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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 355-365

A Sociocultural Perspective: Human Conflict with Jaguars and Pumas in Costa Rica

Environmental Studies Program, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA; Panthera, Costa Rica Division, San Jose, Costa Rica

Correspondence Address:
Jennifer Rebecca Kelly
Environmental Studies Program, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA; Panthera, Costa Rica Division, San Jose

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_17_141

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Date of Submission27-Sep-2017
Date of Acceptance05-Feb-2019
Date of Web Publication14-Oct-2019


This paper presents data about the sociocultural construction of conflict and the killing of jaguars and pumas in a part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC) of Costa Rica. Results from participant observation and 131 interviews revealed cultural differences between Ticos (non-Indigenous people) and Cabécar (Indigenous people) on four separate dimensions of conflict, where large felines were constructed as competitors, food, man-eaters, real and imagined. When compared to Ticos, Cabécar had more conflict, most likely because they live off the land and have frequent “real” encounters with felines. This study makes several contributions: 1) evidence suggests competition is not the only reason for killing large felines; motivations also include constructing them as man-eaters and as food, raising questions about the important role social and cultural factors play in solutions to conflict; 2) meanings from Cabécar are products of a traditional and modernised relationship with large felines; 3) Cabécar include jaguars as food, suggesting future research and conservation management must understand Indigenous Peoples' relations with large predators, including their diets and traditions; 4) potential for conflict may increase between Ticos and large felines as they repopulate; 5) culture is crucial to examine prior to management implementation.

Keywords: sociocultural, constructions, meanings, human-wildlife conflict, jaguars, pumas, felines, Costa Rica

How to cite this article:
Kelly JR. A Sociocultural Perspective: Human Conflict with Jaguars and Pumas in Costa Rica. Conservat Soc 2019;17:355-65

How to cite this URL:
Kelly JR. A Sociocultural Perspective: Human Conflict with Jaguars and Pumas in Costa Rica. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2019 [cited 2020 Aug 11];17:355-65. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2019/17/4/355/267727

   Introduction Top

Humans have a unique and complex relationship with large predators. Large predators have been constructed as attractions for wildlife viewing, emblems of conservation, objects of sporting activities, and as competitors for prey animals and livestock. Yet, such animals can decentre humanity. As Shepard (1996) contended, living with “large dangerous animals remind[s] us that we are small in the order of things” (p. 330); emphasising that the size of an animal has an impact on how he or she is constructed. However, human constructions of animals depend on more than size. Peggs (2012) says that some animals are perceived as good (e.g., endangered and threatened) and others as bad (e.g., pests and vermin) depending on whether or not conflict exists between humans and animals. This is similar to human dimensions of conflict; Marchini (2014: 199) described “bad” and “good” as evaluations of the impacts of animals, which then results in either a negative or positive experience. Conflicts and negative experiences often frame animals as problems. Kalof and Amthor (2010) conducted an investigation of problem animals in National Geographic to understand their framing. Three themes of conflict emerged: 1) animals as dangerous and disruptive to humans and their property; 2) animals as dangerous and disruptive to the natural world; and 3) humans as dangerous and disruptive to the natural world. The first two categories frame animals as bad, while the third paradigm frames animals as good and humans as bad.

Of the few studies targeting human dimensions of large felines in Costa Rica, one study conducted in the north found ranchers overestimated their livestock loss from feline predation. The study thus concluded that this misconception among ranchers “probably” resulted in negative perceptions toward large felines (Amit et al. 2013). Another study by Corrales-Gutiérrez et al. (2011) in the San Juan-La Selva biological corridor in Costa Rica found just over half of the people studied had positive attitudes toward jaguars, but negative attitudes toward conservation efforts.1 However, the researchers questioned the validity of the “positive attitudes”, claiming the residents may have been telling the interviewers what they wanted to hear.

This article depicts the various constructions related to the tension and conflicts between humans and large felines in Costa Rica. It considers conflicts, negative experiences, and meanings attached to large felines as dangerous and disruptive. It draws on the framing of jaguars and pumas as bad (Kalof and Amthor 2010; Peggs 2012; Marchini 2014) to delineate “what conflicts are really about” (Pooley et al. 2016) with large felines.

Sociocultural constructions of large predators are sometimes based on real conflict, which has been described in the literature as human-wildlife conflict involving direct encounters and negative interactions relating to property, crops, livestock, fisheries, and human safety (Peterson et al. 2010). Real conflict can be provoked by large felines on humans and by humans on large felines, as suggested by Kalof and Amthor (2010) in their identification of humans posing a danger to animals. In their description of large predator attacks on humans, Quigley and Herrero (2005) define provoked and unprovoked attacks. Provoked attacks include many circumstances both intentional, such as trying to kill an animal or unintentional, such as when a person has food which attracts an animal. Unprovoked attacks are when the animal is attracted to the person rather than the person's food, for example. Most constructions of animals are not based on attacks or even real encounters. Moreover, what defines a negative evaluation of an animal depends on the impact (Marchini 2014) or perceived impact.

Imaginary conflict, unlike real conflict, refers to folklore or historical experiences of encounters that no longer exist or are rare. For example, Adams (2012) examined the narratives of nineteenth century and early-twentieth century Western naturalists and hunters; she discovered that jaguars were not represented in earlier text by their actual behaviour.

