César stands watch at the front of our small boat as Carlos steers along the winding Rio Sierpe, from the Spanish serpiente, for serpent. Both young men, “Ticos” as the Costa Ricans call themselves, César with close-cropped hair and wrap-around sunglasses attached with a strap that hangs down the back of his neck, blue shorts that hang below his knees; Carlos, more shaggy hair and cutoff jeans, with thoughtful eyes as he gazes at the river ahead.
Sondra and I, with friends Tim and Elaine, are in the midst of a wildlife corridor called Paseo Pantera, “Path of the Panther,” referring to the jaguar (Panthera onca), third largest cat in the world and found in Mexico, Central and South America, and the barest sprinkling filtering north into southwestern United States. Paseo Pantera forms the southernmost link in the Wildlands Network™ Western Wildway©, the vision of a 6,000-mile-long wildlife corridor stretching from Alaska’s Brooks Range along the Rockies to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental and beyond. More than 20 conservation organizations have formed the Western Wildway Network to coordinate efforts along the mountain ranges that make up the “Spine of the Continent” that continues through Central America.
Working in the same region, but focusing specifically on the preservation of cat species, the Panthera organization takes its name from the genus that comprises the jaguar, lion, tiger, and leopard. Among its worldwide efforts to protect the Panthera species, the organization leads the effort to preserve Paseo Pantera through its Jaguar Corridor Initiative. “A jaguar corridor,” Panthera says, “is a cattle ranch, a citrus plantation, someone’s backyard—a place where jaguars can pass through safely and unharmed.” I’ve been in Costa Rica several times now, exploring one small piece of this corridor.
The Sierpe lies like glass, reflecting the tall forests of mangrove along its banks as we snake through the passageways. A mangrove swallow (Tachyneta albilinea) perches on the prow of the boat, allowing us a good look, metallic green on top and white below, before skirting away.
The mangrove forest we travel through is one of the largest in Central America, second only perhaps to the mangles of Belize. These are no puny head-high mangroves; but rather, trees fifty, sixty, a hundred feet tall towering over us like a deciduous forest.
However, these Rhizophora forests are evergreen, standing on stilt roots in the brackish water of the Sierpe delta, part of the Térraba-Sierpe humedal, or wetlands, where Rio Térraba and the Sierpe open to the Pacific Ocean. Eight mangrove species make up the forest—red, black, grey, and tea the most common. Carlos slows the boat so César can be heard above the noise of the engine.
“… not like other plants,” he is saying, “that drop their seeds on the ground. Mangrove seeds germinate while still on the tree and send down roots to take hold in the mud.” Or, the new seedlings can drop into the water and float away to root in a new location, typically on the inside of a bend in the river, where the water slows. “These forests are now protected; no one can cut a mangrove.” The Costa Rican government recognizes not only the value of the mangle in shielding the inland from hurricanes and tsunamis but also the economic value of ecotourism. César, Carlos, and their fellow guides, as well as support people back on the mainland, benefit from the U.S., Canadian, and European money flowing into the country from nature-loving tourists wanting to sample Costa Rica’s bounty.
A chestnut-mandibled toucan (Ramphastos swainsonii) passes overhead to touch down in a tree where two others have gathered. The largest of the toucans, the chestnut-mandibled gets its name from the reddish-brown chestnut color of the lower part of its huge beak that it uses to pick fruit from trees; the upper part of the beak, the maxilla, is yellow.
César calls attention to a three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus), lazily hanging in the top of a mangrove. In keeping with its name, the sloth seemingly makes no effort to move as we pass below. Noisy parakeets flock overhead, too fast to identify them.
Carlos points to an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) sleeping in the sun on the muddy bank, distinguished from alligators by their longer and narrower snouts. An additional odd difference, the fourth teeth on both sides of the lower jaw protrude through constrictions in the croc’s upper jaw when the mouth is closed.
Downriver, at the confluence where river meets ocean, the water swells. The tide is in, and the ocean rises and falls in waves as high as the boat. Carlos turns the craft to ride the trough between waves, maneuvering nearer to the port shore, but then turns into the waves, finally breaching the swells into the open ocean.
