In Costa Rica, photographing jaguars to help save them

OSA PENINSULA, Costa Rica — About 650 feet from the buildings of a remote eco-lodge in southern Costa Rica, an automatic camera last year shot a picture of a passing jaguar, a spectacular big cat that is one of the country's most endangered animals and the focus of strenuous conservation efforts.

The photograph is prized by conservationists who are collecting pictures of jaguars and four other big cats in an effort to monitor their populations and assess the health of the natural systems that support them in and around the biodiversity-rich Osa Peninsula.

Around 80 camera “traps” are now in operation on 13 Costa Rica properties belonging to eco-lodges, ranches, conservation organizations and private individuals who are cooperating to create a more accurate picture of big-cat populations in an area that draws ecotourists from around the world.

In its first two years of operation, the camera-trap network has helped conservationists understand that four of the big cats (puma, margay, jaguarundi and ocelot) are doing well in the dense tropical forests of Costa Rica’s Pacific coastal region but that the jaguar remains critically endangered within the region, and in the country as a whole, according to Osa Conservation, a nonprofit organization that runs the camera-trap program.

The last formal estimate of the jaguar population was in 2005, when about 50 of the animals were believed be living on the peninsula, according to INOGO, a joint U.S.-Costa Rica conservation program facilitated by Stanford University.

Although there are no precise numbers for the current population, there is little doubt that there are fewer jaguars than there were a quarter-century ago when biologists started monitoring them, said Juan Carlos Cruz Diaz, wild cat program coordinator for Osa Conservation. Even with the increased surveillance provided by the camera traps, there have been few sightings.

“That tells you a lot about the population status of them,” he said. “It has not been possible to do an estimation because we haven’t had the minimum number of pictures needed to run the model.”

Guillermo Mulder, a guide at the Lapa Rios Eco Lodge at the southern end of the 700-square-mile Osa Peninsula, said, “It’s safe to say there are between 10 and 20 jaguars left on the peninsula.”

Mulder, whose cameras have shot only one picture of a jaguar at Lapa Rios since the program started, attributed the animal’s decline mostly to hunting by local farmers whose livestock are sometimes killed by the cats, and who see the jaguar as a traditional enemy.

“They just believe the jaguar is bad, they kill your animals, they could kill you,” he said. “Their view is that the more you shoot, the better.”

Stress on big cats, especially the jaguar, is increased by human hunting of their natural prey such as the peccary (a wild pig) and the agouti (a rodent) for food, making it more likely that the cats will attack livestock, Mulder said.

The rarity of the jaguar explains the excitement at Saladero Ecolodge, an isolated resort that can be reached only by boat from the eastern edge of the Osa Peninsula, when one of its own cameras photographed a passing jaguar on the evening of April 28, 2015.

The presence of the top predator near the lodge’s grounds indicates the overall health of the forest, and signals its proximity to a pristine natural environment, like that of many other lodges in the region.

“The jaguar is critically endangered, so getting a picture in a year is something to celebrate,” said Harvey Woodard, an American who owns Saladero with his English wife, Susan Rogers. “It’s a sign of a very healthy rain forest.”

In recent weeks, the lodge has had a daytime visit from a puma, a more common predator, which wandered among the cabins and gardens that occupy part of the 480-acre property, but which has been seen more often on camera than in the flesh.

The puma, a large male, may have been attracted by an increasing number of peccaries that come onto the lodge’s grounds, or by a local population of great curassows, large ground-feeding birds that are drawn by falling fruit from mango trees and could become prey for the cats, Rogers said.

“We’ve been seeing them more and more,” she said, referring to the pumas. “That obviously indicates that there’s plenty of food here.”

Guests at participating eco-lodges are welcome to make financial donations to buy more cameras or maintain existing equipment, but they should not assume that they will see one of the big cats at lodges that participate in the camera-trap program, Woodard said, because the animals remain mostly secretive and nocturnal.

“The chances of seeing a cat are pretty slim,” he said. “People will walk the trails and a lot of times they don’t see that much, and then they see the presentation and they see how close these cats are and that they are out at 10 o’clock at night or 2 o’clock in the morning.”

At Saladero, a privately owned enclave within the seldom-visited Piedras Blancas National Park, guests are more likely to learn about the big cats from a presentation by Alejandra Rojas Barrantes, the lodge’s resident biologist, whose priority is to monitor and maintain the cameras and to send their data to Cruz Diaz via the internet or by loading it on to a flash drive.

Other participating eco-lodges include Danta Corcovado Lodge near the east coast of the Osa Peninsula. The cameras are paid for by participating property owners.

Visitors to the Osa’s eco-lodges have a better chance of seeing tropical birds like the fiery billed aracari, a type of toucan, or the scarlet macaw, a spectacular red, yellow and blue parrot, than they do the big cats. In the Golfo Dulce, which borders the east side of the peninsula, visitors may see leaping schools of dolphins or soaring frigate birds.

As part of its effort to save the jaguar, Osa Conservation is trying to create a contiguous “corridor” of territory on the northern shore of Golfo Dulce between the Corcovado and Piedras Blancas National Parks, to increase the amount of undisturbed forest that is available for the animals to roam.

“Wildcats need really big territories to fulfill all their ecological needs,” Cruz Diaz said.

The camera-trap network is bringing together naturalists and the eco-tourism industry in a way designed to benefit both, he said. He hopes to have 200 cameras in place eventually.

“By supporting our initiative, they have information that benefits their business in ecological activities,” he said, “and provides a baseline for monitoring the population status of these species.”