“He who praises everybody, praises nobody.” – Samuel Johnson
I recently completed a long-anticipated return trip to Costa Rica. After leading my last photo tour there way back in 2019, I expected to return a couple years later, but COVID stretched the wait out two extra years. It felt so good to be back in a place that felt familiar, yet which provides so many new experiences. Costa Rica was my first international wildlife photography destination, and the first overseas location I visited with tour clients ten years ago. It’s always been special for many reasons, among them the fact that its vibrant (and largely healthy) rainforests host such a variety of animal species.
No place exemplifies this better than Corcovado National Park, the crown jewel in Costa Rica’s oft-envied and emulated collection of nature reserves. Corcovado is massive, and hosts such an array of wildlife that National Geographic once referred to it as “the most biologically intense place on earth.”
This intensity is something that’s felt almost immediately when one steps foot inside the park, even for those coming from some of Costa Rica’s other wonderful wild hot spots. During an eight-day immersion in the heart of Corcovado in 2008 (based, for the first time, at Sirena Research Station) I learned pretty quickly how special it was. On the most recent visit with my tour group, the increase in wildlife sightings and activity going from the main part of the tour to the Corcovado extension was rapid and profound. We were immediately treated to close encounters with multiple monkey species, tamandua, tapir, and elusive birds such as the Red-capped Manakin and Common Potoo… all on our first afternoon!
The great joy of visiting places like Corcovado, even as a repeat visitor, is that you’ll inevitably see something new. And this year’s trip didn’t disappoint in that regard. I am, of course, always hopeful to catch sight of something that’s not only new for me, but is generally rare or elusive. In the dark, mysterious rainforest, such encounters are akin to finding hidden treasure.
Naturally, I’ve had plenty of time to dream of the animals I might be fortunate to see some day, and like many photographers and wildlife enthusiasts, I have formed something of a bucket list over the years. These are the species I wish to see most in the wild, some due to their imposing reputation (Harpy Eagle), some due to their frustrating ability to avoid me (Boreal Owl), and some simply due to their generally rare, shy, or elusive nature (wolverine!). When it comes to Costa Rica, I still have a few resident species sitting high on my wish list, and I don’t hesitate to remind my local guides of these far-fetched goals. Only half-jokingly. Naturally there are a few cats on there, but another small creature was also on my wish list. And going into this year’s visit, it was still in my unofficial top ten among worldwide species 1.
During my previous trip to Corcovado, I had in fact just missed this animal by a couple weeks. The challenge with finding it lies in the fact that it’s tiny (the size of a grapefruit when it’s balled up), arboreal and—a trait so many elusive species share—nocturnal. Oh, and it’s freaking adorable.
I’m talking, of course, about the silky anteater.
Costa Rica is actually home to another larger, good-looking tree-climbing anteater, the northern tamandua, but sightings of that species are not rare, especially in Corcovado. The tamandua is one of my favorite animals to find on these trips. Of course it’s a bit odd in appearance (as many insectivores tend to be), but also versatile, well-equipped for rainforest exploration, and quite handsome in that little tuxedo vest. We had good luck with them during this tour, and even witnessed two tamanduas fighting!
The Silky is something else though. My intrepid Corcovado guide, Felipe, grew up where Sirena Station now stands, before the park even existed. He’s seen more jaguars in his life than he has silky anteaters! So after joking with him about it (as usual) at the start of our visit, I let the subject go and concentrated on all of the other wonders we were experiencing. After a couple of active and fulfilling days, we planned a longer hike to a less-frequented area of the park—it’s not difficult to get beyond the shorter trail network used by the crowds of day visitors—in hopes of seeing a cat, perhaps. After a hot, sweaty six hours in the jungle, we stumbled back to Sirena around mid-afternoon.
That’s when we learned that other guides had been looking for us that morning. Felipe had spread word of my silky anteater goals, and you probably have a pretty good idea of what they spotted earlier in the day while we were trekking, kilometers away…
Hearing the news, we gathered the troops. My clients, to their immense credit, immediately sprung into action. Even the ones who were worn out from our recently-completed adventure were ready to go find this rare treasure and see it with their own eyes. I hadn’t gushed about it too much during the trip, but undoubtedly mentioned it among the rarities I had yet to and longed to see. They could sense my urgency.
Among the things I enjoy most in the tour experience are unlocking curiosity in other people, sharing the sense of discovery that emerges in an unpredictable environment, and occasionally allowing my own excitement to rub off on others. Already a week into this journey, my group was accustomed to my passion for the place, and was willing to roll with it.
