In the path of the jaguar

Mar 06 2019 | 01:00 AM

    A rare case of hope for an apex predator

    By Jenna Gersie

    Connor and I walk with a guide and other tourists down a canopied rainforest path, beside a slow river, to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize, a famous site of Mayan artifacts, including sacrificial human remains. But we’re also hoping to see a different kind of artifact—and there it is. On the muddy trail, three sticks mark off the paw print of a jaguar, which passed through a day or two before. “Another guide was leaving the cave at dusk, and he heard the jaguar growl,” our guide tells us. “We found this track in the morning.”

    We have little time to examine the area for more signs of Panthera onca, as other groups are behind us on the trail, eager to enter the dark, watery cave. So we continue down the path with our group. But on the return trip, after swimming into the cave’s mouth and wandering a half mile deep into the cave, then making our way back out to daylight, Connor and I let our group go ahead of us and pause near the staked-off jaguar track. Not too far away is a wooden bridge.

    “I don’t think the jaguar would cross the bridge,” Connor muses. “It would travel down in the creek bed.” We look over the side of the bridge to the creek bottom, and sure enough, we see eight or nine tracks, perfectly imprinted in the thick mud. Away from other humans for a moment, it is quiet enough for a hummingbird to venture to the space behind us; big cats on our mind, we mistake the buzzing of its wings for a growl and our hearts jump.

    A few days later, traveling across the Hummingbird Highway to the coast, we ask our driver if he’s ever seen a jaguar. “Oh yes,” he tells us. “I see four or five a year crossing the road.” We keep our eyes peeled, scanning the low vegetation on the side of the highway. “Jaguar” comes from the Tupi—indigenous people from what is now Brazil—and means “beast of prey.” Connor asks if our driver knows of any humans having been attacked by one. “Yes,” our driver says somberly. “Someone was keeping one in a cage. A hurricane came, and the jaguar got loose and attacked a neighbor.” He shakes his head. “The man shouldn’t have been keeping the jaguar as a pet in the first place.”

    We’re hoping to see a jaguar, but we know how unlikely it is. So the next day we opt for a morning tour of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, knowing the birdwatching will be good if we get there early, rather than an evening tour, when we’d be more likely to catch sight of the elusive cat. This is fitting, because the forest reserve is managed by the Belize Audubon Society. But while there are many bird species that make a home there—around 300 species at any given time—it’s the big cats that are the sanctuary’s raison d’être.

    The area was selectively logged from 1888 until the mid-1980s, when a study discovered that it was home to the highest density of jaguars ever recorded. This expanse of rainforest was declared a forest reserve with a no-hunting ordinance, and since then the sanctuary has expanded from 3,600 to 128,000 protected acres. Contiguous forests connect the reserve to Guatemala to the west and Mexico to the north, making the Cockscomb Basin a critical link in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Within it lives the largest and best studied jaguar population in Central America. Jaguars, which top out at 250 pounds, can be reliably identified by their spots, and trail cam photography from the sanctuary reveals close to 100 individuals living in the reserve. Categorized as near-threatened with decreasing populations, jaguars used to live from the southern tip of South America to the southwestern United States. With protected habitat and wildlife corridors (and no border walls), there is some hope that jaguars can reoccupy their historic range.

    As we hike to a waterfall, our guide points out evidence of jaguars: a few muddled tracks, signs of the digging and scratching of dirt, the marking of territory. Male cats often stick to human-made trails, finding the easily accessible routes preferable to traversing dense vegetation, so we are walking where a jaguar prowled less than twelve hours before. We don’t see any jaguars, but we imagine them lurking just off-trail, in the shadows of the forest, the golden globes of their eyes ever-aware of who is passing by.