Animals in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is home to 6 species of wildcats. Due to poaching and habitat loss all wild cats are severly endangered and elusive. They mainly live in nature reserves or in remote areas of the country. On the Nicoya Peninsula the three small species of wild cats can be found: margay cats, ocelots and jaguarundis, while pumas and jaguars are extremely rare.
Jaguar (Panthera Onca, or Tigre)
The largest carnivore in Central America is the jaguar which measures over 2 meters and weighs up to 90kg. The magnificent feline which adorns so many advertisements about Costa Rica has become very rare and its population continues to decline. Their biggest threat besides poachers is habitat loss as they need large territories for hunting. In Costa Rica jaguars have mostly receded to remote areas like the Santa Rosa National Park, the Talamanca mountains and Corcovado.
Jaguars almost never attack humans. Like all wild cats they are extremely shy and avoid encounters with humans. Their favorite prey are peccaries, or they feed on deer, agoutis, monkeys, sloths, birds or fish.
In general the fur of a jaguar is a warm gold tone with large black rosettes all over the body. A color variant is the famous Black Panther who has his silky black fur from an excess dark color pigmentation (melanin). On a close look however the typical markings are still present. The denomination Black Panther is given to all melanistic color variants of big wild cat species. So the black colored leopards in Asia and Africa are called Black Panthers as well, same as the black colored jaguars of Central and South America.
The puma or mountain lion ranks second in size of the wild cats in Costa Rica. They can be almost as large as jaguars, but are not as powerfully built. Pumas also can't roar, they just growl. Their coat is unspotted and of a uniform gray brown to red color.
The puma is a panamerican species, able to live in extremely varied habitats. It has the largest range of any wild land animal in the Americas, reaching from the Canadian Yukon to the Southern Andes. The elusive animal is a solitary and mostly nightly hunter. Its most important prey is deer, but it also eats rodents, birds and small reptiles. The largest population of pumas in Costa Rica lives in the Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks.
Of the Costa Rican wildcats the Ocelot is the most easily spotted. With one meter in length, it is the largest representative of the small wildcats. The ocelot lives and hides on the ground and hunts at night. He is a territorial animal, found in primary and secondary growth dry forests. Ocelots have a grey coat, heavily spotted with black rings and beige blotches. They have a short tail and a characteristic white spot on each ear. Their diet consists of birds, monkeys, rats and other small mammals or reptiles.
Margay Cats (Caucel)
The margay cat looks similar to the ocelot but it is much smaller, has bigger eyes and the tail is longer.
The margay cat spends most of his life on trees. It is the most accomplished climber of the Costa Rican wild cats because a special ankle joint permits to rotate its foot through 180 degrees and it moves around treetops with the ease of a squirrel.
The tigrillo or tiger cat is the smallest and most secretive of Costa Rica's wildcat species. It doesn't grow bigger than a house cat and is a solitary and primarily nocturnal hunter. The tigrillo is extremely rare and little is known about its ecology. It doesn't live on the Nicoya Peninsula but is only found in the higher elevations of the Costa Rican cloud forests, in altitudes up to 3200 m. The tigrillo population is also endangered by habitat loss through deforestation and poaching. In Costa Rica the largest populations live in the Tapanti National Park and La Amistad Biosphere Reserve.
Jaguarundi (León Breñero)
The jaguarundi is unspotted and with its long sleek body, short legs and small head it looks like a cross between a cat and a weasel. The Jaguarundi hunts day and night and is also an excellent swimmer. It is the wild cat which is best adapted to human changes to its habitat.
Jaguarundis are often blamed for hunting chickens but in most cases the culprit is a tayra (see below), a member of the weasel family which from far ressembles to the jaguarundi. A characteristic of the jaguarundi is his long, slender tail.
The tayra is not a wildcat. With a head-body length of around 60 cm it is a relatively large marten - a member of the weasel family. I nevertheless put it on this page because many people mistake the tayra for a jaguarundi.
Tayras are voraceous and omnivorous predators, hunting everything edible, including grown-up iguanas. I watched our big green iguana one day being chased by a couple of tayras and escaping them by plunging into the pool. Iguanas can stay underwater for minutes to escape their predators.
The fur of a tayra is a dark brown or black and it has a thick bushy tail which mainly distinguishes it them from the jaguarundi. The playful animals are found in the tropical forests of Central and South America. They live on the ground though they are also excellent climbers. Their eye sight is poor but they have an excellent sense of smell to locate food.
Seeing wildcats in Costa Rica
You are very unlikely to see wildcats in the wild. They hide well, are mostly nocturnal, and avoid encounters with humans which they can smell from very far away.
In Costa Rica you can see wildcats in the Simon Bolivar Zoo in San José where they are kept in small concrete cages.
A far better place for the wildcats is Las Pumas in Guanacaste, an animal rescue center whose primary goal is to release the animals into wilderness after having ensured that they can survive on their own. The public zone, which you are allowed to visit, hosts animals which wouldn't be able to survive in the wild. Here you can see jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margay cats, jaguarundis amongst other animals.
Las Pumas is conveniently located on the Interamericana, 4.5 km north of Cañas on the way to Liberia. The wildcat center deserves being supported. Admission is $12 and donations are very welcome.