In order to ground the conflict discussion in a historical context of human relations with large felines, this study draws upon the work of Adams (2012) and Saunders (1998) on the hunting and killing of jaguars. I look at historical representations of felines to explore current sociocultural constructions of conflict with jaguars and pumas. Adams (2012) examined how the jaguar was encountered and represented through narratives. Saunders' (1998) anthropological work focused on the historical representation of Amerindians. The current study used interviews and participant observational data from Cabécar and Ticos in Costa Rica. In drawing on historical relations with jaguars and pumas, it is not my intent to blend Western and Indigenous cultures but to demonstrate that meanings are tethered to the past.

This study included jaguars (Panthera onca) and pumas (Puma concolor)—with a larger focus on jaguars as the keystone species—in the shared ecological space of a biological corridor in Costa Rica to explore the various meanings of conflict with large predators. One of the objectives of this study was to examine the sociocultural constructions of jaguars and pumas through traditions, practices, frameworks, experiences, social training, and expectations (Goedeke and Herda-Rapp 2005) within the shared ecological space of a biological corridor in Costa Rica. Constructions are diverse where the meaning depends on group membership interlaced with residency. It aims to understand whether sociocultural constructions of wild animals are based on ideologies embedded in the culture one is from and the society in which one lives. It also seeks to understand what sociocultural meanings and constructs of conflict with jaguars and pumas exist in the Barbilla-Destierro Biological Subcorridor (Subcorredor Biológico Barbilla- Destierro; SBBD) of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC) of Costa Rica.

   Methodology Top

Study site

The SBBD is spread across 37,589 ha and is critical for the connectivity of the MBC between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. The SBBD is a rural area having 26 small settlements inhabited by 8,000 people (Rojas and Chavarría 2005), whose primary livelihood is livestock and agriculture (González and Poltronieri 2002).

The corridor is also home to the Cabécar, who live in Nairi Awari, Chirripó, and Bajo Chirripó Indigenous reservations. These Indigenous communities strongly depend on government subsidies (Rojas and Chavarría 2005). They are relatively isolated, with little access to the outside market and basic public services (Gonzalez and Poltronieri 2002). Living on subsistence agriculture, many families have cows, pigs, horses, and chickens (Gonzalez and Poltronieri 2002).

Interviews and participant observation

Semi-structured, open-ended, in-person interviews and participant observation were conducted during a 14-month period between 2013 and 2014. Three research assistants (two Ticos and one Cabécar) and I conducted the interviews in Spanish, Cabécar, and English.

Private, behind the scenes, and public guided tours at ecotourism establishments and private reserves as well as regular attendance at two monthly corridor meetings fed into participant observation data. Between January 2014 and August 2014, I accompanied Panthera 2 in fieldwork for their rancher outreach program. While my research was conducted separate from their work, I convoyed with field biologists from Panthera on five separate occasions, each lasting about three days on average. Observations were recorded in a notebook.

The study was designed to measure the cognitive influences of behaviour toward jaguars. To create the interview instrument, I drew from the literature on human-jaguar conflict (and also the literature where pumas were included with jaguars). This was sourced by researching and compiling the literature on human conflict with, constructions of, perceptions of, and attitudes towards jaguars in Mexico and Central and South America. While 15 questions were included in the overall study, this paper used the data from 10 of those questions. Most questions included both jaguars and pumas. In developing the interview questions in line with the cognitive influences of behaviour, I aligned the literature on human jaguars with the literature on pro-environmental behaviour, especially within the three dimensions of ecological knowledge, norms, and behaviours. I first asked participants about their knowledge of jaguars and pumas, before asking them about norms and behaviours. On average, the interviews lasted between 20 and 40 minutes. The interview questions are listed in the appendix.


On October 31, 2013, ethical approval for this study (#x13-1039e) was provided by the Human Research Protection Program of Michigan State University. A consent form, listed in the appendix, was given to each participant. I ensured confidentiality by giving a number to the interview responses, which was used in the data input and analysis.


I interviewed 131 people who reside in and/or own property (e.g., a tourism establishment) in the SBBD. [Table 1] describes my sample, which was culturally distinct, 90 Ticos,3 38 Cabécar, and three North Americans. The disparity between Tico and Cabécar samples was due to limited funding and accessibility issues related to the remoteness of the three Indigenous Reservations. The small number of North Americans is a reflection of the few foreigners living in the SBBD.4 Interviewees voluntarily participated in the study without incentives.
Table 1: Demographic characteristics

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Interviews started in Valle Escondido, Bajo del Tigre, and Las Lomas, the home towns of the research assistants. From there, researchers conducted a snowball sample asking interviewees to recommend other ranchers and/or agriculturalists who would be willing to participate in the interviews. The interviews were conducted in 23 towns and in 12 communities within the three Indigenous Reservations. In addition to the snowball sample, 14 ranchers from Panthera's rancher outreach programme were included.5

The Tico sample had 28 women and 62 men. Female representation decreased in the Cabécar sample, where only three of the participants were women and 35 were men. As part of Cabécar culture, only women aged over 75 years old are allowed to speak in public. Of the three Cabécar women in the sample, only two were over 75 years old. The third woman who was 41 years old did not respect this cultural taboo and agreed to participate. The Tico livelihoods were livestock and agricultural production (e.g., cilantro). Most of the Cabécar did not have a livelihood outside of cultivating their own food.