There wasn’t much else to do. The anteater was not moving. All we could do was peer through our lenses in hopes of spying eventual movement, all while trying to decipher where the critter’s face—tightly tucked away to blot out late afternoon sunshine—was hidden. We couldn’t make heads of it, but the prehensile tail was a bit more obvious, wrapped around the rotund body.
My clients were happy, though almost apologetic toward me, sensing perhaps that a better photo op would have elevated this unique and personal sighting to unbelievable levels. But I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. In recent years I’ve been fortunate to seek out or stumble across a number of my top bucket list species, but in many cases (lynx, pangolin, and even the striped skunk) the photo opportunities left something to be desired. Never did that curtail the excitement of sharing space with these elusive critters. When you can reasonably assume you might never see an animal again in your lifetime based simply on its reputation, you cannot take these moments for granted or let greed spoil them.
Eventually we were left alone with the anteater. I was willing to wait it out as long as possible, at least until we had to return to the station at the dinner hour (night excursions are no longer allowed in Corcovado, or I may have been there well past darkness). My clients understood and stuck it out with me, which was gratifying. Though it also helped that just down the trail two tamanduas were crawling around in a tree also occupied by spider monkeys. So there was a sideshow while we waited for the silky anteater to unfurl.
Its movements were infrequent and incredibly subtle. Somehow it changed position multiple times without us really noticing. Only at one point did we get a hint of a face, when a single closed eye could be seen in the warm afternoon glow. This would be my best photo from the encounter.
We had warmth. We had fuzziness. But such feelings did not linger once the next tourist group arrived on the scene. Another guide strolled in with his trio of guests. First, he set up his scope to show them the pair of Crested Owls that was perched on the other side of the path. Oh, did I forget to mention that? There were Crested Owls directly across from a silky anteater!
The guide pointed out the owls to his clients. His accompanying narration was muted and concise. Then he quickly moved his scope to a new position so he could show them the anteater.
“This is an anteater. It’s hard to find because it’s strictly nocturnal.”
I was taken aback. That’s it? Was he really going to be that blasé about it? How many silky anteaters had he seen? It seemed like old news to this fellow. Even if this, somehow, was a familiar-to-the-point-of-
I waited, expecting more. He offered nothing. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I piped up, and good-naturedly insisted to his guests that their guide was completely downplaying what they were seeing. This was, after all, one of the hardest mammals to find in the tropical rainforest. They should consider themselves very lucky to see it. They should be excited, even if he wasn’t.
This was a chance for him to run with the lead I was offering. As a guide, it was a perfect opportunity to instill excitement and enthusiasm in his clients, to heighten not only the privileged feelings we should all have exploring this unique place, but to create a memorable shared moment for them. “Remember when we saw a silky anteater? And on our first visit to Sirena. How amazing was that?!”
He opted for a different tack, walked over to me and uttered, “it’s just another anteater.”
“I believe every animal is special. This is just an anteater. The army ant is also special, but it’s just an ant.”
I had apparently encountered my first true wildlife socialist. Of course, I understood what he was trying to express: all animals are important in the complex web of life that surrounds us. And I often pride myself on trying to highlight locations and experiences that bring my audience and tour guests in contact with a wider variety of species beyond just the biggest, most popular animals that usually hog the spotlight.
But by putting every species on the same level, and especially by describing them all in such a bland and passionless manner, his actions belied his words. I recalled the jealous villain in The Incredibles, whose goal was to wipe out superheroes while making his own super-powered technology widely available to the masses. His endgame? “If everyone is special, no one will be.” By reducing what for most would be a once-in-a-lifetime sighting to “just an anteater,” something on par with stepping over a line of ants (a much more common experience in the same place, incidentally), the guide was showing that to him, no animal was, in fact, special.
We should celebrate our wild and varied neighbors. We can raise awareness and educate the public and our guests about the underrated animals out there, or the ones that disgust, strike fear in, or just bore most people at first glance. But that can be done without bringing the other species down in the process.
Especially as a wildlife guide and educator. Nature can be fun and fascinating, and if we want more people to care about our planet and its denizens, we don’t strip away all the joy and excitement that accompanies the discoveries we share with them in the field. Having one of the world’s coolest-looking owl species (out of over 200 of them) hanging out next to one of the jungle’s true hidden treasures is a moment worth remembering, something worth celebrating. These moments help open our eyes to the amazing possibilities and surprises the natural world can spring on us at any time, another reason to love it that much more.
Our little silky anteater deserved the plaudits it got from most people that day. And thanks to most of the guides who were doing their jobs, a lot more people are likely to remember it and know more about it. But I’m not so sure about that one small group. I hope they get a chance to stumble across another silky some day, and perhaps create a more memorable moment for themselves by recalling the enthusiasm others felt that one day in Corcovado.