It is 4.30 in the morning, and we are trekking bleary-eyed through the dark Costa Rican jungle, heading towards Sirena river in hopes of spotting the endangered Baird’s tapirs. Here, in Corcovado National Park, tapirs like to take a morning dip in the river before retiring to their secluded muddy patches for the day.

We follow our guide Bolivar along the slippery trails, crossing streams and mud puddles in the light of our head torches. When we reach the riverbank, we find it pockmarked with dinosaur-like three-toed footprints leading from the river back into the jungle.

To our disappointment, tapirs had an earlier swim today. But we hang back and watch the sun rise over Costa Rica’s Jurassic jungle and the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Heralded by the National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth in terms of biodiversity,” Corcovado protects 400 square kilometres of the old-growth wet forests on Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula.

These forests host an unparalleled abundance of wildlife. Monkeys, anteaters, tapirs and even tent-making bats! But at the top of our bucket list are the wild cats. Five cat species stalk these ancient forests (jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays and jaguarundis), although they mostly choose to remain unseen.

Once the sun is up, we set off on a long hike to Puma valley – one of the more remote areas of the park. The trail to the valley is a spectacular hike. Wedged between the wall of dense tropical jungle and the sandy strip of wild beaches, it is completely deserted. If I was a wild cat, I would’ve been very happy to live here.

When the trail winds its way onto another beach, we spot some distinctly feline paw prints in the wet sand. Judging by the size, they belong to a puma. Realizing that a wild puma walked along this beach just a few hours ago fills me with giddy excitement. I am now in a puma’s home.

Lost in my wildest dreams, I follow the trail back into the jungle when Bolivar grabs my arm and pulls me down into a crouch, pointing deeper into the forest. I look in the direction he is pointing and meet the intent stare of a puma.

It is no further than four or five meters in front of us, watching us with the predator’s sharp alertness. Unable to speak or even breathe from excitement, the four of us freeze where we are, too afraid that the cat will dash away.

It doesn’t. And after a while, another little face pokes through the undergrowth. It’s a cub! It remains blissfully unconcerned with our presence, while mum keeps a watchful eye on the surroundings.

Eventually, she decides that we are not a threat and turns to continue on her way.

“Don’t move,” whispers Bolivar, “There is a swamp behind them, and they have to walk past us to get around.”

And sure enough, they emerge out of the thickets and walk across our field of view. Only then we notice that the youngster has a twin. The future masters of Puma valley follow closely on their mother’s heels and give us occasional curious glances.

When the cats disappear out of view, we take a moment and let it sink in. A wild puma accepted us into her world and allowed us to share a moment of its family’s life.

The reason the puma was so tolerant, is that Corcovado has been protected since 1975 and the animals have no memory of being hunted. The only people they encounter are those that gawk at them in amazement, like the four of us.

But even in Corcovado, spotting a wild cat is no mean feat. When we return to our base at the Sirena ranger station, our story causes quite a stir. It has been more than six months since a puma has been sighted here.

To me, this rare encounter means even more than to those around me. A few years ago, I set myself on an ambitious quest to see all species of wild cats in their natural habitat. That’s 40 instances of sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time. Yet sometimes, luck finds you when you least expect it.

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