SEEKING THE JAGUAR
by Paul Donahue
It was June 1976 when I first stepped into the rainforest of eastern Peru. The site was “Panguana”, the former field station of ornithologist Maria Koepcke and zoologist Hans-Wilhem Koepcke, along the Rio Llullapichis in the Department of Huanaco. While I would be living in the forest there for three months to study and paint the birds of the area, I had high hopes of also seeing a Jaguar during my stay. Alas, while I did have a close encounter with a Puma along one of the forest trails, the Jaguar eluded me. Bad luck in seeing Jaguars would haunt me for many years to come. It became a mythical beast for me, as it has been for the human cultures throughout the Central and South American range of the species.
The following year I began working as a resident naturalist at the Explorer’s Inn along the Rio Tambopata in Madre de Dios. In my first day afield there I walked the five kilometer trail out to Cocacocha, the reserve’s largest lagoon. On my way back to the lodge in late afternoon I found fresh Jaguar tracks superimposed on my own tracks from earlier that day. During the twelve seasons I worked at the Explorer’s Inn, there were occasional sightings of Jaguars by others. However, despite countless hours I spent along the forest trails of the reserve, the closest I ever came to a Jaguar was a large, still steaming hairball left by one in the middle of a trail.
From the Explorer’s Inn, in 1990 I relocated to Manu Lodge along the Rio Manu in Manu National Park. This area was renowned for its Jaguars and I figured that here my bad luck with the species would finally break - but it didn’t. During the two seasons I was there, we commonly found fresh Jaguar tracks along the river sandbars and forest trails, once or twice we heard one calling at night near the lodge, and, frustratingly, numerous Jaguar sightings were made be others traveling by boat along the Rio Manu. Annoyingly, many of those sightings were by tourists on literally their first day in the Amazon Basin. Even more annoyingly, they had no idea just how lucky they were.
In 2000 my wife Teresa and I began working at Manu Wildlife Center along the Rio Madre de Dios. One day we were leading a group of birding friends. Most of us climbed up the spiral staircase to the canopy platform high in the crown of a large Ceiba, but two of the group, who had a problem with heights, stayed on the ground. They only went a short distance from the Ceiba, and when we came down from the treetops, they told us that a Jaguar had come out on the trail in front of them. I almost cried.
It was not until May 2007, on the last birding trip that I led to Peru, that I FINALLY saw my first Jaguar. We were traveling by boat along the Rio Madre de Dios late one afternoon, returning to our lodge after a visit to one of the cochas, when the boat driver suddenly yelled, “JAGUAR!” A beautiful, young male Jaguar was walking along the edge of a gravel bar in the river. As we approached, he turned away from the water, walked to the edge of the caña brava bordering the bar, and laid down in plain view. We were able to pull the boat over to the shore, where we collectively took about 10,000 photos of the magnificent creature before it stood up and disappeared into the cane. After 31 years of working in the Peruvian rainforest, representing thousands of hours spent along forest trails and in boats plying jungle rivers, plus many months spent in other countries like Suriname, Ecuador, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama, also home to Jaguars, I can say without exaggeration that this Jaguar sighting was one of the high points of my life.
I am happy to say that with that first Jaguar sighting, the spell was broken, and since then I have had many more sightings of the elusive creature - hundreds of sightings, in fact. In Peru, where I used to do the majority of my tropical fieldwork, Jaguars are primarily creatures of the Amazon Basin and lower slopes of the Andes. While there are plenty of them there, at least in southeastern Peru, they are very difficult to observe in their dense rainforest and cloud forest habitat.
These days most of my time in the tropics is spent in the Brazilian Pantanal, where Jaguars are both much more common and much more easily observed than in Peru (SEE SIDEBAR). Within a few weeks of seeing my first Jaguar along the Rio Madre de Dios in Peru, I was watching my second Jaguar along the Rio Tres Irmãos in the northern Pantanal. It was the first of many, many sightings I would have along the rivers in that region.
