Between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon, the Costa Rican rainforest is at its brightest. Any earlier or later, and the angle of the sun means that the light cannot hope to penetrate the dense canopy. Everything that loves the sun comes out in this short window, and that included my quarry: butterflies.
I was surveying the butterfly populations found within the rainforest, comparing undisturbed areas to those where people had been meddling. Today was an undisturbed day. I was venturing relatively deep into the forest behind the lodge, following the narrow paths to a place where people rarely went – perfect for butterflies, and a host of other wildlife besides.
Butterfly identification is not always an easy business, especially when the several hundred non-poisonous species are all doing their very best to look like the several hundred actually poisonous ones. When I had started the study I began by catching them in a net – a Frankensteinian creation comprising a leaf skimmer and a laundry bag – but had quickly abandoned this for a number of reasons.
Firstly, crashing through the undergrowth with net in tow after every uncooperative but very nimble butterfly soon proved exhausting, not to mention undignified. Secondly, on the rare occasion I had caught them, I would become paralytically afraid that I would inadvertently damage their delicate bodies. I’ve never been able to harm things without feeling physically ill, not even the most insistent mosquito. It’s a serious character flaw. I’m working on it – I can pull up weeds now – but it’s slow progress.
In any case, I’d forsaken the net in favour of my camera. It was the fanciest camera I had ever owned, but that wasn’t saying much. My friend who had sold it to me described it as ‘a camera for idiots’. It suited me perfectly. It had enough zoom that I could get lots of lovely photographs of butterflies, and spend a happy hour afterwards matching them to the pictures in the field guide. And the best bit was, it was in the name of science.
The only other equipment I needed was a long tape measure. My transect length was 200m: I would walk along at a slow and steady pace, letting out the tape behind me, and photographing any butterfly that flitted into my proximity. As fieldwork goes, it’s difficult to get any more idyllic.
So I set off, tape measure in one hand, camera in the other. Toucans were calling in the trees; agoutis, a sort of cat-sized rodent, scurried in the underbrush; in the distance, a troop of howler monkeys laid testimony to their name. It was another wonderful day in the jungle.
When I reached the section of path I was interested in, I took some preliminary photos of vegetation density and canopy cover, tied the end of the tape measure round a sapling, and began to walk. Soon I was snapping away with my camera. The butterflies were being unusually obliging, landing close by, displaying all their characteristic features for the camera. It was going well.
About fifty metres in, I became aware of a pervasive smell in the air. It is best described as reminiscent of rotting onions, a smell I knew well, having had a glamorous childhood growing up not far from an onion packing facility. But here, it didn’t mean that the onion lorry driver had taken the corner too fast again; it meant peccaries.
Peccaries, called ‘chanchos’ in Costa Rica, are a pig-like animal that roam the forest in large herds, foraging for roots, fruit, and pretty much anything else they can lay their snouts on. There are two-types that live in Costa Rica: white-lipped, and collared. The collared peccaries are considered the gentler species because they don’t exhibit the unfortunate habit of disembowelling people every now and then, unlike their psychotic cousins. It was these ‘gentle’ ones that inhabited the forests around the lodge, so I wasn’t worried. There was nothing to fear.
As I continued up the path, I could hear them grunting up ahead. I knew their vision was bad, but I was fairly certain they would hear or smell me coming and quickly make themselves scarce. The foliage was too thick to see them, but from their noises I estimated there were at least a dozen, maybe more. But they were still a little way away.
Then the bush immediately to my left gave off an almighty noise and began to shake. They had not heard me coming, and now they were freaked. The noise they made was not the squeal of a pig, but a piercing chatter. I took a few steps back. I thought about pressing on anyway, but I was unsure that my tape measure would stand up as an effective defence against an agitated chancho, even if they weren’t of the eviscerating persuasion. Maybe it was best if I came back later.
I hurried back down the path, glancing over my shoulder every now and then. They weren’t following. My nerves, already a little frazzled, were thoroughly reduced to shreds when a big branch crashed to the ground only metres from me. I looked up: an unapologetic wrinkled little face looked down. It was a troop of capuchin monkeys, foraging in the canopy above me. They probably hadn’t been trying to murder me, but I hadn’t trusted them ever since one had peed on me from a great height. I noticed they had a companion: a white hawk was following behind, feasting on the insects that the monkeys had flushed out. A lovely little symbiotic relationship. It was a nice reminder that nature is pretty cool sometimes.
An hour later, I was heading back. Those butterflies weren’t going to survey themselves, after all. This time, I had brought an extra tool with me: a machete. Given my crippling aversion to violence, I had no idea what I planned to do with it – maybe I could use the flat of the blade to give a charging peccary a stern rap on the head? – but it made me feel safer nonetheless.
This time the peccaries didn’t seem to be about, and I relaxed a little. I had covered over three quarters of the transect when I sensed movement; and then, within a moment, they were all around me. They were rushing frenziedly in a circle, a circle that seemed to be ever-tightening with me at the centre.
I remembered hearing somewhere that climbing into a tree, even only a couple of feet of the ground, is your best bet in such a situation. I looked around frantically: every tree was either as straight and true as a Roman column or festooned in poisonous thorns. Sometimes the jungle was an asshole.
A peccary burst from cover ahead of me onto the path. Who on earth had described them as ‘medium-sized’? This one looked big enough to take out a jaguar. Its tusks were as thick as my thumb. I gripped the machete harder, steeling myself. It looked at me with its little piggy eyes; its snout quivered.
And then it turned, and with the whole herd in tow, vanished back into the forest. It seemed they had sussed me out and decided that I was not a threat. They were right, of course. I exhaled, wiped my forehead, and got on with the last fifty metres. I lifted my camera as a butterfly alighted on a leaf before me. Despite my focus being irretrievably lost, the camera had no trouble in finding its own. Designed for idiots, I thought. I was very grateful.