The Jaguar's Shadow

The Jaguar's Shadow: Searching for a Mythic Cat

Richard Mahler
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    The Jaguar's Shadow
    Book Description:

    When the nature writer Richard Mahler discovers that wild jaguars are prowling a remote corner of his home state of New Mexico, he embarks on a determined quest to see in the flesh a big, beautiful cat that is the stuff of legend-yet verifiably real.

    Mahler's passion sets in motion a years-long adventure through trackless deserts, steamy jungles, and malarial swamps, as well as a confounding immersion in centuries-old debates over how we should properly regard these powerful predators: as varmints or as icons, trophies or gods? He is drawn from border badlands south to Panama's rain forest along a route where the fate of nearly all wildlife now rests in human hands. Mahler's odyssey introduces him to unrepentant poachers, pragmatic ranchers, midnight drug-runners, ardent conservationists, trance-induced shamans, hopeful biologists, stodgy bureaucrats, academic philosophers, macho hunters, and gentle Maya Indians. Along the way, he is forced to reconsider the true meaning of his search-and the enduring symbolism of the jaguar.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15593-8
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. CHAPTER ONE “God Almighty, That’s a Jaguar!”
    (pp. 1-15)

    Sprawled spread-eagled on the ground, I am held captive by the citrine eyes of a cat that outweighs me by twenty pounds, thrives on raw flesh, and could—if so inclined—crack my cranium like an eggshell. This lithe carnivore is crouched less than a yard from my face, close enough for me to feel the damp breeze of his exhalation. My nose flares to receive a pungent odor that is decidedly feline: equal parts well-licked fur, rich body oils, and muscle-braided flesh. My peripheral vision registers a restless tail, as twitchy as an angry serpent. I admire the burnished...

  6. CHAPTER TWO “It Pays Us Again and Again”
    (pp. 16-29)

    My love affair with jaguars began with a short-lived flirtation in late 1987, when I spent a two-week working vacation in Belize. This tiny Central American nation—the former crown colony of British Honduras, thereby English-speaking—is one of the last strongholds of jaguars. As many as a thousand were thought to remain here in 2009. (The cat also persists in large numbers in much of the Amazon basin and several other heavily forested parts of South America.)

    Belize is a haven for jaguars because it is a land where every living creature, including humans, has a good chance of...

  7. CHAPTER THREE “Among All Big Cats, We Know Least About Them”
    (pp. 30-48)

    I discovered that the average person, including me, knows nearly nothing about jaguars. And much of what we think we know is wrong. I was surprised that friends and family members had only a vague idea of what I was talking about.

    “Which model do you like?” a student, on the verge of receiving a doctorate degree from a prestigious university, inquired.

    “They’re vicious man-eaters,” a cousin declared. “Don’t ever turn your back on one because that’s when they attack.”

    “I’ve seen them at the zoo,” a woman at a party enthused. “What beautiful black coats they have!” At the...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR “We All Felt Really Blessed”
    (pp. 49-63)

    An amiable tone prevailed at the first Jag Team meeting I attended. It convened in Douglas, Arizona, a former boomtown that faded with the closing of a copper smelter in the 1980s. By reliable accounts, the import of contraband and undocumented immigrants had replaced mining as the dominant industry. Immediately across the border was Agua Prieta, a much larger city considered a major drug-trafficking center. I stayed at Douglas’s generic Motel 6 and walked to city hall, where forty-some interested parties were sprinkled among the soft chairs of a council meeting chamber. The proceedings were moderated by Bill Van Pelt,...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE “Well Drawn and Unmistakable”
    (pp. 64-86)

    Buenos Aires is an unlikely name for the place. It translates as “pleasant breezes” and links in the public mind to the cosmopolitan capital of Argentina, famous for its tango and beefsteak. By coincidence, that waterfront city happens to be near the southern end ofPanthera onca’scurrent habitat. Yet the Argentine capital looks nothing like the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, where seasonal winds often buffet dry desert air toasted to 110 degrees or more. The refuge, occupying much of Arizona’s Altar Valley, is at thenorthernmosttip of the jaguar’s range. Decidedly nonurban and noncoastal, it is a...

  10. CHAPTER SIX “The Model for How to Live”
    (pp. 87-101)

    The way Guillero Morales tells his story, a little dog deserves full credit for the discovery of a lifetime. Without Perrito’s pursuit of a nondescript Central American jungle rodent, the priceless treasures of Che Chem Ha might have remained sealed for another thousand years.

    “Perrito was running fast after thetepezcuintleand then—poof—he was gone,” recalled Morales, slashing his hand through the air like a machete. “I had no idea what happened to him.”