Caño Island lies on the horizon. Set aside as a biological reserve, Reserva Biológica Isla del Caño, the island protects a species-rich forest. We approach the island after bumping across the open sea. Coral-lined rock reefs lie just offshore where Carlos stops the boat. César joins us snorkeling.
A school of bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) passes under me, appearing so close in the snorkel mask’s magnification I suck in my belly. Other fish flick about the reef below—surgeonfish (Acanthuridae), king angelfish (Pomacanthidae), parrotfish (Scaridae). A whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) glides by.
Carlos then takes us to the north side of the island, the only area where we’re permitted to land; the rest of the island remains strictly protected. A small reserve station, the only infrastructure on the island, sits at the edge of the forest just above the beach, where we hop into the water and wade to shore. Archeological evidence indicates the island harbors remnants of the Diquis culture, one of the indigenous peoples of pre-Columbian origin who are credited with leaving granite spheres throughout the area.
A few days later, with Carlos once again captain and pilot of our small craft, Sondra and I head to the Osa Peninsula, passing Drake Bay, named for Sir Francis Drake, the 16th century English sea captain who at least saw the bay as his ship passed, if not actually landed, on his circumnavigation of the world. Drake spent much of his time plundering Spanish ships and settlements and so is considered a pirate by the Spanish but was knighted by England’s Elizabeth I.
Rounding the rocky point of the peninsula, Carlos guides our boat toward the shore at the Corcovado National Park’s San Pedrillo Ranger Station. Again there is no dock; so Carlos turns the boat around and backs toward the sand beach. We take off our hiking boots that we now have on and jump barefooted into the surf to wade ashore. After drying our feet and putting boots back on, we’re ready to explore.
Our guide is Marlon. “Like Marlon Brando,” he says. Marlon is another of the young Ticos who has been able to turn his love of Costa Rica’s nature into a job. “This is my office,” he jokes. Marlon hoists his tripod with spotting scope onto his shoulder and heads into the forest with us following. “We do have snakes,” he says, “but if you stay behind me and on the trail, there should be no problem.” In fact, Costa Rica is home to several poisonous snakes, including the deadly fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), sometimes called the “ultimate pit viper.” We stay on the trail.
Soon there is movement overhead. We look up through the sunlit leaves. “Monkeys,” Marlon quietly calls as we maneuver to get a look. Finally, I spy a spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) walking along the branches high in the trees, hand over hand and tail, resembling the movement of a spider rather than the jumping, running behavior of most other monkeys. Another hangs by its tail. They have rust-colored hair, but these primates are called “black-handed” spider monkeys for the black hands and feet dangling at the ends of their long arms and legs. Although relatively large, spider monkeys are slender. Remaining still and looking at us, they seem eerily human in form.
Along the trail we pass the massive trees of the Osa’s forest, which actually consists of thirteen ecosystems, including swamps, marshes, plateau and uplands forests, and cloud forest.
A white-faced capuchin (Cebus capucinus) runs along a lower branch, black with a white face and throat, and smaller than the spider monkey.
The capuchin was the companion of organ grinders, street performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who played an organ while the monkey performed tricks and held out a cup for coins. Better to see these primates in the wilds.
Farther into the jungle, Marlon points to unmoving black shapes in the canopy. Mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata), “mantled” for the fringe of gold or yellow guard hairs on their otherwise black sides, “howler” for the loud grunts the dominant male uses to disperse his troop to foraging places and also for males to locate each other and avoid confrontation. The females have a higher pitched call that’s not as loud. The calls startle the early morning and can be heard again at dusk. But this is the midday, and the small troop we’ve found is resting. Through binoculars, I see they are looking right at me, about the same size as spider monkeys, but more ape-like.
I am beginning to understand the biological “intensity” of the Osa. (See the sidebar, “Osa Peninsula.”) In the space of an hour, just a short walk from the park station, we’ve seen three of the four New World primates found in Costa Rica.
The fourth we had encountered earlier, squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii), the smallest of the four. True to their common name, we first saw a half dozen of the small brown monkeys climbing an electric pole beside a road and running along the wire, quickly snapping their tails back and forth to keep their balance.