I began watching birds when I was very young. By the time I was fifteen I was a very serious and accomplished birder and by the time I was seventeen I knew I would spend the rest of my life working with birds, and I have. When I first went to the tropics in 1972, it was to work with birds, and birds have been the focus of my fieldwork all over Latin America. Along the way I encountered plenty of other fascinating and exciting tropical creatures - many species of monkeys, Giant Otters, Giant Anteaters, Brazilian Tapirs, Anacondas, Black Caimans, and many more. While I loved seeing them, none interested me enough to seriously pull my attention away from birds. Then I saw my first Jaguars. Don’t misunderstand me I think birds are amazing creatures and they will always be a big part of my life, but Jaguars are an order of magnitude more awesome than the most incredible birds I have ever seen.
So what makes the Jaguar so special? To start with, it is the largest cat in the Americas and the third largest cat in the world, right after Tiger and Lion. While very similar in many ways to the Leopard of Africa and Asia, The Jaguar is a larger and more powerfully built animal. Unlike the Leopard, which has to contend with the larger Lion and Tiger in its environment, the Jaguar reigns supreme throughout its range. It can also be a very elusive creature, as I can certainly attest to. Of course, it is an extraordinarily beautiful animal.
Beyond those things, there is something else more intangible that draws me to Jaguars. Maybe it is the fact that it is an animal that can eat me. I was charged by a Jaguar in the Pantanal, and it was a thrilling experience, to say the least. But it goes beyond fear. I have had the incredible privilege to look into the eyes of many Jaguars at close range. The feeling I get is not one I can easily put into words. It is like nothing I have ever experienced when looking at a bird. I am, among other things, an artist, and I used to paint mostly birds. Now I paint mostly Jaguars. They have captured my creative spirit.
SIDEBAR #1 - JAGUARS IN THE PANTANAL
The Brazilian Pantanal is Jaguar country. It is here that the largest and densest population of Jaguars is found. This is also where the largest Jaguars are found. Pantanal Jaguars are 50% larger than those found in the Amazon and are fully 100% larger than those found at the northern edge of the species’ range in northern Central America and Mexico.
Jaguars have a fairly wide habitat tolerance, from semi-desert and dry forest through rainforest and cloudforest, but it is the mosaic of savanna, marshes, swamps, streams, lagoons, and woodland found in the Pantanal that seems to suit them the best. Many species of cats eschew water, but the Jaguar is not one of them, and they thrive in the watery environment of the Pantanal.
During the wet season, about 70 to 80% of the Pantanal floods. Throughout this time of high water the Jaguar’s prey is widely dispersed and the Jaguars are difficult to see. However, when the floodwaters recede, their prey, principally Paraguayan Caiman and Capybara, concentrate along the remaining bodies of water, and it is during these months when Jaguars become much more visible. On a really good day during the low water season a very lucky observer may encounter a half dozen Jaguars during eight hours on the rivers.
Along with the mix of habitats, another reason for the great numbers of Jaguars in the Pantanal is the abundance of prey. In the area where I work in the northern Pantanal, at least during the months when the Jaguars are easily observed, Paraguayan Caiman or Yacaré account for about 70% of their prey. In the Pantanal the species occurs at a higher density than any other species of crocodilian in the world. Once headed towards extinction due to illegal hunting, the species has rebounded remarkably, with the Pantanal population now estimated at around 10 million. That’s a lot of Jaguar food. Virtually every day I am in the field I see Jaguars stalking caiman and I have been lucky enough to witness some spectacular kills. Large Paraguayan Caiman are about two and a half to three meters in length, but Jaguars regularly capture even these full size individuals.
One of the reasons they are able to do this is because of their very powerful bite. Even though the Jaguar is the third largest cat, it has a more powerful bite than either Tiger or Lion, about 2000 pounds per square inch or 13790 kilopascals. This allows the Jaguar to penetrate the heavy scales protecting the caiman’s neck, piercing the base of the caiman’s skull and killing it with a single bite. The Jaguar’s powerful bite has allowed it to very successfully exploit an abundant food source that would otherwise be beyond its reach.
SIDEBAR #2 - JAGUAR CONSERVATION
While Jaguars are not as highly endangered as some creatures, they are declining across their range in the Americas. However, while there are other species that are in more urgent need of protection, Jaguars are an important focal point of conservation efforts. First of all, they capture the imagination and attract the attention of the public in ways that less spectacular creatures cannot. Second, due to their position at the top of the food pyramid and their tremendous space requirements, Jaguars serve as a useful “umbrella species”. If you can protect Jaguars and their habitat, by default you are protecting almost all of the other species that occur in the same habitat.