    We were standing on a well-worn, muddy trail near the slate-gray Macal River, a few miles from the Guatemala border. This remote corner of...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN “Jaguars Possess the Power of God”
    (pp. 102-116)

    The Maya developed one of the most remarkable civilizations in human history. Over the course of centuries they built great cities, mastered astronomy, fashioned a sophisticated cosmology, devised a highly accurate calendar, and pursued large-scale agriculture in a demanding environment. They were talented artisans, accomplished builders, skillful politicians, fierce warriors, entrepreneurial traders, imaginative architects, articulate writers, and precise mathematicians. While Europe slept through its Dark Ages and suffered from the Black Plague, the flourishing Maya climbed to great heights—all without benefit of metal tools, beasts of burden, or the wheel.

    Archaeologists divide the story of the Maya into five...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT “Blood of the Valiant”
    (pp. 117-141)

    Respect may be long-standing, but so is our enduring compulsion to hunt, capture, possess, and kill jaguars. For millennia, people have sought to eliminate, or at least control, these carnivores. The biologist Ronald Nowak, citing research by Alan Rabinowitz and others, wrote that when combined with other human-related factors, “direct persecution and declining prey have rendered [jaguars] among the most imperiled big cats.” Rabinowitz himself concluded: “Jaguars and people can coexist in this world, but we all must work a lot harder at making this happen.”

    Because of the cat’s vaunted cultural roles and the sheer magnificence of its pelt,...

  13. CHAPTER NINE “He Believes He Is a Jaguar”
    (pp. 142-159)

    For many indigenous peoples of the Americas, the jaguar is top cat—and always has been. As the unassailable ruler of all animals, in the minds of many, jaguars are closely associated with hunting rituals and the practice of war. In some cultures permission must be received from this powerful feline, through its intermediaries, before game may be killed within the animal’s territory. Proof that this cat is a master hunter is believed self-evident in its ability to prowl, climb, swim, stalk, and kill equally well in nearly any environment at any time. The adult jaguar is further admired for...

  14. CHAPTER TEN “There It Is; I’m Going to Shoot It”
    (pp. 160-178)

    I was off again to Belize, the little country believed to have one of the largest densities of jaguars in North and Central America. I still sought a wild jaguar, but I also wanted to investigate disturbing reports that big cats in this Massachusetts-sized nation—which I had visited fourteen times in as many years—were being killed at an alarming rate. Emerging here was the same set of interrelated problems associated with other, more crowded, developing regions.

    I first spent a few days in the forested foothills of the Maya Mountains, where several ecolodges promised exciting outdoor escapades for...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN “Cows Are More Important Than Cats”
    (pp. 179-197)

    Carlos lópez gonzález, accompanied by a north-of-the-border gringo, sat in sweltering heat, swapping tales with the head of a poormejicanofamily in the Mexican state of Sonora. As recounted in a magazine article cowritten with a colleague, David E. Brown, the Mexican researcher listened patiently to an elaborate description of their informant’s encounter with a jaguar.

    “Whenever [the hunter’s] account lagged for even the briefest moment,” the wildlife biologists wrote, “his wife or daughter jumped in with the missing details, retelling the story they had probably heard a hundred times. Killing thetigrewas likely the highlight of his...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE “We Just Stopped Seeing Them”
    (pp. 198-209)

    I first met Sergio Ávila and Emil McCain in Tucson, where the researchers were studying a pair of captive sister jaguars at a local biological park. “We’ve been annoying the zookeeper,” McCain laughed, “by getting in the [unoccupied] cage to have a look at jaguar tracks.”

    On a seasonally hot afternoon, we dined beneath a web of misting tubes at a restaurant near the University of Arizona. In collaboration with Jack Childs—whose party videotaped the Baboquívari jaguar in 1996—McCain was monitoring camera traps along Arizona’s southern border, with occasional assistance from Ávila. The Mexican biologist’s research background primarily...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN “To Ensure Our Namesake Is Protected”
    (pp. 210-223)

    My late cousin the New Mexico oilman Bob Enfield dearly loved fast, high-performance cars. I rode shotgun with him as a kid and watching with astonishment as his eight-cylinder sedan’s speedometer crept above one hundred miles per hour. I had never been driven so fast and was sure that somewhere between Vaughn and Roswell we would lift off the asphalt and soar across the Llano Estacado like a flying saucer.

    When I was fourteen, Bob became one of the first in his state to buy the spiffy 1965 Ford Mustang, an instant classic. I traveled in it halfway across Texas,...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN “Siga el Pisto”
    (pp. 224-235)

    My quest next took me to the cool highlands of Guatemala, a hodgepodge of coffee plantations and pine forests, where I loosened my rusty Spanish at an Antigua language school. Within a few days of marathon instruction I was sufficiently fluent to discuss jaguars with my patient teachers, Maritza and Abelino. They were surprised to learn that these cats still existed in their country. Maritza, a bookishAntigueñawith an interest in feminism and politics, reacted with wide-eyed astonishment: “I thought the last of them must have been slaughtered by ranchers and poachers long ago.” Abelino, a quietly earnest fellow...