Squirrel monkeys also came to the jungle house where the four of us were staying—peering at us from the lower canopy, and jumping, tumbling through the trees to arrive at their nighttime spot, a large balsa tree (Ochroma pyramidale) standing above the lower canopy. Although classified as a hardwood tree, the balsa’s wood is quite soft and lightweight, easy to carve, probably most commonly known in the U.S. as the wood for model airplanes. The native Baruca people of Costa Rica carve fantastical masks from balsa for use in their celebrations and festivals.
“Scarlet macaws,” Marlon calls quietly. And we head out of the jungle to the beach where he thinks they’ll be more easily seen. Two macaws (Ara macao) perch in a tree, side by side, surfing in the ocean breeze that comes up and holds them horizontal with the ground, their long tails streaming behind them.
Macaws are the world’s largest parrots, the scarlet macaw nearly three feet from head to tip of tail. And surely the most brilliant, with feathers of red, blue, yellow, and green so vivid the birds don’t seem real. When they finally take flight, they look more like colorful kites flying against the blue sky.
To complete our walk, Marlon leads us back along the beach. The tide is out, and we’re able to follow the shoreline, with an occasional detour through the forest. On one shortcut, we skirt a small marsh where a huge tree on the far side mirrored in the surface of the water has buttresses as intricate as a wood craving.
I’m reminded of Archie Carr’s description in his book on Central America, High Jungles & Low,
The clean rise of the pale tree trunks from the fluted slopes of their spread bases, together with the long aisles and vistas and the plunge of the liana-ropes from the green glow of the high domes down to the half-light of the understory, give the interior of the selva a spacious Gothic dignity not quite matched by any other forest.
The forests of the Osa Peninsula also harbor all five species of cat found in Costa Rica—the margay (Leopardus wiedii), jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi), ocelot, (Leopardus pardalis) puma (Puma concolor), and the elusive jaguar (Panthera onca). Alan Rabinowitz says in his account of work in Belize, Jaguar, One Man’s Struggle to Establish the Worlds First Jaguar Preserve, jaguars are sometimes called tigers, or tigres in Spanish, throughout most of Central America.
Only one of these felid species have I seen in the wild. In mountain jungle near Poás Volcano, north of San José, a black cat steps onto the trail, long and lithe, a jaguarundi as big as an average-size dog. We startle each other. I freeze. The cat turns and disappears back into the jungle. But in that second, I register the long tail, small head, and relatively short legs.
Of the five species, the margay is the smallest, a little larger than a house cat, while the jaguar is the largest, outranked in size among the world’s cats only by Africa’s lion and Asia’s tiger. The jaguar survives in numbers only in Mexico and Central and South America, having been eliminated by hunting in North America, which “has caused Americans to think of them as alien fauna,” says Tim Flannery in The Eternal Frontier, An Ecological History of North America and Its People. Once, Flannery explains:
Jaguar roamed the boreal forests south of the ice sheets 14,000 years ago, much as a few leopards still do in Siberia today. As late as the eighteenth century they survived as far north as the Tehachapi Mountains in southeastern California, the Grand Canyon, and into the Appalachians. Hunting by a carnivore-phobic European population eliminated the species north of Mexico… It is obvious that hunting, not climate, is responsible for this reduction…
In his essay, “The Green Lagoons,” first published in American Forests, Aldo Leopold tells of exploring the delta of the Colorado River with his brother in 1922 at the far western edge of Sonora where the river empties into the Golfo De California. He says they were “hoping to find signs of the despot of the Delta, the great jaguar, el tigre.” However,
We saw neither hide nor hair of him, but his personality pervaded the wilderness; no living beast forgot his potential presence… No deer rounded a bush, or stopped to nibble pods under a mesquite tree, without a premonitory sniff for el tigre. No campfire dies without talk of him… By this time (Leopold wrote in 1945) the Delta has probably been made safe for cows, and forever dull for adventuring hunters. Freedom from fear has arrived, but a glory has departed from the green lagoons.
