Big Cats in Costa Rica: Every Cat In Details

To see big cats in Costa Rica, visit national parks, cloud forest reserves, or animal rescue centers like Las Pumas. Species include jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, tigrillos, and jaguarundis. Conservation efforts support their habitats. Don’t expect lions or tigers; they’ve been extinct in Costa Rica since the ice age.


Wildlife enthusiasts flock to Costa Rica to see its rich ecosystems, which support many wild animals. Many tourists always look for places to view the big cats. Costa Rica’s tropical climate makes it habitable for most big cats. 

When my kids started badgering me to see the big cats, I chose Costa Rica for its various activities. After much research, I learned where we could see big cat species in Costa Rica. 

Key Takeaways From This Article

In Costa Rica, the chances of seeing big cats in the wild or forests are rare. I highlight key takeaways about seeing big cats in Costa Rica. 

  • The most possible places to sight the big cats are in national parks, cloud forest reserves, and rescue centers. 
  • The biggest cat in Costa Rica is the jaguar, followed by the puma. 
  • The Costa Rican government and private individuals have taken measures to help conserve the endangered big cats. 
  • As a visitor to Costa Rica, you can also support these conservation efforts. 

6 Big Cats in Costa Rica

The big cats are an endangered species among the most dangerous Costa Rican animals. Currently, there are six species of wildcats in Costa Rica. Fortunately, Costa Rica has various habitats, from deep rainforests to mountainous ranges, that are the perfect habitats for the big cats. 

Ocelots, tigrillos, and margays are not as big as Jaguars, pumas, and jaguarundi. However, I’ve decided to include them because they’re larger than your typical house cat and live in the wild. 

Ocelot

It is one of the big cats that is easier to spot. Ocelots have a gray coat with beige blotches and spotted black rings. Their necks are streaked with black spots. The ocelot’s ears have a white spot, and its tail is short. 

Ocelots (Manigordo) have large paws. Hence, the Spanish name Mano Gordo means fat hand. These large paws make it easy for the ocelots to climb trees. The ocelots mainly weigh between 10 and 15 kg and grow to a length of one meter. 

Ocelots are more common in primary and secondary dry forests. Their diet comprises small mammals, reptiles, birds, rats, and monkeys. Ocelats rarely come out and love hiding in the trees during the day. They prefer hunting for food at night. 

Where can I find ocelots in Costa Rica?

The dense vegetation in Manuel Antonio, Tortuguero, and Peñas Blancas National Parks provides ideal ocelot habitats. When you visit the national parks, look up at the trees, and you are more likely to see ocelots sleeping. 

Margay Cats

Margray resembles an ocelot but has a longer tail and wider eyes. It has a unique ankle joint that can turn 180 degrees, enabling it to hop around trees easily. The ocelots can, therefore, live solely on trees, feeding on tree-dwelling mammals. They can also look for food on the ground. 

Black or brown spots and streaks cover the margay’s beige coat. Some ocelots are purely black with no spots, but they are rare. The average weight of an ocelot is between 3 and 4 kilograms. 

The margay cat (Caucel) is small and solitary and prefers to hunt for food at night. It can imitate its prey’s voice and attract it before trapping it. Most ocelot food consists of monkeys, insects, rodents, and lizards. 

Where can I find margays in Costa Rica?

The primary locations where you can expect to find ocelots are Santa Elena and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Corcovado and Santa Rosa National Parks host ocelots. Both cloud forest reserves are in the Tilarán Mountains.

Arenal Observatory Lodge has some ocelots, too. 

Jaguar

Most jaguars have a warm gold coat full of large black rosettes. The only exception is the black panther, which has a black body. However, the black panther is a name given to the black jaguars of Central and South America and the black leopards of Asia and Africa. 

The jaguar is the largest carnivore in Costa Rica and Central America. It’s rare to find a male jaguar in Costa Rica, as most are females. The weight of an adult jaguar is between 45 and 90kg and measures 2 meters. 

Jaguars rarely attack humans and tend to keep away from human interaction. They seek extensive hunting grounds. Dusk or dawn, is when jaguars are most active and do their hunting. Jaguars are water-loving and prefer to live near swamps and rivers. 

Jaguars mainly feed on the following:. 

Costa Rican Jaguars Favorite Meals
Deers Sloths
Birds Peccaries
Fish Green iguanas
Monkeys Sea turtles
Agoutis Tapirs

Where can I find Jaguars in Costa Rica?

Jaguars moved to the remote places of Costa Rica, and you’ll mainly find them in Corcovado, the Talamanca mountains, or Santa Rosa National Park. You can also visit the Jaguar Rescue Center

Tigrillo

The tiger cat (tigrillo), or oncillo, is the smallest of the big cats in Costa Rica. Its size is the same as that of a house cat. You can identify tigrillo by its pale coat color and closed black spots. At the side of its neck. 

