The Jaguar King of the Forest Might Help Its Survival Ecosystem

The big cat could be key to protecting the Mexican reserve and everything in it, as a new railway line threatens its habitat.

This article originally appeared on Atlas Obscura. It is part of Climate Desk’s collaboration.

Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist from Mexico, says that tracking jaguars requires detective work. We trek through Mexico’s Calakmul Biosphere dense forest. This protected natural reserve covers approximately 2,700 sq. miles and is located in the Yucatan Peninsula. Biologist Heliot Zirza Villanueva is following us, an ex-jaguar hunter who has become a conservationist. He’s also a veterinarian Susana Llescas Furter and Eliu Campos Hernandez’s bloodhound trainer. Monica, one of his students, is with him. Like me, the puppy is out for her first jaguar hunt.

Suddenly, Monica stops. The forest hears a distant sound. Ceballos remarks on the reaction of Ceballos to the pup’s roar. It’s an excellent sign. Her instinct is sharp.” Ceballos continues to the local watering hole, and we continue looking for our quarry. Llescas Furter discovers tracks made by jabali wild pigs, which are common prey for jaguars. Although we find a jaguar footprint, it does not look new. The team begins to document the tracks using photos and measurements. A sudden cacophony is heard in thick vegetation. Campos Hernandez whispers, his excitement barely condensing. Jaguars are prey for stocky herbivores. The presence of tapirs at the waterhole could indicate that big cats might be near.

Don Pancho discovers a hairball the size of a mouse. Ceballos examines the hairball and smells it. He says, “Jabali.” The type of markings jaguars use to identify their territory is evident in the scratch marks left on nearby trees. These are just a few of the many good indicators. Ceballos explains that jaguars do not have the luxury of skinning their prey so they will end up swallowing hairballs. The fact that the hairball remains wet and that there are scratch marks on it, suggests that a jaguar has killed a jabali in these last days. This is the ideal spot for them to stalk their prey. The team will return before dawn with track hounds and fresh meat.

Ceballos, his colleagues and their team are determined to locate the mysterious cats and learn more about their habits and distribution. Ceballos and his team have been working in Calakmul for many years on the jaguar research program. Because of the increasing challenges facing this remote reserve, it is even more crucial than ever. Climate change and illegal logging have been threats to the reserve’s fauna and flora for a long time. But there is a greater danger in the future: A new railroad that aims at increasing tourism and trade will soon be built. Ceballos is hopeful that the team’s work will help to protect the most of the reserve. It is important to document the jaguar.

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