About a week ago, while walking the forest trails at Xandari, several resort employees and I had a great wildlife spotting. The trail we were taking leads to a seven-foot waterfall that flows into a large pool and continues as a small river with several other waterfalls in it, one of which is about a seventy-foot drop. As we were rounding a bend in the path, a member of the group looked across the river to the opposite bank and noticed an animal down by the water.
It had either been drinking or perhaps hunting for some aquatic prey, but when it heard our voices (we were a group of about six or seven) it scampered up the hill and in among the trees, where we lost sight of it. My first impression was that it was a black house cat, but it quickly became clear that it was in fact almost double the size and its tail was quite large – not bushy, but as if the bone and flesh themselves were a good deal thicker than a normal cat’s.
The staff member who first spotted the animal voiced the hypothesis that it was a pizote, or White-nosed Coati, a member of the raccoon family that many visitors to Costa Rica have probably seen in their travels here. But as the black-furred animal briefly turned its head back to check that we were not pursuing it, I could see despite the shadows cast by the forest that its face was not pointed into a long nose but rather a normal cat’s face, and there was no hint of white there either.
Even though I’ve been championing Xandari’s biodiversity for the last five months, it was hard for me in the minutes after the sighting to actually believe my eyes, because I never thought I would see a wild feline so close to a relatively large city like Alajuela. But a few hours later, as I walked the same path again with my brother to show him some of Xandari’s trails during his short visit, I went down to the pool created by the waterfall and looked at the muddy edge to check for tracks. From day one at Xandari, James and I had figured out that this patch of earth next to the water was a perfect place to practice ichnology, and it proved its worth again this day by revealing extremely clear pug-marks extending the length of the bank.
These tracks, cross-checked with a Costa Rica wildlife guide to ascertain what kind of cats would be in the area and match the earlier sighting, identified the animal as a jaguarundi, also known locally as a tucumuco, I think. I asked one of the members of the gardening staff if he ever saw jaguarundis while working on cleaning up the trails in the forest and he said he did, perhaps on a once-a-month basis or so. This means my next goal is to get a camera trap – a motion-sensor camera with infrared flash to capture photos even at night (read more here) – and set it up near the river so we can get some images or footage of the jaguarundis (which are apparently more active during the day, actually) and other hidden nocturnal life at Xandari!