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.
Campos Hernandez declares that the “true king” of the forest is the cat as we return to our camp in preparation for tomorrow’s predawn hunt. Campos Hernandez says that the big cats can weigh over 200 pounds and are extremely endangered.
Llescas Furter relates a close encounter she had with the wild jaguar, which was captured and calmed by team members. She described it as “like being in front of a mythical creature.” Jaguars are depicted for centuries as being godlike creatures with supernatural abilities. Their spotted pelts carried maps of the entire universe and held the sky up. When the team manages to capture one of these big cats they attach a tracking collar. The collar will eventually release and can be pulled by the team. This gives them valuable information about the territory.
Scientists say jaguars are the area’s main predator and help to maintain balance in the environment. Zarza Villaneuva says that removing an apex predator could cause an explosion in other species’ populations, which could lead to habitat destruction.
Ceballos says, “By following the jaguars we can show that they require a lot of space to survive.” He believes that protecting the jaguars can also help protect other animals in the food chain. We need to use charismatic species to make the government agree to increase the reserve. He says that this is the last chance for us to preserve what amounts to an inestimable reservoir of Mexican history as well as our biological heritage. The Calakmul Biosphere is home to approximately 500 jaguars, along with nearly 70,000 species of animals and plants.
The Tren Maya (or Maya Train) that will be running through the reserve could disrupt much of this rich fauna and flora. This massive infrastructure project is expected to become operational in 2023. It will link Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state, Chiapas, with Cancun, a wealthy tourist destination. The work began in 2018, and is now moving at an accelerated, divisive pace. While some say that it will provide much-needed opportunities for remote villages and towns, others fear it could lead to an environmental disaster. Zarza Villanueva claims that it will bring much-needed opportunity to remote villages and towns; others warn it could lead to ecological disaster. In 2020 Ernesto Martinez Jimenez (an indigenous activist from Calakmul), won a legal battle for construction to be stopped along one section of the proposed line. However, it remains unclear how long this pause will last.
Campos Hernandez gives me a shot tequila as it falls at night. He says, “For the bites & the itching.” Ceballos and he both pour another glass of water when I mention the train. For a while, we sit silently and let the nocturnal insect choir fill the gap between us.
At last, Ceballos speaks. Ceballos finally speaks. Campos Hernandez points out that illegal loggers are responsible for less forest destruction each year than the Maya Train project. Ceballos and Campos Hernandez are optimistic that the project will actually promote environmentally sustainable development. Ceballos says, “Having both the military and government backing us means that we can preserve the biosphere and expand the reserve.” Ceballos also thinks it might offer locals an alternative for illegal hunting and logging. After finishing his tequila, he talks about the Maya Train. He says, “And now I strongly recommend everyone get some sleep. We’ve got an early 4 AM wake-up call.”
A few hours later the sound of howling dogs and an alarm wake me up. The caravan, consisting of two cars and a pickup with four jaguar tracking hounds, speeds through the forest. The pile of fresh meat that we had left behind the previous day is still there. However, no jaguars are found. Don Pancho, who is leading the search for tracks in the area, tells me that there’s a barnyard smell and a musky scent. He says, “Jabali.” He said, “They passed us but not jaguars.”
We will continue this four-day race, which is adrenaline-fueled and followed by failure, for the next four days. Each member of the team has a different theory about why jaguars seem to be evading them. Campos Hernandez believes we aren’t leaving enough meat. Don Pancho claims too much rain scatters prey. Ceballos jokes that my presence makes me bad luck. Ceballos decides to give up the search and come back in August.
The Maya Train is four months closer when he attempts to catch and collar another Calakmul jaguar. Its construction is already closer to these mysterious forest kings.
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Publited Sat 31 July 2021, 12:05:01 +0000