Analysis of data

I measured human conflict with jaguars because they are a keystone species and of critical importance for ecosystem balance. However, I documented and evaluated data related to pumas as well as jaguars for the following reasons: 1) Panthera's rancher outreach program includes the protection of both jaguars and pumas; 2) jaguars and pumas are the only large predators in Costa Rica able to take down a calf; and 3) as the second largest feline in Costa Rica next to jaguars, pumas are more prevalent than jaguars in many regions throughout the SBBD. Overall jaguars were more prevalent in remote locations corresponding to Cabécar communities where pumas shared ecological space with Ticos in more developed regions.

I translated the data from Spanish to English and analysed it by drawing on the words and phrases from my interviews and participant observation data that were aligned with the literature. Categories reflect the conflicts, negative experiences, and bad meanings attached to large predators. Within this paradigm, I developed subthemes through both inductive and deductive coding. When possible, I used pre-existing framing from the literature. For example, I was familiar with Adams (2012), who analysed narratives and found jaguars constructed as man-eaters.6 In other instances, such as the construction of felines as food, where I did not have literature to draw on, I used the data to form this category. The constructions of large felines represented the various meanings and motivations for killing which respondents attached to jaguars and pumas.

Because my results did not show a high percentage of knowledge related to the identification of jaguars and pumas, I only include the word jaguar or puma when the participant was able to accurately identify them, using the term large feline when identification was not certain. This should not be taken to imply that constructions are the same for both jaguars and pumas. In fact, this highlights the need for more research to understand species ecological knowledge and identification.

I present basic quantitative and descriptive data to elucidate my findings. I acknowledge this is not a representative, random sample, but rather an illustration of patterns that emerged from my data. When describing the percentages of my sample within each theme, I use statistical commentary to delineate the construction of conflict among Ticos, Cabécar, jaguars, and pumas.

   Argument Top

The construction of animals is based on group membership (Goedeke and Herda-Rapp 2005) and differences may occur between people from different cultures, such as between western-Europeans and Native Americans, as well as between groups with different views within the same culture, such as between wildlife viewers and hunters. Results were culturally dichotomised between Ticos and Cabécar. Felines were constructed as man-eaters by Ticos. Felines were perceived as human competitors by Cabécar more than by Ticos. Felines were fashioned as food by Cabécar, but not by Ticos. Feline encounters were positioned as real (meaning actual human-feline encounters occurred) by Cabécar more than by Ticos, leaving felines to be imagined more by Ticos. [Table 2] provides a description of the themes based on culture.
Table 2: Sociocultural themes

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Felines as competitors

Twenty-six percent (34/131) of the entire sample, 55% (21/38) Cabécar, and 14% (13/90) Ticos constructed jaguars and/or pumas as competitors for livestock and/or pets. If respondents had and/or knew someone who had killed and/or would kill (if they had a problem of predation on livestock and/or pets), they constructed jaguars and pumas as competitors. Eight percent (10/128) of the entire sample,7 2% (2/90) of Ticos, and 21% (8/38) of Cabécar said they would kill a large feline if they had a predation problem. Of the 10, 60% (6/10)8 stated the only option would be to kill the large feline. Of these six, two were Tico ranchers and four were Cabécar. Seven percent (6/90) of Ticos and 47% (18/38) of Cabécar said either themselves, a relative, or neighbour had killed a jaguar or a puma.

Among Ticos, jaguars and pumas were constructed as competitors for two concrete reasons. First, because they attacked livestock and impinged on the livelihoods of ranchers. One administrator of a tourism lodge stated that in August or September 2014 the neighbouring rancher had two puma attacks within one month. The rancher then allowed hunters on his property to hunt and kill the puma. Another 56-year-old rancher chose to kill the jaguar or puma when asked what solutions he would employ if he had a predation issue. He followed up saying, “I don't believe I would change the way I work because it takes money and I don't have the money. Sincerely it is just easier to kill the animal.” He ended with a final justification saying felines are also dangerous for people, corroborating the work of Kalof and Amthor (2010). They are constructed as competition to a livelihood that is hard to transform. Such solutions are not uncommon, as Ronit Amit from the Department of Environment Organization Guanacaste Fellowship notes, “The cat is taking away the farmer's money. The farmer doesn't have much money. The easiest solution is to kill the cat” (Fendt 2014).

Others reported retaliation intentions not connected to workload or economic difficulties. One 43-year-old rancher said he “would buy a gun to kill the feline. I don't care about the law.” Killing the feline is the only thing he would do given he knows that no one in the community would say or do anything about it. A 28-year-old woman responded to the question “Do your neighbours kill jaguars and pumas?” with “No, and if they do, it is because the jaguar or puma is causing problems in the area; it would be normal to kill an animal for that reason.” Although these statements were not common, they reinforce the construction of jaguars as competitors. Daniel Corrales, who is in charge of Panthera's Rancher Outreach Program in the SBBD, summed it up as “Time has passed, things have changed, but the rancher has always seen the tiger, or the jaguar, as an enemy” (Fendt 2014).

