Of Pumas and a Peck of Poached Peccaries

Today’s slide show: Images from Sirena. Today’s audio: Spider monkey researcher Jennifer Weghorst on her field work. Today’s video: A welcome message from Álvaro Ugalde, Corcovado’s new director.

SIRENA—For traveling around a tiny country, we certainly have been racking up the frequent flyer miles aboard little planes in very big winds, the sort of flights where you feel like a hamster in a clothes dryer. Great views; too bad I couldn’t see them with my eyes shut. Not to worry, Michael Kaye tells us. In 25 years of flying tourists around, his Costa Rica Expeditions outfit has had “nary a close call.”

“You’ve never had a close call?” John asks.

“I said ‘nary,’ ” Michael clarifies. “That’s different from ‘never.’ ” But, after all, we’re not new tenants of the picturesque Jiménez cemetery, which is conveniently adjacent to the Jiménez airstrip, and when we reached our destination, Sirena, we landed with a pleasing “thump thump” in the cushiony bosom of a mowed field.

Sirena is the research field station of Corcovado National Park on the peninsula of the Pacific side of Costa Rica, not far from Panama. In sum, we air-hopped from northeast to southwest in one, OK, many fell swoops. Sirena is Spanish for mermaid, but while my checklist of amazing species sighted gets longer every time I make the mistake of putting away my notebook, Ariel isn’t on it; and the genuine sirenas—the Latin name for manatees—are around these waters, but they’re very rarely spotted. Sirena is said to have some of the most spectacular wildlife viewing in Central America, and that is an underestimation if I’ve ever heard one. Sirena is also a bit on the anti-frill end of the tourist amenities scale: cold showers; sleeping pads on the floor; men, women, snorers, and insomniacs all piled into one big room, homeless-shelter style. The meals, however, are spectacular. I wanted to kiss the cooks, or at least mumble my felicitaciones in Spanish, but I was too embarrassed, so instead I handed them my dirty dishes. Be sure to bring your burqa if you plan to go out at night, or at least a canister of Iraqi-strength DEET; the mosquitoes here are subcontracted by the American Red Cross.

Speaking of seeing red, at Sirena, you can see flocks of scarlet macaws—that’s one of the things the park is famous for. You don’t think they should be flying loose like that, but there they are, throwing their pigments every which way, as though the skies and trees belonged to them. We watched column after column of leaf-cutter ants, marching along like miniature productions of the forest coming to Dunsinane in Macbeth. Leaf-cutters are the biggest herbivores of the tropical rain forest, clipping apart mega-tons of foliage and delivering the goods to the fungal gardeners in their nests, which help with digestion. Then there are the army ants, who need no help digesting every wretched creature standing in their Panzer path. We saw many, many monkeys, playing with such flamboyant joy that I will string up from a jungle gym the next snippy little animal ethologist who warns me not to anthropomorphize. In Tortuguero, we’d seen three of the four species of monkey found in Costa Rica: howler, spider, and white-faced. In Sirena, we also checked off the fourth, the squirrel monkey. We got so close to the white-faced monkeys that I could see every fold of their nude white ears. One of our team designated them the medicine men of the forest because of the story we’d heard from a guide: He’d watched a white-faced monkey minister to a spider monkey, cleaning off a grisly Bot fly infestation.

Even more charming than the monkeys were two men we met, who not only amused us, but also gave us some insight into the eco-tourism scene. Charlie Foerster, 37, is one. Charlie, whose last name is fittingly pronounced “Forester,” lives most of the time at Sirena and has for the last nine years. He’s a conservation researcher who works on tapirs, the largest New World land mammals, about which I’ll say more later. Charlie is from Corpus Christi, Texas, and he speaks in a low-key drawl. He loves Sirena, even though Sirena has several times tried to kill him. He told the most amusing story about getting attacked by a puma, for example. Puma, as in cougar, as in mountain lion, as in known occasional consumer of children, hikers, and joggers. He was out at night, studying his tapirs, when a young male puma leaped toward him from behind, landing in the path in front of him. No big deal, he’d seen plenty of the cats, and usually they took a look and moved on. This one glared and didn’t budge. This one put its ears back. Uh-oh. This one started swishing its tail back and forth. “I said to myself, nah, this can’t be real, this isn’t right,” Charlie said. Ha ha ha, we all laughed. Charlie tried to poke the cat away with the antenna that he used to track tapirs. Soon the cat was on its rear legs, batting at him, knocking the antenna out of his hands. A moment later, the puma had him on the ground, claws puncturing thighs. Charlie’s last possible weapon, his flashlight, went flying off into the bush. “That was it; I knew I was going to die.” Har har har!

But, Santo Gato be praised, the flashlight was still on, and in a scrambled moment, Charlie managed to get away and grab at the beacon of hope! When he turned around again, the puma was gone. Just like in the movies, said Charlie, without so much as a crack of a twig. “Since I lived to tell about it, I’m really glad it happened to me,” he said. He’s glad of a more recent event, too, when a highly venomous fer-de-lance viper bit through his boot. Did that slow him down? Not Charlie. He was pretty sure the venom had all dripped outside the boot. So he kept working through the night, stopping every now and then to make sure his leg wasn’t going numb.

Charlie told me that about 12,000 or so visitors stay at Sirena every year, and though he doesn’t mind—he thinks the whole world should love this place as much as he does—he wishes the tourists, more specifically the tourist dollars, did more for Sirena in return. The tourist money goes to the surrounding hotels, he said, who charge guests maybe $60 each to bring them to Sirena, paying only the $5 entry fee to the park. The park has the bathroom expenses, the cleanup expenses, the maintenance expenses, and it ends up being a net loss. In the meantime, the park needs a big bolus of cash. The park needs rangers to patrol against poachers, who have been very busy these last few years. Their main target: white-lipped peccaries, large wild pigs whose meat is a carnivore’s delight. Jaguars in the park love the peccaries, and so do people. But the more the poachers pick the peccaries for people, the fewer there are for jaguars, and the jaguars are forced to venture out of the park and pick from a pack of, oh, livestock. Farmers don’t like that, so they start shooting jaguars. Jaguars are endangered? Damned right: ka-pow.

“We know that rangers make a difference,” said Charlie. “Nine years ago, there were 25 guards in the Corcovado area and very little poaching.” Now, as a result of recent budget cutbacks, there are only eight guards, and poachers merrily pickle many pecks of peccaries. (No more Peter Piper, I promise.) Yet Charlie is optimistic that things will soon change for the better, because of Álvaro Ugalde, the second charming non-monkey man I mentioned above. Don Álvaro is the founder and former director of the Costa Rican national park system. He is an international star on the conservation circuit: A couple of years ago, Time magazine named him Environmental Leader of the Century. Don Álvaro has just taken over as director of Corcovado and the surrounding conservation areas, which need his magus’s touch. Don Álvaro is bald, and his eyes sparkle, and people adore him. The cooks adore him because he washes his own dishes. But conservation means saving some things for the future, which, having slashed and burned well beyond my allotted parcel of words, is what I will do with the story of Don Álvaro.

Things to know before you go to Costa Rica.