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My Journey To Save Latin America's Elusive Jaguars

<p><em>A jaguar along the riverbank in Brazil’s Pantanal watching tourists in a small motorboat who are there to see jaguars and other wildlife. (Photo: Paul Goldstein)</em></p>

Saving jaguars-saving any wildlife-means dealing with the political and social realities of the time and place in which you are working. This was never truer than with the jaguar corridor, which used public and private lands, had to be backed by national governments and local communities, and needed multinational cooperation among 18 countries spread over two continents. Since conservation is a complex mix of science, policy, social issues, and politics, the strategy for moving any such initiative forward must benefit both wildlife and the people who live with that wildlife in a particular region. Implementing the right kind of strategies would determine the success or failure of the jaguar corridor.

Conservationists are not trained in addressing critical nonscientific issues such as law enforcement. While the most effective conservation policies are rooted in good science, their implementation often takes place in a sociopolitical context that has little to do with science. There were no courses in graduate school to teach me how to address the prime minister of Belize and his cabinet, how to deal with the dictators in Myanmar, how to navigate the struggling socialist government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, or how to get every environmental minister from every jaguar-range country to officially sign off on the jaguar corridor. I might have benefited from a better understanding of forensics, psychology, economics, and business. But in the end, it was about passion, and the unwavering belief that animals needed a voice in the human world.

It was that passion, and what I had accomplished in Belize, that landed me in the kitchen of a ranch house in Douglas, Arizona, on the Mexican border in June 1997 at the request of the conservation NGO, The Nature Conservancy. This is where this particular excerpt from my book, An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar, begins.

Sipping a mug of steaming black coffee, I listened carefully to the soft-spoken voice of the two-meter-tall (six-and-a-half-foot), 60-year-old rancher and professional puma hunter, Warner Glenn, as he recounted the details of the nearly year-old incident that had thrust this remote backwater region into the national news, and would eventually be memorialized in his book Eyes of Fire. The result of this incident, and the reason for my trip from New York, was the first photograph ever taken of a living wild jaguar in the United States.

At the break of dawn, we rode mules up into the stark, remote Peloncillo Mountains and topped the bluff where Warner had faced the jaguar. I sat there on the horse and took from my pocket the picture that Warner had given me. Poised majestically atop the rocky outcrop now facing us, the jaguar stared directly into the camera. There was no indication of the surprise and confusion likely felt by this animal that, having made its way across the nearby Mexican border, was now being chased by a pack of howling hound dogs like an illegal immigrant trying to flee a sudden confrontation with the border patrol. Only in this case the pursuer was Warner Glenn. Thinking that his dogs were after a puma, Warner was perhaps more surprised than the jaguar when, upon sighting what he later described as the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, he rushed back to his mule to get the camera he kept in a saddle pouch, never considering going for the gun he had close by.

We followed the jaguar's route down from the bluff to the spot where it was cornered by Warner's hounds again. Only this time, with the jaguar desperate, Warner moved in too close for another photograph. The jaguar lunged towards him, but only enough to create an opportunity to make its escape again. Warner's last view of the jaguar was, as he described it, "heading south at a long trot."

I stayed back while the others rode ahead, looking over the expanse of dry, open, empty lands where Warner said the jaguar had last been seen. I imagined the jaguar stalking the steep, rocky terrain of this area in its search for food, water, another jaguar-a home. There were not supposed to be any jaguars still living and breeding in the United States since the early to mid-1900s . . . but were there? Warner's jaguar was never again seen north of the border. But it had already made history. And this lone cat was about to ignite a controversy between ranchers, conservationists, and the United States federal government that no one, least of all Warner, could have foreseen at the time.

Jaguar track found during ground-truthing survey along the northern coast of Honduras. (Photo: Steve Winter, Panthera)

