Jaguars & Sea Turtles Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

Habitat loss is a primary driver of species extinction in the world’s most biodiverse regions, including the neotropical zone. This loss leads to a decline in prey species and results in apex predators congregating in areas with high human population densities, creating conflicts between humans and carnivores. These conflicts often arise when both humans and predators depend on the same resources. Examples include wild cats such as pumas, lions, leopards, and jaguars, which may prey on domestic animals due to the scarcity of wild prey.

The jaguar, a wild feline species endemic to the Americas, ranges from the southwestern United States to Patagonia, spanning 10,000 km. Jaguars have a relatively slow reproductive rate, provide parental care lasting over a year, and require protein-rich diets, driving them to roam vast foraging areas. These traits make them especially vulnerable to habitat loss and deforestation from urbanization and large-scale farming.

An important aspect of jaguar ecology is their behavioral plasticity in foraging and hunting, which allows them to adapt to temporal environmental changes. For instance, in the floodable regions of the Amazon basin, jaguars significantly alter their diets and hunting behaviors between dry and wet periods. During the dry season, they predominantly prey on terrestrial mammals, whereas, in the flooded season, they shift to aquatic animals like caimans or arboreal species such as sloths and monkeys. Consequently, when their usual prey becomes scarce, jaguars may target livestock or other animals raised by humans.

On Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, Tortuguero National Park (TNP) was established to protect the most important nesting beach for green sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. This park also shelters 312 km² of tropical forest, home to other endangered species, including jaguars. Although jaguars have always roamed this area, the first recorded predation of a sea turtle by a jaguar happened in the early 1980s. Since then, the number of sea turtles killed by jaguars during nesting has surged, with over 300 turtles from four different species predated annually.

In the vicinity of TNP, extensive agricultural activities such as cattle ranching and the monoculture of bananas and pineapples have led to habitat loss and a drop in prey species for jaguars, pushing them to include sea turtles in their diet. Over the years, jaguars that feast on turtles have thrived within TNP’s safe and abundant environment, passing this behavior to their offspring, increasing jaguar density in the area.

However, green sea turtles, the most abundant in TNP and a key food source for jaguars, are migratory and only visit Tortuguero to lay eggs between June and October each year. While most jaguars leave TNP when it is not turtle nesting season, some individuals have become less mobile and settled around Tortuguero village, preying on cats and dogs when turtles aren’t available.

This proximity between jaguars and humans in Tortuguero presents a significant challenge. With jaguars encroaching on human habitats and often hunting domestic animals, the conflict is heating up. To address this, Turtle Love, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is currently monitoring the jaguar population in Tortuguero National Park. In collaboration with park rangers, local communities, Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, Florida Southwestern College, and Oregon State University, Turtle Love has installed camera traps throughout the park. These cameras, activated by movement, will help estimate jaguar and prey species abundance. Additionally, by collecting jaguar feces, researchers aim to understand how the diet of jaguars in Tortuguero changes during the sea turtle nesting season.

For conservationists and government agencies, monitoring human-jaguar interactions in Northern Caribbean Costa Rica’s coastal communities and developing effective strategies to mitigate this growing tension is crucial. Balancing jaguar protection with the safety and livelihoods of local communities is a delicate dance but is vital for long-term conservation success

What to do if you see a jaguar?

Step 1 – Keep Calm.

Step 2 – Pick up Small Children.

Step 3 – Slowly back away while facing the animal.