Camera traps are photographic/video devices installed in the jungle which allows exceptional observations. The data generated by the project such as the number of jaguars detected, their sex, their areas of movement, the observation of strange or undocumented behaviors, the abundance or absence of prey or even the discovery of new species are shared with the environmental protection authorities, biologists and researchers.
For instance, thanks to one of our camera trap, the unusual presence of a coyote in the Osa Peninsula has been documented; topic of an article published in 2020 in the Revista Mexicana de Mastozoología. The project data has also been used in the scientific effort of MAPCOBIO which was the first to list all the work and data collected through motion activated cameras since 1998 until 2015 in Costa Rica.
In 2018 the project was awarded with a certificate of recognition from the Costarican Environment and Energy Minister for all our work on the jaguars in the Osa Peninsula. Many other important upcoming articles are being revised and will be published soon!
With more than 500 000 species, on a 20 000 square miles territory (the equivalent of 1∕₃ of Florida or 0.03% of Earth's surface), Costa Rica represents almost 6% of worldwide biodiversity and is considered as the most biologically intense place on Earth.
If Costa Rica is one of a kind, the Osa Peninsula is even more unique. As one of the world's wildest and preserved area, it is an exceptional concentrate of biodiversity. Its primary rainforests host a wide variety of wildlife with shapes and colors defying imagination. A place that has one of the greatest conservation potential in Central America, that alone, represents 3% of worldwide biodiversity!
The Cordillera de Talamanca is the highest and longest mountain range in Costa Rica extending to West Panamá. In addition to hosting unique high altitude ecosystems and biodiversity, this area is also home of an important jaguar population including several melanistic individuals.
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is America's largest wildcat, but due to its elusive behaviour, it remains one of the least known. Excellent climber and swimmer, this powerful cat stays hidden in the rainforest most of the time. Active during both day and night, it uses its spotted fur as a camouflage to stalk its target without being detected. With the most powerful jaw of all carnivores it as a unique hunting technique, piercing its prey's skull killing them instantly.
As an APEX predator it sits on top of the food chain, playing a role of regulator preventing the proliferation of its preys and thus maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. Furthermore, it is an “umbrella species”, which means that its needs includes those of many other species. Since its development requires a perfectly healthy environment, protecting the jaguar means protecting the entire ecosystem of which it is part.
The Osa Peninsula, once widely populated by jaguars, was considered one of the best places to observe them. But the privilege of sighting a jaguar directly has become extremely rare. Only a few are subsisting, spotted by their tracks and detected by wildlife monitoring camera traps.
Since colonization and especially during the years 1960-1970 (when an estimated 18,000 were killed yearly for skin trade), jaguars have lost over 46% of their original territory and their numbers have decreased by half, threatening the species, mainly in Central America. Depending on the period and the region, the reasons for that decline differ:
- Direct persecution such as poaching for their skins, trophies, canines, and meat for "medicinal" purposes, but also resale to zoos and private collections, hunting for sport, or cattle protection.
- Indirect factors: transformation and fragmentation of their territory due to deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, genetic weakening due to geographic isolation, as well as hunting of their prey to supply the bush meat market.
Nonetheless, this situation is not irreversible. Slowly, awareness is growing and most of the Osa Peninsula is still covered by pristine rainforest. It is therefore one of the last natural spaces that jaguars could win back, a key zone that would greatly favor the survival of the species in Central America. The preservation of the last jaguars is a major argument justifying the need to create biological corridors between already protected areas, becoming a model of interconnected conservation.
The Golden Shadow project is built around tracking down Osa's last jaguars and the ambition to capture the greatest photograph of every single one of them. In order to show different faces of the Osa Peninsula, the artistic process was thought as different scenarios happening in the rainforest's various ecosystems. By transporting the spectator on the other side of these wild frames the aspiration is to reconnect them with nature.
The project focuses on 3 dimensions:
As finding a jaguar is not an easy task, figuring out how this invisible creature moves around and what it is searching for is essential. Beyond the field work and scientific knowledge it is intuition that is the key to this pursuit. Thinking like a jaguar may reveal his path. Once it is discovered, an autonomous photographic studios is installed in the heart of the jungle and activated when animals are passing by.
Capturing the right photograph then becomes a matter of perseverance, luck and time.