Jaguars were believed long extirpated from this border area, and The Nature Conservancy, interested in protecting the unique flora and fauna of the region, wanted my assessment on the jaguar situation here. My dismay at the paucity of new information and conservation efforts on jaguars since I left Belize years earlier had been gnawing at me for a while now, particularly in light of the rapid destruction of forests and wildlife that I was seeing in Asia. This latest occurrence of a jaguar where it was not supposed to be helped steel my resolve to push forward with an idea that had slowly been taking shape for some time-a large-scale attempt to learn more about jaguars and prevent them from following the downward spiral of the tiger. Jaguars still roamed the hinterlands of the southwestern United States into the twentieth century, though by that time they were considered rare. Possibly one of the first records of a jaguar in the Southwest was that of trapper James Ohio Pattie, who, in 1826 while with a party of beaver trappers in the lower Colorado River valley, described a "leopard" that was killed when it walked into their camp. In 1841 the United States–Mexico Boundary Survey reported "leopards" seen along what is now the New Mexico–Arizona border, and during the second 1855–1856 boundary survey, they noted claims that "el tigre" was common along the Santa Cruz River valley in southern Arizona. But already by the mid-1800s, the jaguar population in the United States was thought to be declining rapidly as a result of shooting, trapping, and poisoning of the animal itself and its prey. Elliott Coues, assigned to study the natural history of Arizona in the 1860s after it entered the Union as a territory, never mentions jaguars in his investigations.

Warner's incredible once-in-a-lifetime jaguar encounter might in fact have been a short-lived piece of news, relegated to the kind of campfire lore appreciated by naturalist Aldo Leopold on his outings into this region, had the story ended there. But less than six months after Warner's encounter, a second male jaguar was photographed and videoed by rancher Jack Childs and his friend Matt Colvin while they were hunting in the Baboquivari Mountains of south-central Arizona. Now there were two verified sightings, occurring within a very short time period and with impressive photographs that got a lot of media exposure. The national attention garnered by these sightings prompted the Arizona Game and Fish Department to initiate a jaguar management plan and create the Arizona–New Mexico Jaguar Conservation Team.

After visiting with Warner, I continued farther into the borderlands and met up with Jack Childs and Matt Colvin for an excursion, again on mules, into the Baboquivari Mountains where they had seen their jaguar. Before making this trip to the Southwest, I had researched reports on previous evidence or sightings of jaguars in this area, and I was surprised at what I found. Since 1900 there had been at least 60 reports of jaguars killed in Arizona and New Mexico, at least one every decade. Nearly a third of these reports were from 1900 to 1910, a time when jaguars were still considered regular occupants of this region. Another 24 percent of the reports were from 1911 to 1920, 12 percent from 1921 to 1930, and 12 percent from 1931 to 1940. After that there were no more than three jaguar reports in any decade up until 1970, and only one report for each of the subsequent decades until 1991. But the reports of occasional sightings continued up to the present.

A jaguar chased up into a tree before being sedated, examined, and radio-collared by our research team in Brazil. (Photo: Steve Winter, Panthera)

The number of jaguars that might actually have still been resident in the United States or simply traversing the border from Mexico, we will never know. There were few people like Warner and Jack running around this remote area sending back reports, or reporting kills, particularly since the 1970s, when bounties on predators were rescinded and it became illegal to kill jaguars. While the data were sparse, the information in the reports, which spanned almost a century, provided insight into what I believed was happening. Of the 26 times that the sex of the jaguar was reported, only six were listed as females. Two females had been seen with cubs, in 1906 and 1910. David Brown, a professor at Arizona State University who collated much of the data on jaguars, believed that regular sightings of jaguars in the Southwest until 1950 were indicative of a thinly scattered population of resident jaguars. But the last verified female was reported in 1963, and the last sighting of cubs in 1910. Any breeding or resident population of jaguars, he purported, was gone from the United States by the 1960s.

After seeing the areas where Glenn and Childs had had their jaguar encounters, and considering the sex and age data from available reports, I was convinced that recent jaguar sightings in the United States were young dispersing males or occasional adult breeding dispersers coming up from Mexico. There was no evidence to suggest any resident population of jaguars inhabiting the United States, nor any recent breeding of jaguars in the United States. This supposition seemed even more likely when, several years later, David Brown and Mexican biologist Carlos Lopez-Gonzalez verified the existence of jaguar populations, with breeding females, in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. The most northerly of these populations was only 140 miles south of where Warner Glenn had photographed his first jaguar in the Peloncillo Mountains, and 200 miles from where Jack Childs had treed his jaguar in the Baboquivari Mountains. Yet the 1987 jaguar surveys and the distribution map of Swank and Teer showed the jaguar's range occurring from central Mexico to northern Argentina, having contracted more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from its former northernmost extent, along the United States–Mexico border, and a similar distance from its original southernmost distribution in central Argentina. Swank and Teer had assumed that in the face of rampant hunting pressures and habitat loss, the most recent northern jaguar populations in Mexico had been totally extirpated. But that assumption had clearly not been verified in the field-because it was wrong.

Text and images excerpted from An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar, now available from Island Press.