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Jaguar journey: following the jungle cats’ paw prints to save the species

The jaguar; a most elusive, yet powerful big cat. Stealthy and strong, it hunts like a true warrior, yet lives almost like a phantom; ghost-like in the rainforests of South America.

Compared to the prolific press that Africa’s big cats — the lion, leopard and cheetah — are granted, the jaguar is rarely seen gracing the covers of magazines, receiving week-long coverage on prime time BBC broadcast slots, or taking centre stage in its own feature-length docufilm.

Despite being the world’s third largest cat, possessing such iconic features as its beautiful rosette-covered coat and bone-crushing jaws (the largest of any big cat), the magnificent jaguar and its vulnerability to the continued threat of deforestation remains a largely unsung story.

But for the last 30 years, one man has made it his mission to save these big cats. Dr Alan Rabinowitz, Chief Scientist at Panthera and the man who established the world’s first jaguar reserve, is himself somewhat of an overlooked entity here in the UK…

 

Discovering the jaguar

Some time in my teens, when I would rush home from high school to try and catch as many wildlife documentaries on National Geographic Channel as possible before the 6 o’clock news and the firmly established family TV time that followed; I fell in love with jaguars.

The Nat Geo documentary that first piqued my interest in the big cat was titled ‘In Search of the Jaguar’. The film followed the story of Dr Rabinowitz — and showcased his quest to a secure 5,000 mile pathway for the jaguar to move from Mexico to Argentina.

The protected pathway would be an invaluable conservation effort to allow the big cats to move freely and diversify their genes.

In search of the jaguar - jaguar journey

Shockingly, estimates at the time (around 2006) suggested that one and a half billion acres of jaguar habitat had been taken by man, leaving the surviving population isolated in small pockets. Back then, it had also recently been discovered that all jaguars shared the same DNA — so a method of sewing together these pockets was necessary to allow movement for more diverse breeding.

Known as the ‘Jaguar Corridor’, the pathway — spanning 18 countries — is intoxicatingly referred to as a ‘necklace’ in the documentary, and each potential new territory sourced by Rabinowitz is referred to as a ‘gem in that necklace’.

The imagery of the emerald forests of Brazil, the burning amber flashes of the elusive jaguar slinking in and out of view and this elaborate necklace of geographical gems has always made it stick in my mind.

That and the fact that Rabinowitz was himself fighting against the odds of a serious illness during this film; yet choosing his quest to save the jaguar over slowing down to save himself.

 

Intermission

As the formidable jungle cat slips in and out of view in its rainforest habitat in real life; so my interest in jaguars has slipped in and out of my consciousness over recent times.

In the years that followed my initial discovery of wildlife warrior Rabinowitz, I would read countless stories and memoirs about people who had entwined their lives with African big cats. I would come to understand the complex social structures of lion prides and marvel at the cuteness of baby cheetahs on BBC’s Big Cat Diaries; I’d even end up travelling to South Africa to see how these big cats find ways to share a continent, and catch a fleeting glimpse of a lone leopard on the horizon. But the Latin American jaguar; this most mystic and spiritual of cats would remain a quiet, secretive, yet powerfully present interest of mine.

Towards the end of last year, exactly 10 years after first viewing ‘In Search of the Jaguar’ I took a chance on following the big cat myself. Perhaps not in quite the same way as Dr Rabinowitz and his team, but through my own journey.

Historically, these animals are interwoven in ancient civilisation as mystic creatures of great spirituality; prowlers of ancient imaginations, paid testament to through elaborate carvings and etched onto the walls of temples: their spirituality and strength make them an iconic feline.

jaguar temple statue

It is perhaps this very spirituality and strength then, that guided me at the end of last year.

Picking up a copy of National Geographic Kids magazine’s September issue, I took in the beautiful jaguar image staring back at me from the cover and flicked through the copy, taking note of facts about jaguars snatching up prey, such as caiman and capybaras, by uniquely using the winding tributaries of the Amazon basin to their advantage.

Poring over information about their skull crunching canines and their skilful swimming abilities rarely seen in big cats, I used the article as my main preparation for chasing down a job at this most esteemed of natural history media brands. I referenced the article several times in my job interview for the publication; and after a securing a second meeting, I was offered a job at the company.