In nature, things rarely go as planned. While it is extremely difficult to photograph a jaguar, it is even harder to achieve the expected result. The steps to get there are complicated, risky, long and technical. Only a restless effort and great patience can make it happen:
Find an aesthetic frame frequently visited by jaguars:
This scouting phase generally takes several months and requires significant material and human resources in order to explore remote areas, select strategic locations and set up camera traps, hoping for a jaguar to pass by.
Ensure that there is no passage of poachers or illegal gold diggers:
These activities being illegal, criminals often destroy material in order to eliminate compromising footages. Therefore, an observation period is always respected in order to reduce the risks.
Set up the studio:
Once a spot has been chosen, the autonomous photographic studio is deployed. It consists of a very high definition camera placed in a waterproof case, connected to several flashes and motion sensors. It will be active 24 hours a day.
Photograph the jaguar in the right position, the right way, in the right place and at the right time:
This step is the longest and the most uncertain of all. Thousands of images, most of them unusable, are taken over time before one day, acheiving the final result.
Being able to differentiate one jaguar from another makes it possible to identify them as individuals, estimate their numbers, track their movements over time and monitor their health condition.
Several techniques can be used:
Comparison of the spots arrangements and shapes which are specific to the coat of each jaguar.
Life marks recognition:
Broken tail, cut ear, missing limb, punctured eye, scar, handicap, specific coloration, etc.
Feces and hair collection in the field as well as blood or saliva analysis when an individual is captured.
Recognition by spots (called rosettes) is the most used since it can be put in application for individuals without life marks and does not require direct contact with the animal. Take the example of Shāhdosa, an adult male who has never been captured and has no particular life marks, whose tracking was possible thanks to the recognition of his spots. One of them, shaped like an "S", located on its right flank, is easily identifiable. It is important to specify that the patterns adorning the two sides of the coat are not symmetrical.
Over the years, from the Osa Peninsula to the Cordillera de Talamanca, several individuals have been spotted, identified and are monitored through our camera traps network. With more than 250 jaguar footages, the precious information gathered monthly is continuously enriching our database and shared with the environmental protection authorities as well as the scientific community.
Through photographing the most impressive wildcat of America, the goal is to create an emotional reaction that changes people's perception of how wilderness is linked to their environment. Just like primary forests as old as the world, the jaguar is an incarnation of scarcity, mystery, beauty and unpredictability making him their greatest ambassador.
As most people live disconnected from the wild, focused on their daily occupations, The Golden Shadow aims to establish a link between humans and nature with art as a front door. It is essential to reach as much people as possible, from local actors living yards away from the forest, to urban populations through social media, in order to motivate them to initiate significant and positive changes in the long run.
2022 marks the foundation of Sauvage, a non-profit organisation which ambition is to finance our jaguar conservation initiatives in Costa Rica.
Our next step is the creation of a natural reserve that will protect the main jaguar paths of the Osa Peninsula and its biodiversity. For more information visit Las Oncas website.
Along with raising awareness about conservation, Tico's Wild Studio is becoming a key actor regarding jaguars in Costa Rica, participating in scientific advancement by providing essential informations to numerous studies and articles.
Once the long-awaited photograph is taken, the ultimate goal is achieved. Every single one of them is a new chapter of this odyssey and is telling a part of the story, making The Golden Shadow an artistic tribute to jaguars and their natural habitat.
The frame, which all elements are brought from Costa Rica, is an integral part of the artwork. The wood is tinted black to symbolize the nothingness towards which the wild world is being swept away. The gold, represents the thread of life and hope that still exists, embodied by the jaguar.
This secret location sits on top of an inaccessible and forgotten mountain on the Osa Peninsula. It is covered by a jungle that belongs to an extremely rare ecosystem: the lowland cloud forest. Attracted by its pristine vegetation, its topography and its remoteness, several jaguars use this passage as a route through which they pass regularly. This is where its name comes from. Dense and impenetrable, the Jaguar Avenue never ceases to amaze and unveil its mysteries over time.
As if he knew he was expected, he finally appears, carried by the mist, under the first light of day. His scarred face shows the marks of his story. Serene, he walks straight towards his future. Shāhdosa has just frozen that moment for eternity, becoming, in a way, immortal.