I found only occasional accounts that jaguars and pumas were constructed as competition for prey animals. This could be the result of two main factors. First, sport hunting is illegal in Costa Rica, so hunting of prey animals is restricted to Indigenous populations. Second, many of the interviewees were ranchers and lived in deforested areas where prey habitat had been depleted. Of the interviewees that did conceptualise jaguars or pumas as competition, the stories were old. For example, a 92-year-old woman said that the last time she saw a jaguar was when she was 60 years old; she was hunting with her husband for agouti, when suddenly they saw a jaguar who hunted and ate the agouti.

Jaguars have been constructed as human competitors throughout history (Saunders 1998). A view of jaguars as competitors and equally as threats, is based on their predatory behaviour, which is similar to humans (Saunders 1998: 22):

The jaguar's distinctive predatory qualities are shared, in part, by humans, who also have no consistent animal predators, and who hunt, kill, and eat all manner of other animals, including, on occasion, each other. The cluster of behavioral traits which jaguars and humans share, and which, to a degree, make them co-equivalent competitors, presents itself as one possible reason why adult human males (hunters/warriors), are regarded as equivalent to adult jaguars.

Marchini et al. (2010: 8) echo Saunders' depiction of human-jaguar similarities, when they state: “Jaguars and humans are approximately the same size; we both eat meat, and, therefore, we contend for the same prey species, wild or domestic. The most common argument for not wanting to coexist with jaguars is the fact that they feed on what should be exclusively people's food: domestic cattle.” My findings show less than half of the Ticos construct large felines as competition, and even then only a very small percentage are willing to kill large felines as a result of their predatory nature. These results corroborate previous research reporting large felines as a threat to livelihoods (Rabinowitz 2000; Rabinowitz 2005), but may suggest that killing the jaguar or puma is not the first response to predation problems among Tico ranchers in the SBBD. In other words, the construction of jaguars and pumas as competitors does not translate into the desire to kill them. While a few ranchers disclosed it was normal (albeit illegal) to kill jaguars and pumas who caused problems, most Ticos were not willing to kill large felines.

Felines as food

Eating the meat of felines was uncommon among Ticos, where only one man had eaten the liver of a puma. Another 42-year-old rancher responded to the question, “Have you ever killed a jaguar or puma?” with “No, never”, and explained that he does not eat the meat of cats, but occasionally goes fishing. He said that fishing does not damage nature because he uses the meat of the fish. It is interesting that this rancher even brought up eating cats if this isn't something that had been done, even on rare occasions. The community in which this interview took place is very close to the Cabécar Indigenous reservation, which may be the reason this rancher had heard of eating felines.

In contrast, 21% (8/38) of the Cabécar sample mentioned felines as food in the interviews (ages mid-late 20s, 31, 33, 42, 60, 80, 85, and 90). One of them explained he had heard stories about eating feline meat, while the remaining seven had regularly or at some point eaten the meat of a feline. The 90-year-old Cabécar woman said she gives her permission to kill jaguars in exchange for meat because she does not eat rice but only mountain meat (which is healthier). Jaguars are killed two times per year because it is hard to find them. It is normal to kill Nama9 because it is a tradition to eat the spirit of the mountain. This description suggests that jaguars would be killed more frequently if they were abundant. Such Indigenous ways of living illustrate their persistence in eating jaguars, despite the reduction in the population of large felines. An 85-year-old man revealed the cultural myth that humans kill and eat jaguars, so jaguars don't come close to people. Another 80-year-old man said he killed a jaguar a long time ago for food.

Eating felines was not only restricted to the elderly Indigenous upholding ancient traditions. One of the younger participants explained when he was visiting another Cabécar reservation in the mountains three years ago, they served him Nama. Another 33-year-old male said, “I kill some to eat and leave the rest.”Not only do Cabécar kill and eat felines, sometimes even “outsiders” (defined by Cabécar as Ticos) kill. For example, one 60-year-old man said, “A jaguar was killed by three outsiders. They took the skin and teeth and gifted us the meat to eat.” Another Cabécar, a 42-years-old, admitted to eating wild animals, but said “Felines I don't eat”, illustrating a separation of himself from Cabécar who do eat felines.

My findings corroborate previous research that found jaguars and pumas are also consumed in Colombia (Gonzalez-Maya et al. 2010: 67) and by the Maya in Belize (Rabinowitz 2000). In Colombia, the consumption of puma meat within a small community was considered a big event for the town (Gonzalez-Maya et al. 2010: 67). My data does not reveal any traditions associated with the eating of jaguars or pumas, except for the one elderly woman who commented that it was tradition to eat the spirit of the mountain.

Felines as man-eaters

Of my Cabécar sample, only 13% (5/38) thought jaguars and/or pumas would attack humans. Reasons included fear if they had small offspring, and myth (such as, in Cabécar tradition, jaguars regulate social norms). For example, one elderly Cabécar woman said jaguars only eat people of incest. This statement reflects Bribri 10 myths that felines punished people who had transgressed social norms (Bozzoli 1979: 182). In order to co-exist with large felines, the Indigenous followed these myths, which justify jaguar attacks on humans engaging in incest. Such traditions also warned Cabécar not to walk with cats, cubs or small children in the mountain. For example, one Cabécar stated it was prohibited to carry domestic cats on the mountain. Such a norm was not always respected as another participant knew of a jaguar who attacked a man on a mountain road because the man was carrying a small domestic cat in his backpack. The participant indicated that the jaguar thought it was one of her cubs and attacked the man. Apparently, the man's life was spared because he lived close to where the attack took place. Such stories resemble a Cabécar origin myth that describes a brave mother jaguar that protected her child with great care (Stone 1961: 121–122). Another Cabécar said, “I haven't heard of a jaguar attacking a human for a little while, but history says that jaguars and pumas eat people therefore we believe that they are able to attack.” In fact, one Cabécar story entitled Birök wa sä katälä (Small Tigers that Eat the Cabécares) sends a warning message: Cabécar are able to lose their life to the tigers that live in the peaks of Telire, Chirripo, and Tayni mountains (Morales 2013).

