Tag Archives: wildlife

Jaguarundi Wildlife ID

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I still haven’t seen the puma.  It is beginning to feel pantomime-esque. It is behind me, surely? Fitz has not seen it either, and he’s been living here since the 1970s. His theory is that the puma gives him a wide berth because he has a jaguar spirit watching over him, or he is a jaguar spirit, or something like that, a ‘fact’ that was revealed to him as he ran naked and painted blue, through the forests of Peru, having ingested plenty of ayahuasca in the company of a shaman.  For a successful, cynical, sceptical, in some ways normal person, he is touchingly open to mystical baloney. Anyway, the basic thinking is that because in the game of  rock paper scissors , jaguar beats puma, the puma beats a respectful retreat when it hears him coming. I m not sure where that leaves me, unless I too have a jaguar spirit, which he says I will never know unless I go to Peru take ayahuasca and run naked and blue through the forests at night, which is not something I can see myself doing anytime soon.

However, walking near the plantain at the back of the beach today, I bumped into what looked like a super-sized weasel, dark, dark brown with hint of grey, and with long fat legs, a long fat tail, and the face of a cross cat. It was chewing with its mouth open (although on reflection, it may have been baring its teeth), and looked at me for several minutes as waves broke on the shore, and I considered whether or not to reach for my camera (I did not). It then slunk off in no particular hurry.

Back at the house I created a detailed artist’s impression on my phone (pictured), and, opening Mammals of Costa Rica at the jaguarundi page, spotted him immediately. The fact jaguarundis are supposedly common, detracted only slightly from the encounter. Incidentally, they also come in russet and pale tan, and a female can give birth to litter that includes cubs of each colour, much like a cat.

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Monkey Jumps

I’ve seen monkeys work up the courage to jump, change their minds, jump and miss, but I’d never seen a monkey bridge, so I’ve included it – please excuse the quality.

I thought about posting this under the title ‘Neck Exercises’. For the first month or so, it was a case of ratcheting my head backwards over a series of notches until my chin was pointed to the sky and I was ready for monkey action, but eventually my neck got longer and more flexible, ending up like one of those cheap desk lamps. There are three of Costa Rica’s four monkey species in abundance here: howlers, capuchins and spider monkeys.  Capuchins are deemed to be the most intelligent, however spider monkeys are the most riveting; fluid movers who appear to have a lot of fun.

I thought a lot about Jane Goodall, the British primatologist, as I waited under trees getting bitten.  Jane Goodall has a long, bendy neck. Goodall winged her way into studying chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania without experience or qualifications (which, with the support of Louis Leakey, she swiftly accumulated), and it was her intuitive, fresh  observations that revolutionised our thinking about primates and our uncomfortably close evolutionary connections with them.  Her findings were shocking and amazing: evidence of toolmaking, the extent of group collaboration, cannibalism, but her anthromorphic approach, the way she named the individuals she followed – David Greybeard, Fifi and Flo, and Mike, and attributed, as critics would say, personalities, was controversial. Is still.

That was in the 60s. Suggesting – or rather, pointing out, that primates have fun, is still not a fashionable scientific concept, but I defy anyone to spend time watching  spider monkeys in the wild and identify what we regard as human emotions and motivations in their behaviour, from affection, fear, and joy to cheekiness, sneakiness, plotting and cooperation.


Incidentally Jane Goodall circa 1960-1969 (minus the time studying for a PhD at Cambridge) is someone I very much wanted to be, as I grew up devouring old, damp National Geographics and books like Innocent Killers and Grub: the Bush Baby (okay, that’s confusing because I also wanted to be Grub – why did we have to live in a house? why couldn’t we live in a makeshift river camp?). Satisfying observations, a life in the wild, contributions to conservation; flip flops, shorts and Landrovers, and married to the rakish Baron Hugo van Lawick – it all looked great.



I refer you to Being Jane Goodall in an old copy of National Geographic. And Innocent Killers is still a great read.





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Forest Monster

danta tracks“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.

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Coatimundi Day

This Coatimundi – pizote – spent a month watching me from behind a frond on the forest edge before coming to investigate. He now passes daily on his way to the palm nuts or carambola trees.  Males are solitary and territorial; there’s competition for this patch, and he’s the underdog.

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On the Beach

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In better books the beach is not a place to take the kids; it’s the setting for dark deeds, unravellings, and disaster. If you have stood on a beach in Northern Europe, that will probably make perfect sense. Tropical beaches have a better PR, but palms, clownfish, and banana boat rides aside, they too inspire dark good reads such as  The Beach by Alex Garland, and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (fabulous in that we’re all doomed kind of way). The title, On the Beach, is naval slang for washed up, which is what I was thinking about when I started this some hours ago (I stopped to film spider monkeys by the window. . . just as a cartload of tourists arrived, researched the ‘cold snap’ online, rubbed repellent in my eye and spent some time in the bathroom trying to sluice it out, dried off in the sun, Skype-messaged Dave, and checked the hotel’s collection of books-to-swap ever hopeful that someone had taken some of the German ones and replaced them new books by Richard Ford, William Boyd and Joyce Carol Oates).

