and chicken basters.
It is possible that San Jose’s zoo might have improved over the years, but I found the experience so repellant I never went back. Like many people, I was amazed to discover there was a zoo in that congested, polluted corner of San Jose. Given the country’s much-touted wildlife protection record, the bunch of cages and their miserable occupants have been a bit of a dirty secret, an anachronism. However, good news: the Simon Bolivar Zoo along with the Santa Ana Conservation Center (‘home’ to around 400 animals, 60 species) is finally going to be closed down, and the date set for early 2014. “We are getting rid of the cages and reinforcing the idea of interacting with biodiversity in botanical parks in a natural way,” environment minister, René Castro, is reported as saying. The zoo still holds a tapir. It is possible, but unlikely, it’s the same one.
Anyway, having seen a pathetic tapir that couldn’t hide, I very much like Peter Martyr’s wild monster description (he’s rather overdone the trunk part). And I’m thankful that these Osa tapirs aren’t exposed but, 500 years after being described in De Orbo Novo, remain mysterious and harboured in the native forests, even if this means they’ll always give me the slip.