But not quite. In 1996, Warner Glenn, a rancher and hunting guide, reported seeing a jaguar in the Peloncillo Mountains that run along the border of Arizona and New Mexico. In Eyes of Fire, Encounter with a Borderlands Jaguar, Glenn recounts riding his white mule, Snowy River, while trying to stay with his pack of hounds as they chased a cat he assumed to be a mountain lion. But when he got close enough to see the cat on a bluff, “I was completely shocked to see a very large, absolutely beautiful jaguar crouched on top, watching the circling hounds below …I had been 60 years waiting to see this beautiful creature. I said out loud to myself, ‘God Almighty! That’s a jaguar!’” Although a hunter all his life, Glenn had no desire to kill the jaguar, only to get his dogs away before the jaguar killed them. With Glenn swatting the dogs off with his hat and ducking down out of sight (“I wanted to give him some air”), the jaguar made its escape.
“One thing is for sure,” Glenn ends his account, “it will take all of our efforts to protect this animal and the wide open country it needs.”
Glenn refers to the “Sky Islands” region of the Southwest, an area of isolated north-south mountain ranges separated by desert and grasslands. Fifty-plus mountains stand above surrounding plains in southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northern Mexico, with the Peloncillo Mountains at the center of the U.S. portion. Also called the “Borderlands,” for obvious reasons.
The Wildlands Network coordinates with the regional Sky Island Alliance, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Northern Jaguar Project, and Mexico’s conservation organization, Naturalia, to preserve these mountains and their connections that are now threatened by roads, subdivision development, off-road vehicle use, and other human impacts. Not the least of these are the border walls, fences, searchlights, and patrols along the Mexico border that impede the path of migrating wildlife, including such rare mammals as Mexican gray wolves (Canis lupus baileyi), commonly referred to as El lobo, the most endangered subspecies of wolf in the world; Sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis), also an endangered subspecies; and the kit fox (Vulpes macrotis). Krista Schlyer outlines the perils to wildlife presented by the border wall in her beautiful online story map, Embattled Borderlands, “This is a landscape of wild surprise,” she says, “shared equitably by the north and south of the natural world.”
Obviously, a solid border wall does not bode well for the reproductive success of U.S. jaguars. Even if a few female jaguars are reintroduced north of the border, such a small population, if separated from the larger population in Mexico, is likely doomed to extinction, dividing the jaguar population into separate “islands” of the species. And as David Quammen emphasizes in his book, The Song of the Dodo, Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, “Small islands lose more species by extinction.”
Efforts to preserve the wildlife corridor in Central America, known as Paseo Pantera, “Path of the Panther,” began in the 1990s, led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, with funding support from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The WCS was founded in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society. Located in the Bronx, the zoo soon came to be called the Bronx Zoo, while the society kept the “New York” label until 1993 when it was renamed the “Wildlife Conservation Society” to reflect its worldwide efforts at wildlife conservation.
One of those credited with the vision of Paseo Pantera is Archie Carr III, son of Archie Carr, Jr., well-known sea turtle expert recognized as helping to originate the field of conservation biology, and Marjorie Harris Carr of Florida conservation fame. Chuck, as Carr III was called, became coordinator of Wildlife Conservation Society projects in Central America and the Caribbean. Chuck and Rabinowitz became close friends through their work with the WCS in Central America.
The WCS, with Chuck Carr leading the effort, proposed designation of biological corridors connecting relatively small areas where panthers (jaguars and pumas) are protected. Gradually, all seven countries of Central America accepted the Paseo Pantera vision, and the concept expanded to balance human needs and ecological protection, primarily through sustainable development. And with the addition of the five southern states of Mexico in the initiative, the linkage was renamed Corredor Biológico Mesoamericano, Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.
Despite the grand vision of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, Alan Rabinowitz says, “the primary focus on wildlife had been diluted as Paseo Pantera morphed from a strict environmental agenda into a bureaucratic framework meant to address not only conservation but also sustainable development and poverty alleviation.” While the refocus included these admirable goals, Rabinowitz remained focused on the wildlife corridor, working independent of other initiatives. His team focused on determining where the corridor was. “We were not creating a corridor; rather, we were looking for one that had already been created by the jaguar,” as evidenced by the studies showing there was only one species. (See sidebar, “Only One Jaguar.)