Thirty seven percent (33/93)11 of Ticos and North Americans thought large felines would attack humans, although none of the respondents actually knew a person who had been attacked. Reasons participants thought felines would attack were to protect their family, if they are hungry, if they feel intimidated or scared, or because they are innately aggressive and dangerous.

One 47-year-old rancher explained that jaguar attacks depend on many situations, for example, being bothered or being hungry. He said, about three years ago an “Indian” told him that a jaguar had attacked a well-known man who was hunting with his dog, and only his clothes were found. The participant said, “Poor guy—that the end was so awful to die as the food of one of those animals.” In this same region, a recent rumour had a similar storyline, where a Cabécar was killed by a jaguar near the Pacuare River and only parts of his body were found. Both instances demonstrate the construction of man-eating jaguars in the SBBD.

Constructing large felines as man-eaters has been discussed in the literature. For example, in Brazil, jaguars were found to be a risk to human lives (Conforti and Azevedo 2003). However, this man-eating image may only be a representation, rather than real. This is often described in the literature as perceived risk versus real risk (Conforti and Azevedo 2003). Such detachments between actual behaviour and social constructions of jaguar behaviour are present in Leopold's narration in A Sand County Almanac (1949), argued Adams (2012: 92), when she said, “In these narratives, the jaguar is not present, and yet the idea of the fierce man-eater remains a provocative image that 'pervades' the landscape.” In 2005, Rabinowitz (2005: 278) stated “there have been no verified records of man-eating jaguars, and relatively few records of jaguars killing people.” In 2011, three cases in Brazil reported jaguars attacking humans. In one case, the jaguar was provoked (Neto et al. 2011); a Brazilian jaguar expert speculated the other two incidents had been triggered by humans as well (pers. comm.; May 2014 with Rafael Hoogesteijn).

Rural Costa Rica could be similar to rural Brazil, where Marchini (2010) discovered stories of jaguar attacks may have been inflated (as cited in Marchini 2014: 196). Marchini (2014) draws on the literature to provide potential explanations: 1) repetition of stories within a community become fact; 2) stories of predator attacks can persist for many years despite the fact that attacks no longer occur; and (3) a person draws on what is immediately available in the memory, often favouring traumatic events (Marchini 2014: 196). My findings illustrate that the construction of jaguars as man-eaters still persists in the SBBD, despite no evidence of attacks.

Felines as real and imagined

Results demonstrate show 33% (30/90) of Ticos had and/or a neighbour/relative had seen and/or killed a jaguar or puma. Of these 30, 73% (22/30) remembered an approximate date; 68% (15/22) provided dates ranging from three to 40 years ago. Ticos reported old stories 12 of hunting and killing jaguars and pumas. Some stories were vague while other were vivid in their memory. Of the 15 stories, only two were recent accounts of killing or knowing someone who had killed a jaguar or puma. Old memories of large felines demonstrate the kind of lasting impression of the sighting and/or killing experience congruent with the availability heuristic (Marchini 2014). The fact that most sightings/killings are older also reveals the lack of large felines in the region, which is also reflected in 14% (13/90) of respondents who said jaguars and pumas do not exist in their area. Take for example, one rancher/hunter who said, “I would love to see a puma. It is my favourite animal, but they are very difficult to see. I have been going to the mountain since I was a child, and I have never seen one.” This demonstrates that even avid hunters rarely encounter jaguars and pumas in the SBBD, corroborating the lack of large felines in the region. Also, most sightings/killings seem to older. Suggesting felines are imagined to most Ticos.

Mostly I did not include descriptive statistics of my North American sample, which consisted of only three people, it is important to include one quote from an American living in the SBBD who said, “To tell you the truth, I am glad the large cats are not close to my house because I have two small kids and my dogs.” This sentiment was reflected in the corridor meetings, where one representative from the Ministry of Park Systems said the people in Costa Rica are not used to living next to wild animals. She takes calls when people see jaguars, crocodiles, and other dangerous animals near their home and want them removed, but she says that “we need to respect their space.” These calls are excellent because it means “the forest is coming back,” she explained. “We are seeing more living wild animals now, but we are not accustomed to it.”

Jaguars and pumas were constructed as dangerous animals, although my data did not reveal any evidence of threating feline behaviour toward humans. Adams (2012) claimed this is common of jaguars in the Western world, “Through the process of representation, jaguars are removed from their own animality, or jaguar-selves, and enter cultural discourse as objects” (p. 82). Moreover, scientific reports, photographs, videos, and discourse are confused or conflated with jaguars themselves, misunderstanding their actual behaviour. In reality, jaguars are hard to identify, as Adams (2012: 86) acknowledged, “Encounters with jaguars are typically fleeting (unless an animal is killed as a result).” Adams found such disconnects between jaguar behaviour and representation in the work of John James Audubon, an ornithologist, naturalist, and hunter. He writes of jaguars in his scientific text as “ferocious beasts” leading people to be more terrified of the predator than the animal warrants (Adams 2012: 90). Adams (2012: 94) stated, “The jaguar frequently figures into these narratives not as an animal but imagined as a cunning villain or worthy foe.”

