Wildlife Encounters at Corcovado

Corcovado is unlike any other park I've visited within Costa Rica, immense in size and far wilder, with just a few trails piercing into its depths. It's been referred to as the crown jewel of Costa Rica's national park system. Its rugged coast is lined with coconut and almond trees, with waterfalls pouring down volcanic cliffs into the ocean. Just beyond the sand, a dense jungle teems with life, ancient trees towering out of the canopy, a rare sanctuary preserved in its untamed state. Due to the various safety concerns, a guide is mandatory when visiting here. His name was Carlos. First thing after my arrival was a safety briefing. Much of the danger was due to the presence of large cats in the park, particularly Puma and Jaguar. While around camp we were instructed not to sleep on the beach or hang out right next to the jungle's edge, both of which make for easy targets.

Travel into the jungle was limited to the daytime, and when we did so Carlos would take the lead. With a thick layer of large leaves covering the trail I took care to follow in his footsteps, not knowing where a snake might be lurking. Two species were of particular concern here, the Fir De Lance and the Bushmaster. The former is the far more aggressive of the two, responsible for about 90% of the snakebites in Costa Rica. Fortunately there is anti-venom for its bite, effective if administered within two to three hours. The prognosis for the Bushmaster's bite is far more lethal, clotting the blood and causing death within 15 minutes. Growing to around 5 meters, the snake has enough venom to bring down a large bull, and doesn't show restraint in the amount injected with each bite. Carlos told of a friend who had been bitten on his hand, and made the quick decision to sever it off with his machete, saving his life. I doubt I could have done the same. 

We climbed the ridge into the primary forest, Carlo's ears scanning the surroundings for movement. As we walked, and as we spoke, there was a repeated rustling just out of view, shadowing our movements. Carlos knew of only one animal that would track a group of humans and time its movements like that, the jaguar. He had a long history of studying these cats, including doing population counts at Talamanca National Park, and working as a tracker for National Geographic. An eighteen-year-old male lived in this area. Powerful apex predators, the jaguar's movements are stealthy, avoiding the main trail to avoid leaving tracks. It finishes off its prey in seconds of the attack, easily crushing skulls with powerful jaws. Curious but shy, it rarely attacks humans, preferring to only engage when it knows it has a sure kill. Like a ghost, it followed us for a good quarter of a mile along the ridge-line, pausing each time we did the same, as only a predator would, then disappearing into the jungle again as we dropped back down into the secondary forest. Later that day Carlos and two other hikers came across fresh tracks, confirming it was in the area.

One thing that's evident with the jungle here compared to other forests I've explored is the degree to which availability of sunlight is a primary constraint on the survival of flora. Unlike the forests of North America, fire doesn't play a role in this humid rainforest, so can't clear away vegetation to make way for new life. In intense competition for light, colossal trees race up to the heavens, survival favoring the tallest and strongest, the canopy blotting out most sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Each species has its own unique techniques for garnering the little available light. The walking palm for instance literally moves horizontally across the forest floor at a rate of up to a meter a year, growing new roots in one direction while the other side dies away, repositioning itself to where the sun breaks through. Other species such as the "tourist tree" (named for its peeling red skin) have evolved a green base layer on their trunks that aid in photosynthesis. And the mighty Strangle Ficus tree grows down from the canopy, first as a vine, wrapping then engulfing other already established trees.

For night two we took another boat ride further around the peninsula to Sirena, a ranger station at the heart of Corcovado. Hilo would be my guide for the day. The animal that I most wanted to see here was the Tapir, Central and South America’s largest native mammal. They can weigh in excess of 800 pounds. The species at this location was the endangered Baird's Tapir. Once common, its numbers have sharply declined due to hunting and habitat loss. Tapirs tend to be located around muddy bogs and lagoons, capable of holding its breath for minutes underwater, feeding with its long prehensile nose. Along the beach we found some tracks. Three toed and deep into the sand, they were each about as wide as my foot is long. After a few hours of searching we found him bedded down for the day's long sleep in a muddy creek bed. The next morning we found a second bedded down between some mangroves by the lagoon. 

As we went deeper into the forest we came across a group of about fifty White Lipped Peccaries. Although resembling pigs, they're actually not related, an example of convergent evolution filling a similar niche with a similar form. Far more aggressive than their evolutionary cousins the White Collar Peccary (aka Javelina), they're regarded as the most dangerous mammal in the jungle, said to charge when they smell fear. At first they clack their teeth to warn the group of a threat, which will turn to snorting and huffing before a charge, goring flesh with their large tusks. Large males surround the edges of the herd, standing guard watching for threats. They hadn't seen us yet, the whole pack moving towards us. We stood motionless on top of a suspended tree trunk, in preparation for if they decided to charge. Their fur was caked with mud from wallowing in the creek bed. A musky stench filled the air. When twenty feet away one caught a whiff of us and panic swept through the group, all clacking and snorting, at first not knowing which way to run. Ultimately it wasn't in our direction. My heart was racing. After they darted, my guide found a log to carry around for defense if they came back.    

The next day after some sunrise exploring, we headed to the landing and waited for the boat to arrive. Napping in the shade on the beach, the cool ocean breeze giving some relief from the humid air, I was awoken by the chatter of Spider Monkeys. Corcovado is one of the few places left in Costa Rica this endangered species still inhabits. For three days I had been attempting to get a clean shot of them, but they tend to forage high up in fruit trees hidden behind branches, out of reach from hungry cats. With their out of proportion limbs they cautiously made their way down from the canopy.  One by one they took a drink from a small pond in the streambed just meters away, and then zipped back up to where they’re less vulnerable. 

After a typical Costa Rican lunch of fresh fruit, chicken, rice and beans, we waded through the surf and boarded the boat. I felt as though I had only scratched the surface of this place, with so many other species that I had wanted to see. But after a month in wild Costa Rica, my trip was coming to an end. I was headed home, already hoping to someday return.