While out walking in the Costa Rican rainforests, you may, on occasion, hear a loud claking noise reminiscent of gun fire. At the same time, your nostrils will likely be assailed by a pungent underarm-like odor. Don’t worry though – you are not being surrounded by sweaty bandits; you are, in fact, about to have an encounter with a herd of white lipped peccaries, Costa Rica’s answer to the bush pig.
White Lipped Peccaries
The Chinese firecracker-like clamor is the peccary’s way of communicating in the darkness of the cultured forest floor, and they achieve such a noise by clashing their teeth together with tremendous force.
And what about that strange smell? Well, that’s their way of telling you that they find your presence unnerving. The feeling may be reciprocal. Stumbling upon a 200-strong herd of spiky-haired creatures with sharp, gnashing teeth may well be intimidating enough to make you produce a similar smell yourself! Many guidebooks have described the peccary as a ferocious creature, capable of ripping a person limb from limb. They will advise you to “climb up the nearest tree and do not come down until the coast is clear.”
But it is all just nonsense, and as long as you remain calm, quiet and relatively still, you are in no danger at all. In fact, an encounter with peccaries can be a very enjoyable experience. Although they look like pigs, their closets common ancestor became extinct fifty million years ago, so comparing a peccary to a pig is a bit like comparing your relatives to tree shrews. Pigs have curly tails; peccaries have smelly scent glands.
Peccaries are omnivorous creatures, and are as happy to chomp their way through roots and fruits as they are when ingesting insects, lizards and birds. But their favorite food has to be the impenetrable palm nut – a tough seed, akin to chomping on a billiards ball. In fact, the peccary is the only animal with a jaw strong enough to crack these nuts.
Unfortunately, the peccary is becoming scarce in Costa Rica due to hunting pressures and habitat loss. Herds that once numbered a thousand animals have been reduced to mere fragments of their former glory. Even within the so-called protected boundaries of our national parks, the peccary is the only animal with a jaw strong enough to crack these nuts.
This disappearance has serious ramifications for the Costa Rica jaguar, as peccaries are their main food source. Hungry jaguars are forced into farmlands in search of snacks, and there they often meet an untimely end, courtesy of a farmer’s shotgun.
So if you do happen to find yourself surrounded by peccaries while out on a hike, don’t be afraid. Consider yourself lucky. It may be the last chance you have to see them.