Coastal Jaguars – Animal Conservation in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

By Jerzo Castellanos, | August 2021 | traveling with partner GVI

Tortuguero National Park is located along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast and comprises 120.5 square miles of rivers, swamps, lagoons, rainforests, and various other habitats. Green turtles, jaguars, and an innumerable amount of exotic bird, reptile, and insect species reside within this space protected by armed rangers. I had the privilege of staying in the park for four weeks when no other people other than authorized volunteers were permitted to enter.

Most mornings at Jalova, which is the name of the research station where I was staying, started more or less the same. I’d lie in bed for about five to ten minutes before sitting up for another few minutes. Most of the time, the beds would be empty, but if the previous day’s surveys were more exhausting than normal, people would still be sleeping. It was during these times that I would look around at the bunk beds in disbelief, wondering how I, a boy from Santa Ana, ended up 2,846 miles from home among people from all over the world.

On all sides but one, Jalova is surrounded by dense rainforest. Along that other side is the Caribbean Sea and a black-sand beach. This beach was a short walk away, so I’d visit it quite often, usually to sit but sometimes to nap. Whenever I would wake up from one of these naps, I would see the waves crashing onto the ash-colored sand, and at times, I wondered if I were still dreaming.

At 22 years old, I was collecting data that would help the local government establish laws to protect the wildlife within the country. To my surprise, everyone at Jalova was in their twenties, and this included a majority of the staff as well. Each of us came from different parts of the world, many from the UK, others from places like Ireland, France, Belgium, and Germany.

This wasn’t my first time meeting people from other countries as the community college I attended had exchange students from various parts of the world. What made this place unique was that we not only cooked and cleaned for one another, but we also worked and laughed together knowing only the other’s name and country of origin. Some of us were there because the work we were doing related to our fields of study.

Some of the most satisfying work we did involved retrieving the memory cards from camera traps set up the prior week We’d leave the base at exactly 6:00 a.m., and anyone who was even a minute late was left behind. Several trails connected the beach to the forest that allowed us to enter and exit the forest conveniently. The jaguars must have thought these trails were convenient as well as they frequently made use of them. It was along these paths that the cameras were placed. There were a total of three cameras so that meant there were three memory cards that needed to be retrieved. By the time we finished with the last camera, it would be 9:00 a.m., and it would take us about an hour to walk back to base. (You can link here to learn more about the camera trapping we did.)

That same day we’d sit down to watch the videos and write down which animals were caught on camera and the time they appeared in the video. When the camera captured footage of cows, we were instructed to write that “nothing” appeared in the footage. Since the cows were brought into the forest by a farmer, they were not considered wildlife, so we were told to think of them non-existing. The best part of reviewing the footage was when a jaguar would finally appear on the screen. The videos that the camera recorded were short, so the jaguar would only appear for a few seconds at a time, yet whenever one appeared on that small laptop screen, everyone would sit up and move a little closer.

I’m not really sure why most people are captivated by animals like the jaguar. Is it because they’re apex predators who sit at the top of their food chain? Perhaps it’s people’s obsession with all things cryptic and elusive, or perhaps it’s because jaguars are just really big, beautiful cats that may or may not be able to kill you. Disclaimer: they can.

Numerous times during my stay I’d find myself staring off into the distance, trying to absorb as much of my surroundings as possible, always switching between excitement and speechlessness which is why each day I would stop and remind myself just how lucky I was to be doing amazing work alongside amazing people, and for that I’m beyond grateful.

As I mentioned before, being at Jalova I had the opportunity to meet people from various parts of the world. I was also fortunate enough to establish meaningful friendships with some of these people. Paddy from Manchester, Molly from Ireland, Dominik from Germany, and even some closer to home like Rachel who was from Hawaii. Working alongside them for four weeks, I learned quite a bit about myself and quite a bit more about the world around me. Dominik would teach us German, Molly would teach us Gaelic, and on a daily basis without anyone having to ask, Paddy would tell us why Manchester was the greatest city in the world. We might have been from different parts of the world, but in the end, we were all there because we shared similar passions. From that, I discovered that when people share a common pursuit with others, the differences among them cease to exist.

Looking back and thinking about my time spent at Jalova is like looking at old footage.  I can rewind the memory as many times as I want and pause to think about those special moments.

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