Not only through a historical lens, but fabricated accounts in modern day Costa Rica also contribute to misunderstandings of feline attacks. For example, Esther Pomareda, a biologist from Las Pumas Rescue Center in Costa Rica stated, “Most people kill jaguars because they are misinformed… People think that if it attacks cows, it will attack them or their children” (Fendt 2014). This statement was reflected in the response of a 43-year-old rancher who directly expressed his fear and the killing of jaguars, when he stated, “I would be amazed if I saw a jaguar or a puma, but I would probably kill it.” He explained that he has a child and cows and he does not want felines so close to the house. He expressed that killing the animals is the only solution to the problem.

In contrast to Ticos, large felines were real to Cabécar, where 84% (32/38) discussed seeing and/or killing a jaguar or puma. Fifty-five percent (21/38) saw a jaguar and/or puma (this does not include those who saw tracks of a large feline); of the those 52% (11/21) saw the feline in the past 6 months or less, revealing the close proximity of Cabécar to large felines. Of the participants who provided details on the timeframe in which the felines were killed, Cabécar had recent accounts of sightings/killings (e.g., just days before the interview). These results suggest jaguars and pumas are real to most Cabécar, while the ghosts of large felines live in stories and therefore are imagined to most Ticos living in the SBBD.

   Conclusion Top

Conflict and killing of jaguars and pumas in the SBBD

In addition to Costa Rica, studies have found jaguars were killed regularly in Argentina (Altrichter et al. 2006), Brazil (Carvalho and Pezzuti 2010; Marchini and Macdonald 2012), and Mexico (Navarro-Serment et al. 2005). Research in the Brazilian Amazonia found jaguars were killed in retaliation for livestock, in chance encounters, when hunting for other species, when felines were near the village, and when swimming in the river (Carvalho and Pezzuti 2010). This study provided evidence that competition or threats to livelihoods are not the only reason for killing large felines; motivations also include constructing large felines as man-eaters and as food. This raises questions about solutions to conflict, which have largely centred around economic incentives or compensation for economic damage (Zimmerman et al. 2010; Dickman et al. 2013). My research corroborates the need to further examine social factors (Dickman 2010)—like attitudes and traditional customs in the case of lions (Hazzah et al. 2017)—that may influence situations of conflict more than actual damage by wildlife. In fact, scholars have acknowledged the important role of culture in improving human-predator relations (Pooley et al. 2016). However, as Bennett et al. articulate (2016: 3), “...the social sciences are still far from mainstream in conservation.” Such attention emphasises the need for social science research in understanding the personal, social, and cultural motivations of conflict (Dickman et al. 2013).

Accordingly, while the conflict paradigm has been the conventional way in which human-predator encounters have been studied, there is a need to better understand the meaning of conflict (Pooley et al. 2016). My study suggests conflict needs to be understood based on the culture or cultures in the ecological space in which the large predator exists, and that conflict can be described in at least four dimensions in the SBBD of Costa Rica, where large felines were constructed as competition, man-eaters, food, and as real and imagined.

Cultural differences

I found that meanings from Cabécar Indigenous are the products of both a traditional and modernised relationship with large felines. While some evidence revealed a traditional or a native relationship between Cabécar and felines, as the data that indicates jaguars eat Cabécar who transgress social norms such as incest suggests, findings from the larger study found that Cabécar not only kill jaguars and pumas but also sell their skins to Ticos (Kelly 2018), suggesting a sign of Western influence on Cabécar Indigenous culture. Further, Cabécar dramatically differed from Ticos in constructing felines as food, validating the work of González-Maya et al. (2010) who claimed studying traditional use of felines is vital in gaining a holistic understanding of conservation in Latin America. At the very least, some Cabécar include jaguars as food. This should push future research on large predators to include Indigenous people while studying questions like: 1) traditions associated with consumption, including what parts are consumed and for what purposes; 2) frequency of consumption; and 3) how many neighbours, relatives, and friends consume. Given that jaguars and pumas live in similar geographic spaces to Indigenous people, and few studies investigate Indigenous cultures and their interactions with large felines, ethnographic research in such areas could provide insights into the impact of cultural practices, such as eating felines, on the conservation of large predators. Moreover, future studies need to evaluate ancient traditions connected to the symbolic importance of jaguars in order to better understand how customs may encourage or discourage the killing of large felines today. This requires ethnographic research in Indigenous communities. This also highlights the need for including Indigenous peoples, their diets, and their traditions to be considered in conservation studies of large predators.