The tigrillo prefers higher elevations, such as high mountains, volcanic mountains, and montane forests. 

Tigrillo is a solitary animal that prefers to hunt at night. However, it comes out during the day to chase diurnal lizards. Its main prey also includes small rodents and birds. 

Where can I find tigrillos in Costa Rica?

Due to poaching and deforestation, tigrillos live in the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, Braulio Carrillo, and Tapanti National Park. The tigrillos (Oncilla) seek higher altitudes of up to 3200 meters and will mainly reside in cloud forests. 

Puma

They are also known as mountain lions, cougars, panthers, or catamounts. Puma is the second-biggest cat in Costa Rica after the jaguar. Most pumas in North and South America have a uniform gray-brown to red coat with no spots. The Costa Rican puma, however, has a bright orange coat. 

Despite a body weight of 100 kg, the jaguar is well known for its speed, enabling it to maneuver as it hunts. 

Interestingly, pumas can adapt to various environments but are solitary and primarily hunt at night. Pumas’ main meal is deer, but they can also prey on small reptiles, birds, rodents, 

Where can I find pumas in Costa Rica?

Pumas mainly reside at Santa Rosa National Park, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and Cerro de la Muerte. You can also find them in Tenorio and Arenal Volcano National Parks

Jaguarundi

The jaguarundi has a long, sleek body, a small head, short legs, and a long, slender tail. It has an unspotted chestnut brown or dark gray coat. Jaguarundis look more like weasels than cats. 

The jaguarundi (León Breñero) is a cross between a weasel and a cat and easily adapts to changes in its habitat. It is a good swimmer who hunts both day and night. Jaguarundi prefers to live near running water bodies, such as rivers and lakes. 

The jaguarundi’s main diet comprises frogs, reptiles, mice, rats, and small mammals. The Jaguarundi is the only big cat that hunts during the day, so you can easily spot it. 

Where can I find jaguarundi in Costa Rica?

Though sighting a jaguarundi is uncommon, you can find them at the La Selva Biological Station, the Corcovado, Palo Verde, and Santa Rosa National Parks. These places provide the ideal ecosystems for the jaguarandi to survive. 

Where can I see big cats in Costa Rica?

Most big cats avoid humans, and seeing them in the wild will be challenging. Hence, to see big cats in Costa Rica, you have a better chance if you visit the following places:. 

Place Features
Simon Bolivar Zoo (San José) The big cats live in small concrete cages.
It’s an urban park in downtown San Jose. It is ideal for parents to take their kids to see wild animals within the capital city.
The Zoo takes in injured, disabled, or orphaned animals before releasing them back into the wild.
Las Pumas (Cañas) It’s an animal rescue center where big cats can return to the wild after recovery.
Only the animals in the center are visible due to their damage and inability to survive in the wild.
The admission fee is $12 for adults and $8 for kids. The center accepts donations, too.
Osa Peninsula The region is primarily located in the southwestern part of Costa Rica.
Due to its lush vegetation, most national parks that host big cats are on the Osa Peninsula.

 

Conservation efforts are underway to preserve Costa Rica’s big cats.

The Costa Rican government and individuals play a significant role in helping to conserve the big cats. They devise initiatives to protect national parks, private wildlife sanctuaries, and reserves. 

You can contribute to conservation efforts as a tourist by doing the following:. 

  • Choose eco-friendly accommodations, such as eco-lodges.
  • Participate in educational programs. 
  • Support responsible tourism operators. 
  • Maintain a safe distance and avoid disturbing the wild animals when viewing them. 
  • Donate to organizations that focus on conserving big cats, such as Panthera. 

Frequently Asked Questions

In Costa Rica, are there lions and tigers?

Don’t expect to see tigers and lions in most national parks, cloud forest reserves, and tropical jungles you’ll visit in Costa Rica. Both animals became extinct in this part of the world during the Ice Age. 

Which is the top predator in Costa Rica?

The jaguar is the top predator in Costa Rica. The jaguar can hunt on land, in water, and climb trees to get to their prey. Jaguars dangle their tails in rivers, using them as fishing bait for aquatic animals. 

The term jaguar comes from the term “yaguar,” a native American name meaning “killing with one leap.” Jaguars often pounce and kill their prey with one crushing bite. To crush their prey’s skull, they use potent crawls, teeth, and jaws.

Conclusion 

Costa Rica provides the best environment for the big cats. They can be seen in various locations in Costa Rica, but most are only visible at night. 

Which big cats did you see on your trip to Costa Rica? Please share your experiences with the big cats and where you came across them. 

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About 

Born in California, Michelle traveled extensively through the USA and Europe before moving to South Florida during the pandemic. Her career in Marketing has taken her all across the world. Her favorite country is France but she'll never turn down a beach vacation!

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