World Travels: Guyana – Land of the jaguar

and I don’t mean the fancy car…

Pair of jaguars on Iwokrama road © David Fernandes

Pair of jaguars on Iwokrama road © David Fernandes

Seeing a jaguar in the wild is a privilege that few people get to experience.  Looking into the yellowish eyes of a finely tuned predator in its natural environment is an experience of a lifetime.  You immediately get the sense that you don’t see the jaguar.  The jaguar allows you to see it.  Even hearing a jaguar is an event.

Experiencing that guttural pant is something that you carry with you long after you hear it. But experiencing the elusive predator is not an easy task.  Jaguars are very secretive creatures.  Their mysterious nature and distaste for sharing space with people make them a very rare sighting, even in areas where they are quite common.  People who have lived in jaguar habitat, frequently seeing their tracks and other signs can go a lifetime without ever actually seen one.

This is part of the magic and the mystery of the jaguar as a species.  They seem almost invisible.  Everything about them has evolved to keep their presence from being detected.  Their tan coat, splattered with rosettes, chevrons and other shapes, help them to vanish into the backdrop of the shadowy forest floor.  Their massive paws help cushion the sound of their footsteps, allowing them to move in silence through leaf litter and vegetation.  Their remarkable hearing alerts them to the presence of their prey or their competition long before they are aware of them.  The jaguar is a marvel of natural engineering, and as top predator they have to be.

A jaguar encounter

But chance encounters do happen.  As a volunteer with Rupununi Learners Inc. in Yupukari Village last year, I was lucky enough to encounter a jaguar late one night on the Rupununi River.  While working with Yupukari’s Caiman Research Team, we came across a large male jaguar resting quietly on a high river bank near Karanambu Lodge.  As he rose to his feet, he stretched, showing off the muscular build that allows him to pounce on and overwhelm preferred prey like the peccary and deer.

Following the long stretch, he yawned deeply, displaying the jaws and teeth that allow it to kill with speed and power – biting straight through the vertebrae or skull of its prey. Sufficiently annoyed by our presence, the cat slowly moved off into the forest.

Never have I been so much in awe of the presence of another being.  I was left feeling that I had been granted a special experience.  Almost like being welcomed into an exclusive club.  Nature had allowed me to glance right into its wild core.  The jaguar is the apex predator; the true king of the jungle.   It’s amazing how an encounter that lasted only a few minutes, and represented only a minor disturbance for the animal, has had a profound and lasting effect on me.

Deciphering the jaguar

After this experience, I yearned to learn more.  But how do we learn anything about an animal that is so well evolved to its natural environment that it is difficult to lay eyes on?  Well, the signs that they leave behind is a good place to start.  Tracks, scratching posts, kills and even their scat can provide us with valuable insight into the lives of jaguars.  Fortunately, advances in technology have also allowed us get a look into the lives of secretive animals like jaguars that we never have before.

Camera traps are motion-sensor cameras that can be fixed to a tree and left in the field to collect data.  Set along trails, roads, rivers, lakes, streams and other areas where animals are known to frequent, camera traps can take pictures or video of any animal that passes in front of it.  And these images are not just for gathering images of these beautiful cats, they provide us with critical information as well.

Spotted animals like jaguars (as well as other spotted cats such as ocelots, margay and oncilla) can be identified by the unique spot patterns on their sides.  Identifying a number of individual animals in one area, gives us an opportunity to estimate the population in the area.  Each photo is also stamped with a time and date so you can begin to understand how and when animals are moving around.

Other species walking past and triggering the camera provides insight into the diversity and abundance of prey available in a given area.  This last factor is perhaps the most important factor in understanding jaguar populations.  The more food, the more jaguars.  This factor helps you understand jaguar conflicts with people.

When natural prey is in decline, jaguars seek alternatives – often in the form of cattle, dogs or other domestic animals – which puts them in direct conflict with people and communities that live near to them.

The placement of cameras over an area allows you to understand how they are distributed, and recaptures of individuals on multiple cameras allow you to understand how they move and interact with one another. Camera traps can help us to understand and manage this relationship in a way that benefits both the people and the jaguars that help maintain the balance in their forest habitat.

It was my encounter that inspired me to return to Guyana, and, with the permission of the Guyana Environmental Protect Agency, and the support of a number of project partners, I have been given the opportunity of executing a camera trapping project in the Kanuku Mountains.  I look forward to working with the Kanuku Mountain communities in developing a project that provides insight into jaguar populations in one of Guyana’s newest protected areas. 

By Matt Hallett – ‘The magic and the mystery of the jaguar’ – from Guyana Times Sunday Magazine

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2 Thoughts on “World Travels: Guyana – Land of the jaguar

  1. Ha! You make me feel so inadequate. The most exciting thing I have done recently is sit on my couch and eat Cheetos 🙂

    • hehe. I can only imagine the comical cheetah, in the commercials, sitting next on the couch, legs and arms crossed, and bouncing one leg up and down “you done yet!?”

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