Management implications

Findings reveal felines are mostly imaginary (33%) to Ticos and real (84%) to Cabécar. One may extrapolate that Ticos, therefore, have a higher capacity for coexistence with felines. Hunting in the SBBD has decreased, at least partially, as a result of less prey to hunt. When large predator populations are low, they are hunted less. This is the case in my data that shows Cabécar kill large felines more than Ticos. Similar cases have demonstrated that there is a desire for hunting large predators, such as alligators, when species repopulate (Barrow 2010). Repopulation also reinforces constructions of predators as competitors, such as the case with anglers and pond owners in Missouri who saw the otter as a rival for fish (Goedeke 2005). Such examples lead to questions of coexistence. In other words, when populations of jaguars and pumas increase, will Ticos' capacity for coexistence transform positively or negatively? Finally, hunting of large predators can not only be impacted by lack of available animals to hunt, but also by other influences such as inhibiting laws and a sociocultural shift among the population. Future research must examine all possibilities. How situations of conflict and coexistence transform in response to increases in populations of large felines and their prey needs to be examined.

Finally, and most vividly, this research emphasised that culture—Tico as non-Indigenous—and Cabécar Indigenous—is crucial to examine prior to management implementation. Such understandings are especially vital in regions with Indigenous people, validating the importance of cultural context in integrating biodiversity conservation with Indigenous livelihoods (Barnes et al. 2011). As acknowledged by conservation biologists, “While the search for effective, sustainable strategies for human-carnivore coexistence continues, there is a growing consensus that part of the solution requires greater involvement of local people. Conservationists cannot always rely upon a single conservation incentive; rather, they should consider a broader and more flexible approach that is tailored to the specific values and culture of the relevant local communities” (Hazzah et al. 2014: 859). For example, in Kenya, the Lion Guardian Program is based on the cultural values of the Maasai, and as a result there has been a transformation from the killing of lions to protecting them (Dolrenry et al. 2016). Likewise, a program that was specifically tailored to Cabécar cultural values could promote co-existence between Cabécar and jaguars, as my sample suggests that Cabécar encountered large felines more frequently and more recently than Ticos living in the SBBD.

Culture expands Indigenous and non-Indigenous divides to include community cultures, which also exist. As two ranchers during interviews stated it would be normal to kill a large predator who had attacked livestock. Such statements demonstrate community cultural norms must develop a “no tolerance” for hunting and killing large predators if humans are to co-exist with jaguars and pumas in the SBBD. This this research corroborates the results of Zimmerman et al. (2010) who argued that interventions without understanding the social and cultural lives of people living among large felines will have little impact on conservation.

   Acknowledgements Top

I would like to thank Dr. Linda Kalof, Dr. Thomas Dietz, Dr. Laurie Medina, and Dr. Aaron McCright for their valuable feedback on this paper. I am also grateful to the following departments at Michigan State University for providing funding for this research: The Animal Studies Program, The Department of Sociology (including the Jay Artis and the John and Ruth Useem Endowments), The Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and The Center for Gender, Justice and Environmental Change. Further, I greatly appreciate the Culture and Animals Foundation for financial support. Finally, I am thankful to Roberto Salem and Panthera in Costa Rica for their support of my field work and the two biological corridor groups—Subcorredor Biológico Barbilla-Destierro Paso del Jaguar and the Corredor Biológico Volcánica Central-Talamanca Consejo Local—for allowing me to join their communities for this research.

   Appendix Top

Interview Questions

  1. *Norms: Are you aware of any big cats killed close to your house or in the area? Retrieve as many details as possible: location, reason/circumstances, method, date, species (jaguar, puma) and sex, any evidence such as photographs, body parts, skin/fur, killer (if possible) (Conforti and Azevedo 2003; Carvalho and Pezzuti 2010; Marchini and Macdonald 2012).
  2. *Norms: How many of your neighbours do you think kill jaguars? Think of the landowners in the area, what percentage of them do you think kill jaguars? And pumas? (Conforti and Azevedo 2003; Carvalho and Pezzuti 2010; Marchini and Macdonald 2012).
  3. Norms: Do you think jaguars would attack humans without being provoked? (Conforti and Azevedo 2003). If so, do you know of any such incidents (retrieve as many details as possible)?
  4. Norms: When was the last time you saw a jaguar or a sign of jaguars (tracks, etc.) and/or pumas and what was the location? What happened when you saw the jaguar or puma? And how did that make you feel? If you were to see a jaguar how would you feel? If you were to see a puma how would you feel? (Altrichter et al. 2006).
  5. **Norms: If you have livestock: What would you be willing to change in your husbandry practices in order to minimize predation on your livestock? If yes… what would you suggest for solving the problem? (Let them respond w/o probing. If they don't understand the question or have not response, then you can give them the below choice): (Conforti and Azevedo 2003)

  6. I have 6 suggestions, which one(s) do you prefer?

    1. Using preventative methods in the property (use predator proof-enclosures during night, use electric fences to surround pastures and/or enclosures, keep herds away from the forest, etc.)
    2. Buy water buffalo to keep jaguars and pumas away
    3. Killing the problem jaguar/puma
    4. Financial compensation for livestock losses by jaguars or pumas
    5. Relocating the problem jaguar/puma
    6. Removing/eradicating all jaguars from the area.
    7. Restructuring the food chain (reintroduction of native species extinct locally)

  7. **Norms: Those without livestock: If you had a jaguar or puma close to your house what would you do? What would you suggest for solving the problem? (Let them respond w/o probing. If they don't understand the question or have not response, then you can give them the below choice) (Conforti and Azevedo 2003).

