Wildlife of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

‘For the Kogi there is no strict dividing line between man and beast. The animals are considered essentially as beings endowed with all the characteristics of man excepting only his outward appearance. The Kogi believe that the animals talk, think, have “souls” and live an ordered life just as humans do… The animals are neither friends nor enemies of man but simply beings who live apart and who man should treat with the same caution, the same respect and perhaps the same fear with which he would treat any neighbouring human family in his own society.’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1949-51: 261).

In the Sierra Nevada, there are dense tropical rain forests, cloud forests, open woodlands, alpine meadows, high tundra - and a variety of animals and plants to match. Bears, tapirs, deer, jaguar and puma still live in the forests together with monkeys (which are hunted and eaten), armadillos, ocelots, wild pigs and cats, turkeys and alligators. In the air are pelicans and condors, storks and macaws, mockingbirds, hummingbirds and hawks. There are few plants, animals or birds which cannot find an appropriate niche in the infinite variety of the Sierran habitats. All nine biomes which exist in Colombia as a whole exist also in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

There are three species of large feline which inhabit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the jaguar (Panthera onca), the puma (Felis concolor) and the ocelot (Felis pardalis). ‘The jaguar, which is the largest of the three and may weigh up to 100 kg, is the most likely to attack man, but only if its own food supplies, which include most of the smaller forest animals and also fish, are not available. If provoked or hungry it is generally regarded as ferocious. It is however a tropical forest animal and would not be found in the high Sierra Nevada, only on its lower forested slopes. The puma weighs up to 75 kg and is quite common, particularly on the northern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. It may range up to 80 km from its den in search of animals and although it will attack cattle and sheep, it rarely attacks man. The ocelot, by far the smallest, weighing up to 12 kg, is rather like a very large cat.’ (Tayler 1997: 187). The indigenes differentiate between the three felines according to weight, colour and size, but not according to species. The jaguar holds a special place in mythology, as it does all over South America.

Jaguar - Felis onca. ‘Alike beautiful and ferocious, the Jaguar is of all American animals unquestionably the most to be dreaded, on account of its combined strength, activity, and courage, which not only give it a vast physical power over other wild creatures, but enable it frequently to destroy man.’ (Audubon’s Mammals).

Puma or Cougar - Felis concolor. ‘Body, long and slender; head, small; neck, long; ears, rounded; legs, short and stout; tail, long, slender and cylindrical, sometimes trailing; fur, soft and short. This species at times attacks young cattle…(but) is however, generally compelled to subsist on small animals, young deer, skunks, raccoons, &c., or birds, and will even eat carrion when hard pressed by hunger. His courage is not great, and unless very hungry, or when wounded and at bay, he seldom attacks man.’ (Audubon’s Mammals).

Ocelot - Felis pardalis. ‘The activity and grace of the Leopard-Cat, are equal to the beauty of its fur, and it leaps with case amid the branches of trees, or runs with swiftness on the ground. These Cats seldom stray far from woods, or thickets bordering on rivers, streams, or ponds, very rarely lying on the hill-sides, or out on the plains. They run like foxes, or wild-cats, when chased by the hunters with hounds or other dogs, doubling frequently, and using all the stratagems of the gray fox, before they take a straight course, but when hard pressed and fatigued, they always ascend a tree, instead of running to earth.’ (Audubon’s Mammals).

Peccary - Dycotyles torquatus. Smaller and more compact than the common hog. ‘Although they are usually found in the forests and prefer low and marshy grounds, like common hogs, Peccaries wander wherever they can find an abundance of food, often enter the enclosures of the planters, and commit great depreciations on the products of their fields. When attacked by the jaguar, the puma, the wolf, the dog, or the hunter, they form themselves into a circle, surrounding and protecting their young, repelling their opponents with their sharp teeth, and in this manner sometimes routing the larger predatory animals, or severely wounding the dogs and the hunters. When angry, they gnash their teeth, raise their bristles, (which at such time resemble the quills of the porcupine,) and their sharp, shrill grunt can be heard at a great distance. This species feeds on fruits, seeds, and roots; and like the domesticated hog is constantly rooting in the earth in quest of worms, insects, reptiles, or bulbous roots. It is said also to devour the eggs of alligators, turtles, and birds; and to be destructive to lizards, toads, and snakes. In fact, like the common hog it is omnivorous, feeds upon every thing that comes in its way, and is not particularly choice in the selection of its food.’ (Audubon’s Mammals).

Armadillo - Dasypus peba. ‘This singular production of nature, it might be said, resembles a small pig saddled with the shell of a turtle; it is about the size of a large opossum; the head is small, and greatly elongated, and the neck can be retracted so far as to entirely withdraw the head under the shell. Muzzle, narrow and pointed; mouth, large; tongue, aculeated, and can be drawn out three inches beyond the nose.’ (Audubon’s Mammals).


Red-billed Emerald hummingbird (Chlorostilbon gibsonii) inhabits the coastal areas and the lower wooded slopes of the mountain. The Bearded Helmet-Crest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus) inhabits the 3,500 - 5000 metres range of the paramo, feeding on the nectar of the puya plant. Carrion hawks include the white-tailed and solitary eagle, the crane hawk, peregrine falcon, kite, osprey, merlin, kestrel, vulture and condor.

The latter ‘may attack young live animals. It is also known to frighten animals and even man, by flying at them, forcing them to lose their footing on a precipice and causing them to fall to their death and thus become carrion. Amongst many Andean people the condor was regarded as a messenger of the sun.’ (Tayler 1997: 188).

Snakes - include Crotalus durissus, the South American rattle snake. Other poisonous species are the fer-de-lance (Bothrops lanceolatus), the bushmaster (Lachesis muta) and the sub-species Micrurus carinauda and Micrurus mipartitus of the coral snake. Water snakes are common, and the lower tropical forest contains anaconda and eel.

Lizards. ‘There are only two poisonous lizards in the very general area of the Sierra Nevada: the Mexican beaded lizard and the Gila monster. The much smaller gecko is however very common in the lowland fincas, where they may be frequently found in the house thatch. They do in fact bite, but contrary to belief, they are not poisonous.’ (Tayler 1997. p. 187).

Bats. In Colombia there are 140 species of bat. Within the Tairona National Park, 40 species belonging to seven different families (including the Molossidae, Phyllostomidae & Noctolonidae) were identified by Moreno in 1981. (Legast 1989: 272). In pre-Invasion Tairona art, the bat ‘is represented either alone or associated with man, when the body is human and the head is bat-like; in some of these “bat-men” features of other animals are also found.’ (ibid: 275). Bats are still a key feature within Kogi mythology today.