Within my first few weeks, I was tasked with researching jaguar facts for a promotional ‘jungle survival guide’, which would be released with National Geographic publications across the globe, in many different languages. My first real project with the company, and it featured jaguars!

National geographic lego expedition jungle guide

If signs come in threes, the next one definitely felt like one worth seeing — or rather, listening to. When one of my new colleagues recommended listening to a podcast called RadioLab, as it featured and in-depth look at trophy hunting for rhino horn, it didn’t take long for me to look around and find an episode about zoos.

I was curious to see the journalists’ handling of the issues surrounding captivity, and shocked at the coincidence that, quite unexpectedly, the final segment in the broadcast featured one Dr Alan Rabinowitz (a name I had first heard through Nat Geo many years ago); tracing his life’s work back to being a child, and encountering a lone jaguar in the Big Cat House at the Bronx Zoo

The powerful RadioLab story (which can be listened to by clicking on the player link above) focusses on why Rabinowitz connected so much with the jaguar (owing to a severe stutter throughout his childhood, which left him feeling voiceless — a symptom he could recognise in the pitiful yowling of the Bronx Zoo’s jaguar).

The severity of Rabinowitz’ stutter was barely touched upon in that earlier Nat Geo documentary, so hearing about the extremity of the speech disorder and the impact it had on the course of Alan’s life gave a whole new dimension to the story; and a whole new perspective on his connection to the jaguar.

The coincidence of re-discovering a human-wildlife story that had fascinated me so much as a teenager, and learning of such a significant side of the story — the influence of communicating with animals on learning to overcome a stutter — certainly reignited my interest in finding out what has happened to the jaguar population now, and how Rabinowitz’ all-important ‘Jaguar Corridor’ has made a difference.

 

Jaguar journey

In Search of the Jaguar ends with a tantalising concept: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an overwhelming challenge? For this wildlife warrior, that chapter has yet to be written…”

Just over a decade on, it’s safe to say that that next chapter is an exciting one! Dr Rabinowitz is now Chief Scientist of Panthera; founded in 2006 as the only organisation in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species (including tigers, lions, jaguars, snow leopards, cheetahs, pumas and leopards) and their ecosystems.

The Panthera Team take on the formidable forests of the jaguar’s range – on foot! Photo by: Veronica Domit Photography

Along with Dr Howard Quigley, Head of Panthera’s Jaguar Program, Alan is currently undertaking a three-year quest to journey by foot(!) through the 10 counties that make up the spine of his now well-established 18-country ‘Jaguar Corridor’, sharing his experience along the way of the progress being made—  and of course the jaguars he encounters!

On their journey deep into the jaguar’s range, together with Panthera’s scientists and partners, they hope to continue to shine a light on the developments in the jaguar’s population and range, as well as the challenges in places where jaguars are most at risk — so that they can continue to develop and implement global strategies to best protect the cat.

I’ve signed up to ‘join the journey’ and receive regular updates about the team’s progress and was delighted to read about the efforts to explore the powerful cultural connections that locals have to Latin America’s iconic big cat.

‘The Journey of the Jaguar is showing that humans and jaguars are coexisting’ one of their most recent email newsletters reads.

This sounds like an incredible achievement when there is often so much conflict between local populations and predators (such as in the case of last year’s poisoning of multiple lions from the Maasai Mara’s Marsh pride).

I contacted Dr Rabinowitz to find out more about his experience and how the local people are able to live alongside the big cat, when so often predators are seen as a threat.

“My best experience has been to see the enthusiasm of local people and local governments to the idea of an integrated jaguar corridor,” Alan explains.

“Also to see local people feel strongly about wanting to bring jaguar culture back into the lives of their children and the schools.”

Alan Rabinowitz - jaguar journey

Dr Rabinowitz on his epic ‘Journey of the Jaguar’. Photo by Veronica Domit Photography

Hearing of the desire to educate local children about the beauty and importance of jaguars as part of their learning in the classroom is immediately something that resonates with me.