  8. I have 6 suggestions, which one(s) do you prefer?

    1. Using preventative methods in the property (use predator proof-enclosures during night for pets; electric fences to keep predators from entering your yard)
    2. Purchase a dog that scares jaguars and pumas off
    3. Killing the problem jaguar/puma
    4. Financial compensation for livestock losses by jaguars or pumas
    5. Relocating the problem jaguar/puma
    6. Removing/eradicating all jaguars from the area
    7. Restructuring the food chain (reintroduction of native species extinct locally)

    8. *Behaviours: Have you hunted jaguars and/or pumas ever? Do you hunt jaguars and/or pumas regularly? Retrieve as many details as possible: location, reason/circumstances, method, date, species (jaguar, puma) and sex, any evidence such as photographs, body parts, skin/fur, killer (if possible).
    9. *Behaviours: Have you ever killed a jaguar and/or puma? Do you kill them regularly? Retrieve as many details as possible: location, reason/circumstances, method, date, species (jaguar, puma) and sex, any evidence such as photographs, body parts, skin/fur, killer (if possible).
    10. Behaviours: Do people poach wildlife on your land, if so which animals? (Conforti and Azevedo 2003).

    1. Retrieve as many details as possible: location, reason/circumstances, method, date, species (jaguar, puma) and sex, any evidence such as photographs, body parts, skin/fur, killer (if possible)

  9. Behaviours: Has anyone ever poached a jaguar or puma on your land? (Conforti and Azevedo 2003).

    1. Retrieve as many details as possible: location, reason/circumstances, method, date, species (jaguar, puma) and sex, any evidence such as photographs, body parts, skin/fur, killer (if possible)

*These four questions are published in Kelly (2018).

**These questions were only asked when speaking to people with livestock or without livestock.

Consent Form

You have been selected to help with an important research project. The purpose of this research is to assess the human relationship with jaguars and pumas in Costa Rica. I request your participation for approximately 30 minutes of which I will ask you to discuss how humans perceive and act toward jaguars and pumas in this region. The benefit of this research will help society understand the way in which humans view jaguars and pumas. Your participation is a vital component in the success of the project and I sincerely hope that you will consider participating.

Participation in this research is voluntary and you will not be denied any benefits to which you are entitled if you decide not to participate. You may choose not to answer specific questions or may discontinue participation at any time without any penalty. Your responses will remain completely confidential. Your privacy will be protected to the maximum extent allowable by law. There are no foreseeable risks associated with participation in this study.

If you have concerns or questions about this study, such as scientific issues, how to do any part of it, or to report an injury, please contact the researcher Dr. Linda Kalof at 6G Berkey Hall, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, 48824, USA; lkalof@msu.edu; 517-355-6638. If you have questions or concerns about your role and rights as a research participant, would like to obtain information or offer input, or would like to register a complaint about this study, you may contact, anonymously if you wish, the Michigan State University's Human Research Protection Program by telephone (517-355-2180) or fax (517-432-4503) or e-mail (irb@msu.edu) or regular mail (207 Olds Hall, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, 48824, USA).

Thank you for your assistance.


1 Motivated by misconceptions from el Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Mixto Maquenquerepresentation.

2 Panthera is the world’s leading NGO in conserving wild cats.

3 Ticos and Cabécar are Costa Rican citizens. To distinguish between them, the term Tico—informal for a Costa Rican, is used. Cabécar are referred to as “Indigenous” by Ticos. Ticos refer to the whole culture, Tico refers to a man, and Tica refers to a woman.

4 As a result, North Americans were not included in most of the analysis.

5 Panthera is the world’s leading NGO in conserving wild cats. Since the programme’s inception in Costa Rica, they responded to 24 attacks on livestock. This list of contacts was used for 14 of the interviews.

6 While man-eater does not represent a gender-neutral term throughout the paper, it is widely used in the literature (Quammen 2003; Rabinowitz 2005; Adams 2012).

7 Excluding North Americans (n=3).

8 Categories were not mutually exclusive; participants could choose more than one option.

9 For Indigenous in Costa Rica “Namú generically refers to all felines” (Esquivel et al.2012: 94) but was spelled Nama by my Cabécar research assistant. Specifically, Dínamú refers to puma and Dulëkolo refers to jaguar (Esquivel et al. 2012: 97). My Cabécar research assistant said Nainamei refers to jaguar and Duenamei refers to puma. Such inconsistencies are probably indicative of differences among different Indigenous tribes in Costa Rica, and even within one tribe (such as the Cabécar) it may be the result of differences in geographic locations.

10 Bribri and Cabécar Indigenous peoples show a geographic, temporal, and cultural continuity in the areas they currently inhabit that go back to pre-Columbian times (Barrantes 1993).

11 Two respondents had heard news coverage of human attacks. One was a 26-year-old educated Tica who is a tourism administrator and the other was a 38-year-old educated American researcher who lives in the subcorridor. The tourism administrator explained that jaguars do not attack humans. When they smell humans they leave, making it very difficult to see jaguars. She had heard of a puma who had attacked an investigator doing a study on the Tapir. Apparently, the investigator smelled of a Tapir, which is prey for a jaguar. The researcher discussed a zookeeper who was killed by a jaguar when she was on her cell phone. He had heard it in the news.

12 Stories are defined as accounts that were more than 10 years old and included someone other than the respondent who had done the killing—avoiding real encounters and interactions.

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  [Table 1], [Table 2]


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