  19. CHAPTER FIFTEEN “Living in the Same Place It Always Has”
    (pp. 236-247)

    Seen from the air, the Cockscomb Basin is a jade carpet of seemingly impenetrable jungle. A backdrop of serrated hills and sharp pinnacles—some rising to nearly 3,700 feet above the nearby Caribbean—gives the watershed its name. The jagged profile of one particularly prominent ridge does, in fact, resemble the wobbly flesh atop a rooster’s skull. So thick is this vegetative maze, rent by rivers and ravines, that when the biologists Alan Rabinowitz and Ben Nottingham used radio transmitters in the 1980s to track collared jaguars, signals were quickly absorbed by the millions of vascular plants. The men were...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN “Pretty Well Hunted Out”
    (pp. 248-261)

    My day began at 6:30 a.m., when I drove from the research station to the Dutchman’s ranch. There I met Becci Foster and Bud, the marvelous but needy ocelot. The scientist stowed her gear in preparation for the short drive to Emiliano Pop’s home nearby. The passenger door of Foster’s vehicle bore footprints from Bud’s paws. It seemed that this anxious cat—perhaps made hopelessly neurotic through early separation from its mother—had a habit of trying to jump into the cab whenever his guardian prepared to drive away. We discouraged lonely Bud by rolling up our windows and edging...

  21. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN “These Animals Could Become Wonderful Teachers”
    (pp. 262-279)

    The claytons had never been to this zoo, but I had visited several times and was acquainted with its staff. I had spent a guided afternoon and evening on the premises only ten days earlier. My companions perked up and asked me to show them around.

    “This is not your grandmother’s zoo,” I advised them. Jane and Julian shot me quizzical looks. “You’ll see.”

    Located twenty minutes east of Belmopan, the country’s sleepy capital, the twenty-nine-acre Belize Zoo is truly one of a kind. Operated neither by government agency nor as a commercial enterprise, it is an educational venture overseen...

  22. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN “It’s Good if It’s Dead”
    (pp. 280-291)

    Costa rica is a peace-loving Central American country famous, justifiably, for its scenic beauty and diverse ecology. Nature-oriented tourism pumps hundreds of millions of dollars each year into the nation’s economy. But similar conditions exist here as elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere’s subtropic and tropics. The population is rising, agriculture and urban centers are expanding, and pressures on wildlife wrought by hunters and exotic animal traffickers are increasing.

    “Good luck finding a jaguar in Costa Rica,” one Central American scientist told me, shortly before I flew to the sprawling capital of San José. “You’ll need it. The tourism brochures are...

  23. CHAPTER NINETEEN “A Flagship Species for Conservation”
    (pp. 292-305)

    “Jaguar habitat [throughout the animal’s historic range] has decreased overall by more than 50 percent in the last century,” the pioneering researcher Alan Rabinowitz warned in December 2006. “The broad vision is a jaguar corridor from Mexico to Argentina.”

    In an interview for the National Geographic Society’s podcast, the scientist said that ongoing research suggests that at least some jaguars move unobtrusively through human-disturbed landscapes, such as farms and ranches, en route to the less-inhabited areas where they prefer to mate and hunt. Whereas the paradigm for conservation once was “to find good areas of habitat and lock them up,”...

  24. CHAPTER TWENTY “The Mother Liquor from Which We Have Come”
    (pp. 306-319)

    Satisfied that no humans are near, the jaguar sheds the forest’s gloomy cloak and pads silently to the water’s edge. The damp night is moonless, with a blur of gray-blue haze suspended like smoke above the tree canopy, drifting on a barely perceptible breeze. The musty smell of organic decay pervades the air, mixing with the sweet perfume of orchid and jasmine. Drops of moisture drip from dew-laden leaves. The cat sniffs for a moment, pauses, and pricks up his black-lined ivory ears. They pivot back, forward, and sideways. He is evaluating carefully the nocturnal orchestra of insects and amphibians,...

  25. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE “To See One at All Is a Lifetime Experience”
    (pp. 320-326)

    My emotions as my plane lifted off from Panama were unsettled. I felt as troubled by the prospect of a world without wild jaguars as I might be if the human race were to abandon art or extinguish mystery—or the pursuit of religious ritual, or the conundrum of paradox, or the splendid thrill of astonishment. Throughout the New World, jaguars had played a starring role in the staging of such compelling experiences. They were an important part of what made us human. For a shrinking number of indigenous tribal people,Panthera oncastill represented not merely supremacy, prowess, and...

  26. Sources
    (pp. 327-342)
  27. Saving and Studying Jaguars
    (pp. 343-348)
  28. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 349-350)
  29. Index
    (pp. 351-359)