a photo of an ocelot, a wild cat popular in costa rica
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6 Wild Cats in Costa Rica

Hoping to see a jaguar on your trip? While it’s unlikely, you may get lucky and spot one or another of the six types of wild cats still roaming Costa Rica. Here’s everything you need to know about the big cats in Costa Rica and where you might have the slightest chance of seeing them.

What Kind of Big Cats Are In Costa Rica?

There are numerous species of wild cats in Costa Rica. Though only one of them is technically considered a species of big cat, the jaguar. Big cats all fall under the genus Panthera.

Many people think the puma also falls under the category of ‘big cats’ because of its large size. However, pumas are more closely related to smaller cat species than they are to big cats like jaguars.

Along with jaguars and pumas, a few other species of wild cats found in Costa Rica include the ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, and oncilla.

Are There Still Jaguars in Costa Rica?

Yes, there are jaguars in Costa Rica!

The largest jaguar populations are in the Amazon of South America. However, they are also found throughout Central America, including Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, the prime habitat consists of swampy areas and tropical forests. One key factor in jaguars being able to thrive in Costa Rica is the large number of protected areas like national parks and nature reserves.

Wild Cats in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is home to six species of wild cats. These incredible felines range in size, coloring, as well as other characteristics. Below you’ll learn all about each of the different cats as well as where you can find them!

a picture of a jaguar

Jaguar

The biggest cats found in Costa Rica are jaguars. Their Latin name is Panthera Onca but the word jaguar comes from an aboriginal name meaning ‘he who kills with one leap.’ Known to pounce on their prey, it’s a fitting name!

Jaguars are the third largest feline species in the world. With an average weight of 70 to 90 kg and growing up to 2 meters in length, jaguars are the largest cat in the Americas. Plus, the crazy thing about their size is that their tail adds an additional 80 cm!

Often jaguars are confused with leopards because of their spots, which are also known as rosettes. Jaguars have rounder heads, shorter legs, and are stockier than leopards. In addition, their rosette pattern has a black dot in the middle.

Sometimes jaguars have an almost black coat. This is called melanistic. Some people mistakenly call big cats with this coloration black panthers. But this is actually a genetic mutation. If you look closely, you can still see the spots.

Their range covers a large area, from the southwestern US down through Central America and throughout South America. These cats prefer living in wet environments and are oddly enough excellent swimmers.

Sadly, the jaguar population in the Americas has dramatically dropped. A hundred years ago the numbers were around 400,000. Now, the estimates are around 15,000, putting the jaguar as near threatened.

Costa Rica jaguars are threatened by habitat loss and poachers. A few of the best places to see jaguars in the wild are Corcovado National Park, Santa Rosa National Park, as well as Tortuguero National Park. However, the chances of seeing a jaguar in the wild are slim. You can see them at Jaguar Rescue Center and Las Pumas Rescue Center though.

a photo of an ocelot, a wild cat popular in costa rica

Ocelot

The ocelot is one of the wild cats you’re most likely to spot in Costa Rica. Their Latin name is Leopardus Pardalis -a bit of a mouthful – but they are beautiful!

Ocelots are best known for their stunning coat. They have a creamy gray coat with a range of spots and swirly black and beige markings. Much smaller than the jaguar, the average weight of an ocelot is between 10 to 15 kg and they can reach up to one meter in length.

The ocelot also has a similar range to that of the jaguar. They can be found from southern Texas down through to northern Argentina, with a preferred habitat of forests with thick vegetation, like the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica.

A few key places to see ocelots in Costa Rica are the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Santa Rosa National Park, Arenal Volcano National Park, Peñas Blancas National Park, and La Selva Biological Station.

One thing to keep in mind is that ocelots are nocturnal, meaning they are more active at night. However, you could spot one sleeping on a branch or in a tree cavity.

exotic margay cat lying on ground,

Margay

One of the smallest Costa Rica wild cats is the margay. Averaging 3 to 4 kilograms, margay cats are only slightly larger than their domestic kin.

Their Latin name is Leopardus Wiedii and these small cats look very similar to ocelots. A margay’s beige coat is covered in spots and streaks in colors ranging from black to dark brown. For their size, they have large eyes and very big paws. Plus, they are excellent jumpers. They can leap vertically eight feet as well as 12 feet horizontally!

The margay range is generally from central Mexico down through Central and South America. They are strictly arboreal and prefer cloud forests.

A few places to see margays in Costa Rica are Corcovado National Park located on the Osa Peninsula, Santa Rosa National Park, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Another spot they frequent is the Arenal Observatory Lodge as well as the La Selva Biological Station. At the latter, you can take a walking tour of the park at night. This is ideal, as margays are most active at night.

a photo of a puma

Puma

Second in line for big cats in Costa Rica, after the jaguar, is the puma. The puma (puma concolor) is known by many names around the world! A few names they are also known as include mountain lion, cougar, panther, or catamount.

While not quite as large or powerful as the jaguar, pumas can still reach a weight of 100 kilograms. These large cats don’t have any markings and are generally tawny brown in color.

The range of pumas is massive, it has the largest range of any large wild land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Pumas or cougars can be found from as far north as the Canadian Yukon to as far south as the Andes in South America.

A few key places to see pumas in Costa Rica are Santa Rosa National Park, Corcovado National Park, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

portrait of a Jaguarundi, a wild cat in the nature habitat

Jaguarundi

One of the most unusual felines in Costa Rica is the jaguarundi. Unlike the other spotted cats, the jaguarundi’s coat is dark brown without spots. They have short legs, an elongated body, and a long tail that more closely resembles an otter.

Many consider the jaguarundi to look more like a weasel than a cat! And another oddity is that they are the only wild cat in the country that is mostly active during the day.

Jaguarundis have a large range that spans from northern Mexico, through Central America, and down into South America. These adaptable cats are also found in a wide array of habitats. However, they prefer dense ground vegetation close to running water.

A few places to see jaguarundis in Costa Rica are the Guanacaste national parks including Palo Verde National Park and Santa Rosa National Park. In addition, they have populations in Corcovado National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

Oncilla

The smallest wild cat in Costa Rica is the oncilla (leopardus tigrinus). Also known as the northern tiger cat, oncillas in Costa Rica have very recently been considered to be different from the ones found in South America.

Still, not much is known about these small mammals. They are often confused with margay cats and ocelots as they have a similar appearance. However, oncillas are much smaller. Their coats are a light beige with markings similar to jaguars, with black rosettes.

Primarily oncillas can be found in a variety of forest ecosystems at high elevations, including the cloud forests of Costa Rica.

Marked as vulnerable on the IUCN red list, the oncilla is endangered due to habitat loss. In Costa Rica, oncillas are largely found in La Amistad Biosphere Reserve and Tapanti National Park.

How to See Wild Cats in Costa Rica

The truth is, if you want to see wild cats in Costa Rica your chances are low. Like many wild animals, these elusive cats are experts at staying hidden. Plus, most are nocturnal, stacking the odds against visitors when it comes to seeing cats in the wild in Costa Rica.

The best parks for seeing Costa Rica’s wild cats are Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Corcovado National Park, and Santa Rosa National Park.

The most commonly seen wild cat is the ocelot. I’ve caught sight of one crossing the road in Guanacaste! Over the past few years, jaguars have been spotted in the Santa Rosa National Park on Playa Naranjo by surfers, and on video in the Talamanca mountains.

For those keen on seeing cats in Costa Rica, you’ll have to head to one of the rescue centers for guaranteed sightings. The two most reputable rescue centers in Costa Rica are the Jaguar Rescue Center and Las Pumas Rescue Center.

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