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Wild Cats of Costa Rica

Wild Cats of Costa Rica


Most of my visitors ask this question: are there Jaguars in the jungle? This may be because I live in the forest covered hills above the town of Ojochal and the question is a natural reaction to the surrounding which, in all fairness, present a deep, wild and impenetrable rainforest teeming with what scares us the most: the unknown…(to be fair, the question about ‘snakes’ and ‘scorpions’ is THE big question, the fear of finding them in their beds or in their shoes always on the minds of those who for the first time find themselves living INSIDE the jungle and not on the outside looking in)…


YES, there are wild cats in the jungles just behind Ojochal and the coastal highway. Many expats, especially those who have been here for a decade or more, have stories of running into big cats. RE/MAX We Sell Paradise agents are well acquainted with them as well, some having had numerous encounters with Jaguars and Black Panthers during showings of homes and land plots located deeper in the bush.


Costa Rica is home to 6 species of wild cats: Ocelot, Margay, Jaguar (sometimes called Black Panther), Puma, Jaguarundi, and Oncilla. Below I will present a brief overview of these animals – and note that all stated lengths include the tail.


The Ocelot is a medium-sized cat, reaching 150cm cm in length, standing 50 cm at the shoulder, and weighting in at up to 16 kg. The fur is speckled with solid black markings on a lighter background color. It is active during twilight and night and, generally, hunts small animals weighting less than 1kg – so humans are definitely not on the menu! The Ocelot’s range stretches from Texas down to the tropical forests of South America. Ocelots used to be kept as pets by the Incas and Aztecs, and this practice continues to today, with the pet trade representing an ongoing threat to these beautiful animals.

ocelot cat.
Ocelot. Source: Wikimedia.
ocelot cat.
Ocelot. Source: Wikimedia.


The Margay is basically a smaller version of the Ocelot – so, again, humans are not on the menu. Reaching 130cm in length and weighting up to 4kg, this cat is a popular exotic pet and, until 1990s, experienced persistent hunting for the wildlife trade. Margay’s range stretches from northern Mexico (potentially southern Texas) down to the tropical forests of South America. This cat is an excellent climber and for this reason is sometimes called the ‘Tree Ocelot’. Interestingly, Margays have learned to imitate the calls of infant Pied Tamarins (a type of monkey) while hunting in order to lure the parents.

Margay. Source: Wikimedia.
Margay cat.
Margay. Source: Wikimedia.


OK, now we are getting to the good stuff (humans are on the menu)! The Jaguar is a large cat steeped in fear, mystery, worship, and beauty. And it is HUGE – up to 160kg in weight (compared to Ocelot’s 16kg) and up to 2.8 metres in length. It is, in fact, the third largest cat in the world, bettered only by the Lion and Tiger. The Jaguar’s range extends form northern Mexico to northern Argentina and it has been known to cross into southern US states. The coloring ranges from pale yellow to tan or reddish-yellow with a whitish underside, covered in black spots. However, black Jaguars have been spotted in the hills behind Ojochal – these are commonly called ‘Black Panthers’. Ben can recall a number of encounters with Black Panthers in the course of his job.

The Jaguar hunts large prey, usually in the 45-85kg range but it has been known to bring down large animals weighting up to 130kg. It employs an unusual killing method: biting prey directly through the skull between the ears to deliver a fatal blow to the brain.

Pre-Columbian Americans worshipped the jaguar as a symbol of power and strength, granting it the attributes of a ruler and a warrior. It was thought to be a messenger between the living and the dead and to accompany the dead in the spiritual world.

If you catch a glimpse of a Jaguar, which is highly unlikely, consider yourself very lucky and accept the omen as a gift of strength!

Jaguar cat.
Jaguar. Source: Wikimedia.
Jaguar cat.
Jaguar. Source: Wikimedia.
Jaguar warrior.
A Jaguar warrior as depicted by the Aztecs. Source: Wikimedia.
Black Panther.
A black Jaguar, known as ‘Black Panther’. Source: Wikimedia.

4. PUMA (Cougar, Mountain Lion)

This large cat is EVERYWHERE – its range stretches from northern Canada to the southern tip of Argentina and everywhere in between. It is common in the suburbs of many American towns and cities and is famous for its run-ins with back-country joggers and cyclists.

This cat is big – in the New World, only the Jaguar is larger. It can stand up to 90cm at the shoulder, weighting over 100kg and stretching up to 2.8m in length. Pumas’ fur varies in colour from brown-yellow to grey-red

Because the Puma is so widespread, and human development is increasingly encroaching on its territory, fatal attacks on humans are not unheard of. When Cougars do attack, they usually employ their characteristic neck bite, attempting to position their teeth between the vertebrae and then into the spinal cord. Pumas usually avoid people and do not consider them prey unless they are starving or threatened, and especially when a mother with her cubs is cornered or approached.

A puma peering from above. Source: Wikimedia.


Reaching 36 cm at the shoulder, maximum weight of 9kg and a maximum length of 125cm, the Jaguarundi is a medium-sized cat and, once again, we are back to cats that do not have humans on the menu! It comes in two colours: gray (blackish to brownish-gray fur with a grizzled look due to bright and dark rings on individual hairs) and red (foxy red to chestnut).

This cat is known to be shy and reclusive so consider yourself very fortunate if you catch a glimpse. Ben and I saw a Jaguarundi casually strolling down the street outside his house, seemingly unconcerned by us or by Ben’s dog Polka who was making her way towards the cat – only when Polka started barking did the Jaguarundi turn around to walk down the road in the opposite direction. While its distribution is wide, from northern Mexico (although frequent sighting occur throughout the southern US) to most of South America, its cautious nature makes the Jaguarundi a ghost.

Unlike most of the cats mentioned here, Jaguarundi’s fur is of poor quality and not a sought-after commodity so the cat is spared the sad fate of the others.

jagarundi cat.
A Jaguarundi in an enclosure. Source: Wikipedia.


This cute, tiny cat is definitely not a danger to humans! Also known as Tigrillo, it is adorable and, unfortunately, wildly hunted for its fur.

Basically, it is a smaller version of the Margay, which itself is a smaller version of the Ocelot. Up to 1m in length and 3kg in weight it can be compared to a large house cat, although house cats are generally heavier than the little Oncilla! Oncillas can be found in Costa Rica, Panama, and the tropical forests of South America.

Little Oncilla. Source: Wikipedia.


Not at all! For starters, big cats are everywhere – huge swath           s of Canada and the US are home to the Mountain Lion, or Puma, including populations living in the vicinity (and even inside the suburbs) of major towns and cities. Jaguars have been known to venture into southern American states, and the Florida Panther is not just an urban legend. Most of the time you will not even know the animals are there as they try to stay as far away from humans as possible. So enjoy your stay, don’t worry, and have your camera ready just in case!

Imagine living in an unspoiled paradise where big cats roam – but at the same time being just steps away from modern amenities: shops and supermarkets, great restaurants, entertainment, and countless tourist attractions like ziplining, scuba diving or deep sea fishing. Let us make your dreams a reality – visit the RE/MAX We Sell Paradise website to view the hot properties in our local area: