By Pacuare Lodge
Biologist Carolina Saenz has spent years studying Jaguars and other large mammals in the rainforest surrounding the Pacuare Lodge, as part of a research program that is supported by the lodge. She has confirmed that the area is home to jaguars and an array of other wildlife, and in the process, she became close to an American family who motivated and helped her to apply to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is currently working toward a PhD.
“It has been a great experience,” she said. “The courses are very difficult, but it is enriching to study under professors with so much knowledge and experience. It is a valuable opportunity for me and I hope to use the knowledge I’m gaining for the benefit of conservation in Costa Rica.”
Carolina’s is one of various success stories linked to the Pacuare Lodge’s commitment to conservation and sustainable tourism. It began in 2008, when the Pacuare Lodge teamed up with the International Wildlife Management Institute (ICOMVIS) at Costa Rica’s National Universidad (UNA) for a project to assess the status of jaguars and other large mammals in the rainforest that lines the Pacuare River. Working under the guidance of UNA professor Eduardo Carrillo – one of Latin America’s top jaguar experts – Carolina managed the project, using the resulting data for her master’s thesis. The Pacuare Lodge provided her with room and board, logistical support, 24 camera traps and other equipment. Many guests also made donations, which were used for the purchase of another 32 camera traps and other support for her important research.
Jaguares, like most other large rainforest mammals, are extremely shy, so biologists traditionally estimated their populations using tracks, feces and other signs. In recent years, the availability of affordable camera traps with movement sensors has revolutionized wildlife research. Carolina placed camera traps along game trails in the Pacuare Lodge’s 340-hectare (840-acre) private rainforest reserve, the adjacent Nairí Awari Indigenous Reserve and remote Barbilla National Park. Over the years, she has captured approximately 5,000 photos and videos of mammals there.
She has documented that the rainforest surrounding the Pacuare Lodge is home to at least 24 species of large mammal, including five of the six felines native to Costa Rica and other rare species such as Baird’s tapir, the red brocket deer and naked-tailed armadillo. Carolina has used the photos and videos to identify five individual jaguars, since the rosettes – patterns of spots – of any given jaguar are as unique as a fingerprint. These include a rare black jaguar (a.k.a. black panther) a mutation that had only been documented in one other region of Costa Rica.
When staying at the Pacuare Lodge, Carolina would tell guests about her research, and in 2009, she befriended the Gifford family, who were visiting Costa Rica from Boston. Twelve-year-old Talia Gifford was fascinated by the jaguar project, and consequently raised money for the purchase of camera traps. She and her mother, Heidi Wyle, returned to the Pacuare Lodge several times and accompanied Carolina into the forest. The family later invited her to visit them in Boston, helped her to study English in Massachusetts and facilitated her application to the PhD program in biology at UMass Amherst.
“I never thought I’d get a PhD, least of all in the United States,” observed Carolina. “Heidi Wyle was one of the people who motivated me to get a PhD.”
While her research at the Pacuare Lodge helped Carolina earn a Master’s degree and put her on the path toward a PhD, she says that the time she has spent in the area’s rainforest was wonderful in of itself. “The Pacuare area has a very humid and hot, but precious forest. The lush vegetation, the sound of the river… it’s a very special place for me. I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve spent in that forest for anything.”
Carolina explained that a curious aspect of Pacuare forest is that it is difficult to see mammals, but the camera traps confirm that plenty of them live there. Though the difficulty in spotting wildlife is in part due to the exuberance of the forest’s foliage, Carolina suspects that the area’s mammals are especially shy because of hunting. The Pacuare Lodge has worked to end hunting in the area by prohibiting it in the lodge’s reserve, by providing employment for local people and by educating local people about the value of wildlife. The company’s environmental education program works in the eight schools nearest to the lodge, reaching hundreds of children.
Carolina noted that while it is difficult to get rural people to stop hunting, she believes that the Pacuare Lodge has made progress. She cited the thousands of images captured by the camera traps – including game species as brocket deer, tapirs and collared peccaries – as proof that the region’s wildlife population is recovering.
Jaguars have disappeared from most of their range in Costa Rica, shot or poisoned by ranchers intent on protecting their livestock. Those that remain are primarily found in the country’s national parks and other protected areas, which serve as islands that sustain by restrict the movement of those jungle cats, which once roamed widely throughout the Americas from the southeast United States to northern Argentina. The Pacuare Lodge’s private reserve forms part of a biological corridor between two of Costa Rica’s largest remaining masses of wilderness – the Central Volcanic Cordillera and La Amistad Caribe Conservation Areas – which means it could serve as a pathway for young jaguars to moving to other areas in order to avoid inbreeding.
For her PhD research, Carolina is studying jaguar distribution in Costa Rica’s wider Caribbean region and human-jaguar conflicts in northwest Costa Rica, where the big cats are confined to a few protected areas surrounded by ranchland. She explained that once she completes here PhD, she is eager to return to Costa Rica to teach at the UNA and work on biological research and conservation. She noted that a key aspect of the latter is environmental education, adding that the Pacuare Lodge offers an important example of what a private company can achieve.
“The Pacuare Lodge’s work in this area has been super valuable. We can see the difference it has made and in the level of conservation in this area,” she said.