At one time the killing of Jaguars for their beautiful spotted pelts was a major threat to the survival of the species. Today, however, while some illegal killing for pelts still exists, thanks to the implementation of both national and international laws, it does not pose nearly the threat it once did.
The main threat today to the continued existence of Jaguars in the Americas is basically the same threat that Jaguars have faced since the arrival of Europeans, only today the problem is much bigger - cattle. Jaguars have a cow problem, and it is a big one. Virtually all of the biggest threats to the species are connected in one way or another to the production of beef.
Throughout the range of the Jaguar, ranchers shoot them because some individuals occasionally prey on cattle. The cutting of forest to create cattle pasture is the leading cause of deforestation in the Jaguar’s range. Countless hectares of Jaguar habitat have been cut and burned and converted to grass for cows. Beyond that, vast amounts of Jaguar habitat in South America have been converted to soy over the last couple of decades, and the majority of the soy is grown to feed livestock. As an example of the scale of the problem, Brazil has destroyed much of its Amazon rainforest and much of its cerrado woodland and savanna, all Jaguar habitats, to become the largest producer and exporter in the world of both beef and soy. Road construction, such as the Interoceanic Highway connecting Peru and Brazil, are at least in part about getting soy and beef to market, and road construction destroys more Jaguar habitat.
In case that is not enough, the raising of cattle, combined with the deforestation and burning that go with it, are major contributors to climate change. As the climate continues to warm we can expect to see more and frequent wildfires, drying and shrinking forests, and reduced rainfall and wetlands over much of the Jaguar’s range - all things that will have a negative impact on the species and the other creatures with which it shares its environment.
These are not things people like to hear. We like simple solutions that don't require any sacrifice. Unfortunately, reality often doesn't cooperate. Environmental problems are often complex and interrelated. In this case, the reality is that beef production is not sustainable - not for Jaguars, nor the rest of the environment. The Jaguar’s fate is tied to the choices we make. In the end, we have to decide what is more important to us. For me, I would like to have these magnificent creatures roaming the wilds for a long time to come.
SIDEBAR #3 - GIANT OTTERS
The Giant Otter, the largest of the world’s thirteen otter species, is another top predator that was once found throughout much of the Jaguar’s range in South America. Like Jaguars, Giant Otters have been persecuted for their pelts, and because of that they have disappeared from as much as 80% of their former range and are considered to be an endangered species. Also like Jaguars, southeastern Peru and the Brazilian Pantanal are still strongholds for the species and are the best places to see them.
Even though Jaguars are found primarily on land and Giant Otters live primarily in the water, the two species are mortal enemies. In the Pantanal, where the two species regularly come in contact with one another, confrontations are fairly common. Usually these just take the form of posturing and, on the part of the otters, loud vocal displays. However, things can get physical.
A single Giant Otter, at 1.5 meters in length and only 30 kilos in weight, is no match for a Jaguar, but Giant Otters live in family groups, and four or five otters against a Jaguar is a much more evenly matched contest. Despite the risk to both parties, many observers have seen Jaguars leap off river banks after Giant Otters, and a friend of mine has seen a group of otters pull a Jaguar into the river. The two species don’t compete for food - Giant Otters eat almost exclusively fish - and they are not preying on one another, so why Jaguars and Giant Otters species hate one another is an unanswered question.
SIDEBAR #4 - CAPYBARA
Capybara, the world’s largest rodent and a close relative of the Guinea Pig, is found throughout much of South America east of the Andes, as far south as Argentina and Uruguay. Capybaras are always associated with water, but that could be along the muddy bank of a jungle river in Amazonian Peru, or out on the open, marshy plains of the Venezuelan Llanos or Brazilian Pantanal.
The name Capybara comes from the Guarani name Kapi’yva, which means “Master of the Grasses,”
an appropriate name for this herbivore that each day eats about three kilos fresh forage consisting mainly of grass.
In some areas, including the Brazilian Pantanal, Capybaras are important prey of Jaguars. There the species is abundant, living in family groups of six to 20 or so animals. During the months of low water they are found side by side on the river sandbars with Paraguayan Caiman. At these times of year the caiman are the principal prey of Jaguars, accounting for about 70% of their diet, but Capybara make up much of the rest.
02 March 2016
This article was originally published in the Peruvian magazine Rumbos.