Wildlife-spotting in San José – no, really!

Sloths - an unlikely city resident

I went to Corcovado. Oh yes. I spent those three days traipsing through the jungle, carrying everything I needed to live, unable to tell the difference between sweat, humidity and rain, and desperately keeping my eyes peeled for tapirs, sloths, even those little squirrel monkeys would have done. I got bitten to shit by the very many, very ravenous mosquitoes, and discovered no less than 11 ticks in various unmentionable places on my body.

I saw a small, golden-furred anteater. And that was on the truck on the way in before I’d even started walking. I am not a very successful wildlife hunter, it has to be said.

At least, that is what I though until one day as I was strolling through the Universidad de Costa Rica campus in San Pedro.

San Pedro is called a separate town from San José, but you’d be hard pushed to draw the line between them. There is no let-up in the urban landscape. The only vague difference is that there are more young people roaming around San Pedro as it is the student district of the city.

But it was there, as I headed towards the gates near the law building, that I detained myself on the edge of a large crowd that had gathered underneath a tree. They were all gawping at something in the branches, so I dutifully craned my neck in a similar fashion. And there it was. A sloth. Hanging out in the least nature-friendly part of Costa Rica you can imagine. He may as well have been having a snooze hanging from a window ledge in the towering Instituto Nacional de Seguros sky scraper.

At first I had my suspicions that he was animatronic, until it dawned on me that it would be an exceptionally elaborate prank for the relatively small amount of attention the sloth was getting. He was surprisingly active given the reputation his species has acquired, roaming up and down branches, twisting his neck to look around with his strange, smiley face, and presumably trying to figure out his next move. Baffling. What was he doing there?

I asked this to my colleague Pablo, and he said that in fact there are two of them living on the university campus, and they’ve been there for years – at least since his sister was studying there almost a decade ago. He remembers seeing them when he was a kid picking her up from the campus, and is pretty sure the two are a couple – male and female.

So there you have it, San José sometimes beats the back of beyond for easy wildlife access. I must admit that the questions of how they got there and how they survive are still to be fathomed out, but I will make it my mission to do so.

The title of this post is slightly misleading, as I can’t think of any other wildlife than sloths you’d particularly want to see. There are some tremendously noisy birds that mostly hang out in the sport campus of the UCR in Sabanilla, and in Parque Morazán, in central San José. They live in the trees in their hundreds, shit a carpet all over the pavement beneath them, and make a racket. It’s quite unbelievable, especially at sunset when they are almost deafening. I don’t know what they are. To be honest, this isn’t a very well-researched post, but I promise to take on the task of finding these things out.

Animals can also be found at the Zoologico Simón Bolivar, named after a revered liberation leader, but with a mission to keep its inmates in varying states of miserable captivity. My colleague says that the wildest life you’re likely to see are the rats that come and eat the food left out for the zoo animals. Nice.

From my office I can hear the lions groaning. They do not do it every day, and on the days that they are silent, I find myself wondering if they’ve finally succumbed to the horrors of being held prisoner in an underfunded, poorly-maintained, cramped zoo in a country full of colleagues who are allowed to scamper freely through their natural habitats. Ok, not lions, but there are jaguars of whom I am sure the lions are eternally jealous. The place should be avoided at all costs, unless it’s to picket for its closure.

Apart from that, there are cockroaches. Check them out on the pavements at night. They’ll be scurrying from a crack in the slabs to the next unsuspecting person’s kitchen. They get big too, size of a cat some of them. Kidding, the biggest one I saw was not larger than your average rodent.

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