“I realise more than ever that the future rests in the hands of the young,” Alan continues. “My hopes are that this journey creates a permanent platform and a permanent movement for saving the jaguar, saving jaguar culture, and making sure that the world’s third largest cat does not go down the road of the tiger, lion and leopard.”

And for a man who has faced (and overcome) so many challenges in his life, what has been the hardest part of the jaguar journey so far?

“The worst experiences, as always, are to see dead animals.” he tells me. “Jaguar skins, jaguar teeth, and other animal parts. And learn of the fear some people still have about jaguars.”

 

Join the journey…

You can follow the footsteps of Dr Rabinowitz and the Panthera team at: journeyofthejaguar.org and see regular updates and images on Twitter and Instagram.

The expedition is also being used to spread the word about The Stuttering Foundation, which is of course is an organisation close to Alan, and one whom he is promoting along the route by wearing the foundation’s patch.

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National Geographic Kids Magazine: Secrets of the Spotted Eagle Ray

Nat geo kids magazine Kate on conservation

This past week I reached a career milestone — my first feature published in National Geographic Kids Magazine!

I’ve been working at Nat Geo Kids for the last eight months, and although I’ve written articles for the website, editorial for the magazine and launched the new school’s primary resources service, this has been my first opportunity to write a first-person feature. In this case, it was about Mote Research Laboratory‘s work to tag and monitor Spotted Eagle Rays.

Spotted eagle ray feature in nat geo kids magazine

At the start of the summer, I was fortunate enough to be sent to Florida, to research conservation stories on location for National Geographic Kids. One of the location’s I visited was Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which is home to Mote — an independent, not-for-profit marine research organisation dedicated to understanding the population dynamics of manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and coral reefs and on conservation and restoration efforts related to these species and ecosystems.

mote turtle patrol

My partner and I spent an entire day with the team at Mote — beginning with a 6am turtle patrol along the beach, looking for fresh crawl marks made overnight by female sea turtles coming on shore to lay their eggs.

Though at first we only found a couple of ‘false crawls’ (where flipper marks showed the female had returned to the water without digging a nest; perhaps because the area was not quite right, or perhaps because the timing wasn’t), we did eventually find a nest site containing eggs (verified by the Mote team gently digging round the area, recording, then covering the eggs back over with sand). It was an exciting start to the day, and one which hopefully will have a full feature of its own in the magazine!

Mote marine turtle hospital

Our second stop of the day (after some much needed breakfast on the go!) was a visit to Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital. Having cared for all five species of Sea Turtle found in the Gulf of Mexico, including Florida’s most frequently seen species; loggerheadsleatherbacks and green turtles, it was a real treat to experience the expertise of Mote’s hospital team.

We were given a tour of the hospital, which has admitted around 600 sick and injured sea turtles in the last 20 years, and saw turtles recovering from surgery (above left), one receiving care for a pretty deep wound on its underside from a boat’s propellor (top image above) and one waiting for surgery to remove several clusters of tumours (above right). This poor female was having her tumours treated in a special facility for turtles suffering from fibropapilloma tumours, because scientists are still learning how this disease is transmitted among turtles.

spotted eagle ray research boat

The final part of our day consisted of joining Senior Biologist Kim Bassos-Hull on one of Mote’s research boats. Though I didn’t really know what I was looking for at first, there was plenty to see – from pelicans diving to catch fish, to dolphins bobbing out of the waves ahead. The research team logged every marine animal we passed, noting down what the animal was, and taking a reading from the GPS device to determine the exact coordinates that the animal was seen from.

First one, then two, spotted eagle ray’s came into view and the boat’s crew sprang into action. The spotted eagle ray is a type of fish with a flat body and wing-like fins for gliding through the water. Like their stingray cousins, eagle rays defend themselves using stinging spines with a barbed tip. This particular species can be identified by a bright white spot pattern on their back.

We had the opportunity to see one of the creatures join the important monitoring programme after being caught, tagged and released. Hopefully it will help with collecting data about migration and breeding patterns of the species — which remain a relative mystery.

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Now, I wouldn’t want to detail exactly what happened on the boat that afternoon; if you want to find out, you’re going to have to pick up a copy of National Geographic Kids Magazine this month! ;).