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Geographic Explorer Gets His Photo in Spite of Machete Attack

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National Geographic grantee Cagan H. Sekercioglu and a colleague were on a night-time mission in Costa Rica last week, in quest of photographing a rare owl. Instead, they were attacked by a machete-wielding mob who thought they were thieves.

Cagan, a senior researcher at Stanford University, California, and colleague Jim Zook, one of Costa Rica’s leading ornithologists, survived the attack, although Zook was cut in the hand and bruised, and their car was badly damaged by big rocks.

At the height of the drama, the elusive screech-owl flew into view, and Sekercioglu, “while my heart was pounding … managed to focus on the owl in near complete dark.”

Read Sekercioglu’s story and see his photos in the extended entry.

Last Sunday evening (August 3), one of Costa Rica’s leading birdwatchers and ornithologists Jim Zook and I were looking for a localized Pacific Screech-owl to photograph in Liberia, Costa Rica, by driving slowly on a rural public road 500 meters south of Liberia and listening with the windows open.

At about 6:30 p.m., we heard a Pacific Screech-owl calling in the trees paralleling a fence close to the road.

From the road side, we checked the trees on the right with our flashlights for about 15 minutes. We did not hear it again or see any birds.

During that time, a pickup truck drove past without stopping or asking us anything. There were four people in it. It stopped about 50 meters away, next to some people standing by the road, at the end of the road from a house about 200 meters away on the right. They started talking, but we could not hear what [they were saying].

As we were about to give up around 7 p.m., we heard shouts from where the truck was and the people were getting closer. I was worried and told Jim, “Let’s get out of here”. He said, “It’s OK, I think they are having a party. I saw people earlier at the entrance to the driveway.”

We went back to searching. About a minute or so later, shouts and screams got louder and we heard someone say “ladron” (thief). I got very worried and said we should go. Jim said, “We’ll explain we are birdwatchers. Ticos will understand.”

He walked towards them with his headlamp on. Then everything went crazy in an instant. I heard screams and I got hit by two projectiles. Jim lifted his hands, facing the people and shouted “tranquilo, tranquilo.”

Windshield Shattered

Then some big things landed on the car’s hood and windshield, shattering it with a huge noise. I was not sure if they were bullets or rocks.

Our small headlamps illuminated a mob of 10+ people running at us. I shouted “RUN RUN” to Jim and we started running down the road. I turned my headlamp off and bent over not to get hit by bullets.

We had passed a jail 500 meters away and I hoped escaped inmates were not trying to kill us to steal the car. I ran like mad for about 30 seconds, thinking Jim was behind me, hoping to reach a house we had earlier passed about 400 meters away.

Then I realized [Jim] was not [behind me], and the sounds had receded. There were shouts of “ladron” (thief), and I thought Jim may be caught. I did not want to go back, but could not leave Jim behind.

So I entered into some thickets, circled around the fields and ran back towards the house from where the lynch mob had come.

I approached the gate, stood outside, put my headlamp light to my face, lifted my hands and shouted “buenas noches” [good evening] twice. I hoped they would not shoot me.

Dogs barked and people came out shouting. A fat man, a thin boy and a woman in her 20s, wearing tights jeans came out. The fat man hit my arm and shook me and they shouted something like “ladron”. I said “No, somos biologos. Aqui tengo fotos de aves. Porque un ladron va a regresar a su casa y mostrar fotos de aves?” (No, we are biologists. Here I have bird photos. Why would a thief come back to your house to show you bird photos?), and showed them the photos in my digital camera, which I surprisingly was still holding on to after that run.

They did not believe me and told me some thieves had stolen their electric cables recently. I kept saying the same thing and asked about Jim and told them not to hurt him. The man said he was fine.

Shouting back and forth, we walked back to where the car was where there were about 10 people. I saw that the car was destroyed by rocks.

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 Cagan H. Sekercioglu with the damaged car.

Photo courtesy Cagan Sekercioglu

There was an old woman who was the ringleader and she was shouting about ladrones. I showed them our bird books and bird photos, but they kept asking about the third person. I said there is no third person and showed them the back seat of our car covered in gear and bags, but they would not believe me.

I kept asking about Jim and wanting to go see him, but they kept saying, “El esta bien” and would not let me.

They kept interrogating me about Jim. I told them he lived in the country for 30 years, has seen more Costa Rican bird species than anyone else and he is married to a Tica. I said “El es como un tico” (he is like a Tico) and the old lady shouted “Aha. El dijo que el es gringo” (he said he is a gringo).

Finally the cops came after about 15 minutes and brought Jim from down the road. I was horrified to see that they had cut into his hand with a machete. He said, “They attacked me and would have hit my head with the machete if I had not raised my hand”. We hugged.

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Ornotholigist Jim Zook was cut in the hand and bruised on his back.

Photo courtesy Cagan Sekercioglu

[Jim] explained how they had surrounded him, and hit him with rocks, machetes, sticks and kicked him in the head.

Still, he managed to say, “I don’t think I am up for the Botteri’s Sparrow tomorrow,” a rare bird that we were supposed to search next morning by leaving at 4 a.m., driving an hour, hiking for an hour or two to the grasslands of Rincon de la Vieja. Always the professional, despite his condition Jim almost sounded apologetic.

I wanted to take him to the hospital, but the front seat was covered in glass and Jim wanted to wait. The cops said we should wait for the ambulance. They took people’s information. I took photos of Jim, the car and the people.

Finally the ambulance came at about 8 p.m.. Jim went in there. They said they could take only him to hospital. One police car followed it. I followed the other car.

Twenty meters before reaching the highway, an owl flew across my headlights. I could not believe it. I stopped and saw on the left side, in a tree, the dark silhouette of the Pacific Screech-owl we were looking for.

Slowly I took my camera out, tried to get the bird in the viewfinder while my heart was pounding, and managed to focus on the owl in near complete dark.

My headlamp was blocked by my flash and turning on the light would spook the bird anyway. I pressed the shutter and got the photo. The owl flew a few meters, turned and looked at me. I took two more photos and the owl flew away.

The cops came back and I told them. They laughed and would not believe me. I showed them the three photos and they were amazed. One cop said it was a “milagro” (miracle).

Jim had 12 stitches, but no permanent damage to his hand. We returned to our cabinas around 12:30 a.m. Always the ornithologist, Jim said, “If you wake up around dawn, you might see Spot-breasted Oriole around the gardens. They often sing early in the morning.”

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The elusive Pacific Screech-owl

Photo courtesy Cagan Sekercioglu