Their footprints on the sand, their spots and stripes, their agility when climbing and running at great speed, their intimidating gaze and even the striking scent of their presence...these are all disappearing.
The phrase “beware, the tiger or lion lurks out there”, which our grandparents used to say so often, has been silenced in much of Nicoya. The number of wild cats that once came down the mountains to hunt for their prey in the coastal areas has decreased significantly, to the extent that today no one knows for sure how many of them are in the area.
What we do know for sure is that they are on the verge of extinction. For José Benavides, wildlife supervisor at the Tempisque Conservation Area (ACT – Área de Conservación Tempisque), wild cats “are seldom seen since they are endangered.”
He mentioned a report received by the ACT regarding a black cougar that was recently seen in Los Esterones, Sámara. “One of the area's residents reported seeing him eating a coati; however some people were frightened and several hunters were eager to kill him even though he was doing no harm”, he affirmed.
A striking recent case, which took place in an area outside Guanacaste, involved a dead panther in Pejibaye, Turrialba. In pictures published on Facebook, the animal was shown decapitated, receiving strong criticism from hundreds of the site's users.
Laura Brenes, a veterinarian and official at the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional), mentioned that the biological corridors are limited, since there are now fewer forest areas, which is the cat's natural habitat.
She remembers a few years back in Ostional, when an ocelot cub became ill with myiasis (screwworm). The animal was treated and taken to Las Pumas Rescue Shelter in Cañas.
Shelters Seem to be the Only Option for Wild Cats
Faced with the threat of extinction, Guanacaste's few shelters and rescue centers have become home to many wild cats, as well as other endangered species.
This is the case of Las Pumas Rescue Shelter, which has served as a hospital and home to many animals for the past 40 years. Currently the shelter is home to an ocelot, a jaguarundi, a margay, a cougar and a jaguar - five of the six wild cat species that inhabit Costa Rica.
The shelter narrates the story of each of its guests, like Rafa the Jaguar. This cat was rescued in Guatuso, Upala when he was just a two-month old cub. Hunters pursued Rafa’s mother while she was chasing cattle on a farm. Although she escaped, Rafa wasn't able to run fast enough since a splinter got stuck in one of his paws. He was captured by the hunters but was later rescued by MINAET officials, who took him to the shelter. Rafa is now over 12 years old and weighs 45 kilograms.
Another shelter that helps wild animals is La Selva in Playa Carrillo. La Selva opened 10 years ago and receives animals from surrounding areas. Elena Núñez, one of its employees, recalled that two years ago she received two jaguarundi cubs that had been injured near the runway at Carrillo's airport.
“We've seen a decrease in the number of animals in the area. The problem is money, since people build and buy new homes and in turn destroy the animal's habitat," she affirmed.
Will we ever see wild cats in their natural habitat again, hunting or climbing trees in the wild? Or will it only be possible to admire them trapped in a metal cage?
For now the future of these species seems to be in captivity, since those who should be looking out for their conservation are the very same who not only hunt them down, but also take away their homes.