Anyway, I don’t mean washed up in a personal sense, although I am rather out of the Bob-a-Job freelance loop, but rather the stuff that gets tossed in and rejected by the sea, and washed up on the beach. I was  hard on the sea (The Narky Sea), but I love the beach, a place you can explore from scratch every single morning. And I get great pleasure from tracking the tracks – the fact I’m not alone in enjoying that early morning snuffling.

Two more quotes before moving away from the sea – figuratively, for now. The first is a perfect description of the sounds of the sea from Douglas Adams, So Long, and thanks for All the Fish: “from among it, voices calling, and yet not voices, humming trillings, wordlings, and half-articulated songs of thought . . .Greetings, waves of greetings, sliding back down into the inarticulate, words breaking together.”

 While I was searching for the Adams quote, I came across this, from Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Anna Quindlen, which I like very much indeed. I’m going to appropriate it and use it when I next stand next to a stranger at the Margarita Sunset bar: “I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.” Top stuff – although I can’t work out whether it’s supposed to be hilarious.

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A Beach, A Hack, A Hawk

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‘For a long time I was a reporter on a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is all too common, with writers’ says Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden; or Life in the Woods, ‘I got only my labor for my pains’. I hear you, brother.

There’s a lot in our trade who, like Thoreau, have gone to brood in woods. It’s not just that newspapers are paying half the money for twice the work. Or that flair and originality is regarded as a risk. Or even that enormous expense accounts and liquid lunches are a thing of the past. No, I think it’s that old hacks reach a point at which they’re tired of hearing and writing about other people’s lives, and want to live one of their own.

Walden also mentions the preoccupied man, accustomed to ‘survey the world through a telescope or a microscope and never through his natural eye.’ He would have added cameras if he’d known what was to come. There are a lot of prisms and buffers and barriers and distractions out there, but very few here. Not even glass in the windows. When the rollers are pounding the rocks out front, the air in the house is salty.

It’s all very refreshing. I’m enjoying the world so much, I can hardly even be bothered reading a book – and certainly not writing one.

The puma – because now I’m convinced it’s the puma – has left what used to be a bird under the palm tree in front of the house. Almost all the bones have gone. Small feathers stick to the mesh screen of the bedroom. I’d rather he  didn’t bring anything else.

Halfway along the beach there’s a brown hawk, sorting through stuff on a sandbank. I stop and stare at him, and he stops and stares at me. He’s got fat thighs; it looks like he’s wearing ridiculous golf trousers with yellow socks. He watches me – like a hawk actually. He’s indignant, waiting for me to make the first move, to clear off actually, but I’m not moving because I don’t want to scare him, so we’re both left standing there as the waves come in, and the waves go out one hundred times, and the sun gets up to the temperature that fries eggs.

Eventually I’m too hot and bored to deal with these niceties. I move on, and he flies off. I head to the end of the beach to inspect tapir prints, the bat cave, the waterfall, some hermit crabs. I try the camera out on timer and take a picture of myself from a really long way away. Pelicans do a flyover, scarlet macaws crack into wild almonds, howler monkeys do their hoarse, blood-curdling call from the jungly heights, frigate birds drift by, the king vulture circles, blue morpho butterflies the size of plates flap past. It’s like I’ve been photoshopped into a painting by Henri Rousseau. It’s all going on. Anyway, pausing by the bank where I’d seen the hawk on the way back, I’m having a poke around, trying to work out what he found so interesting, when I get the feeling I’m being watched, and turn to see him eyeing me from a few feet away. I feel pretty low, really embarrassed for being caught snooping. I back away under his imperious gaze.

So that’s my one social interaction of the day. I take a luke warm shower, put on clean damp clothes, listen to the iPod (Song of the Day: People Magazine Front Cover by Get Well Soon, flick through some notes and lists. Later in bed, I turn off the torch, and the night dissolves into light. Suddenly there are the stars, there are the palms, the rocks, the boats. Around 3am I think I hear the low thrum of a distant speed boat, maybe drug traffickers, way off the coast. I stand by the window for a bit looking for movement. Nothing.

I once sat cross-legged under a mosquito net most of the night at Il Ngwesi, Northern Kenya, prepared to protect George (about six or seven at the time) from a circling pride of lions. Off was my weapon of choice then, and it’s my weapon of choice again now. Although I can’t help feeling a tranquilliser gun would be quite handy.

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