Miguel turns to me with urgency plastered over his face. He slowly touches his nose then points up the valley. I step up beside him and sniff the air. It takes a couple whiffs, and then I suddenly understand his urgency. There is that unmistakable hint of cheap cigarettes. And that can mean one of only two things this deep in the Jungle – Gold Miners, or Poachers. Both are illegal and both are likely armed.

It was just over 24 hours ago that we rappelled from helicopter into the Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica, and yet it feels like a week has passed. We hiked through the toughest terrain I’ve ever seen. The jungle here is immense, and riddled with nasty ants, snakes, spiders and crocodiles… There were countless river crossings and never ending trails that fade in and out. It rains nearly all the time, and we’d arrived at our campsite just on dusk last night, wet, hungry, and exhausted.

An illegal miner arrested by Rich, Matt and the Minae rangers in Episode 3.An illegal miner arrested by Rich, Matt and the Minae rangers in Episode 3.
I was heading off to my makeshift hammock when word came through on the satellite messager telling us how Rich and Matt had been involved in a second gunfight to the north of our current position. Jack and I were already on edge as it was without this news.

I’d then tried to get to sleep but my mind kept wandering. Lord knows the damage the gold miners do here is massive. We’d passed a number of old mining sites during the day, and the erosion and slips where they’d worked leave indelible scars on this pristine landscape. They leave their rubbish and debris behind for the rangers to carry out or bury. Many mines also use cyanide or Mercury to separate gold from the silt, poisoning waterways and contributing more heavy metals into the foodchain.

The worst thing though is the wildlife. As we’d ventured deeper into the illegal mining area, there was a noticeable decline in wildlife. Miners carry in pasta, rice, beans and coffee, but supplement this with meat they can hunt in the jungle – Monkeys, Reptiles, Agouti, Pizote, Peccary – all can end up in the gun-sights of hungry miners that care little about this precious place. A watering hole on the hike in was almost totally devoid of footprints except from humans, and it is a sad indictment on just how precarious the situation in Costa Rica has become.

Sadly though this is now mirrored all around the world – Countries in Asia, Central America and Africa – all have significant problems with illegal mining operations wreaking havoc on delicate ecosystems, and all also lack the resource to deal with the situation effectively.

A dog barking up ahead suddenly brings me back to reality. Miners use dogs to warn them of patrols, and it seems like one has winded our scent. It surprises me, as a slight breeze continues to come down the valley towards us. Regardless, our presence here is now known, and the miners will be either vanishing into the jungle or setting up an armed position of defense.

Miguel yells something in Spanish and the rangers are up and running with Jack and I scampering after them. Seconds later I crest a small rise and there in front of me lies a massive barren area that bears the scars of years of illegal mining. And right at the edge, a miner in a purple t-shirt is disappearing offinto the jungle. Is he armed? Will he shoot me if I chase after him?

Watch episode 4 of “The Operatives” to find out…