To replace MBC, or perhaps help it return to the original intent of Paseo Pantera, Rabinowitz began advocating for a “Jaguar Corridor.” In 2006, Rabinowitz was invited to speak at the Second Mesoamerican Congress of Protected Areas in Panama City, and after a passionate presentation of his work, he asked the ministers to formally acknowledge the jaguar corridor. Later, the ministers voted on a variety of issues, including Rabinowitz’ plea, and unanimously approved his request.
…in the final signed document promoting multilateral cooperation on environmental and social initiatives, the ministers resolved to support and implement the jaguar corridor project. The CCAD (the Central American Commission on Environment and Development) would help coordinate our activities in each of the countries. The decision was now part of the Declaration of Panama signed by all the ministers at the meeting.
As Florentino, called by his friends “Tino,” leads us through the jungle on the Caribbean cost of Costa Rica, he points to a tree. “Eyelash viper.” In fact, we see three that day, Bothriechis schlegelii of different colors—yellow, tan, reddish. Knowledgeable of his jungle, Tino says color variations can occur in these small snakes from the same clutch of eggs. They are arboreal with a prehensile tail. Modified scales over the eyes that are thought to aid in camouflage look like eyelashes. It’s an ambush viper that patiently waits for prey to come by, but it’s not particularly aggressive, which is only a little reassuring since Tino has told me to stand close to get a good look as a yellow one clings to the buttress of a large tree.
This sturdy Caribbean Tico, who grew up in what was then an isolated part of Costa Rica, intrigues me. When roads finally reached his home, Tino ventured from his paradise into the outside world, becoming a world traveler. He now spends part of the year in Amsterdam.
“That’s only one of the reasons I tell you not to touch anything,” Tino is saying. “Here’s another.” He points to a tree we might have grabbed as we walked along, “Bullet ant.” Paraponera clavata has a powerful sting and so is sometimes called hormiga veinticuatro, “24 ant,” referring to the 24 hours of pain from a bite. “They say it’s like getting shot with a gun,” Tino says.
“Have you ever been bitten?” I ask, wondering if the effect is exaggerated.
We have one more stop before ending this trip to Costa Rica. A daunting, extremely steep, winding, one-lane gravel road drops us into the Quetzal Valley. “I hope we don’t meet someone coming the other way,” I state nonchalantly.
Not getting a response, I look over at Sondra who has her eyes closed, but feels me glance at her. “Keep your eyes on the road!”
We descend into the deep valley in the Cordillera de Talamanca, a mountain range that runs through the southern half of Costa Rica to Panama. We’re in search of the resplendent quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, a member of the trogon bird family (Trogonidae). And splendid it is, at least according to photos I’ve seen, of iridescent green, gold, sometimes violet. The males have a vibrant red breast like a vest under their green tuxedo and long green tail feathers that flow behind as the bird glides through the air.
We see someone with a camera and tripod getting back in his car, and stop. “¿Habla inglés?”
He nods yes, and I ask if this is a spot to see quetzals. He points to a path up a steep slope. We park and climb the path to soon emerge onto a shelf of earth where apparently many have come to see the resplendent bird. Immediately in front of our platform stands a wild avocado tree, an important food source along with other fruit of the laurel family (Lauraceae). Soon a female quetzal lands in the tree. A gasp involuntarily escapes before I can put a hand over my mouth in fear of scaring the bird—the iridescence is more than anyone can expect. But no male is in sight.
We’re back early the next morning in hopes of seeing a male. Dawn creeps down the dense jungle of the steep-walled valley. As if calling the bird, light touches the avocado tree and a male quetzal appears, glides into the tree to rest upon a branch. This time I limit my reaction to sucking in a breath and slowly relaxing. With resplendent colors and long flowing tail, the bird was considered by the pre-Columbian Aztecs and Mayans as a “god of the air” and associated it with Quetzalcoatl, their feathered serpent deity.
The magnificence of both the quetzal and the jaguar have earned the reverence granted them by the Maya and the awe I feel in their presence.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Mayans thought the jaguar’s spots represented stars in the night sky, while “the people of the Amazon saw in the jaguar’s shiny, reflective eyes proof of its connection to the spiritual world.”
Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
An ebook copy of much longer text and complete references for the Paseo Pantera, Path of the Panther can be downloaded from amazon.com