Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar-Epilogue: Journey From Army Ants to Jaguars

The trip out of the Pantanal to the airport in Cuiaba (where I flew to by mistake at the beginning of the trip) took about five hours and comprised of 15 or so shaky old wooden bridges with missing planks here and there. Fortunately the rivers below were not that deep except they were occupied by masses of sunning caimans. Peter Crawshaw camped out here with George Schaller over 25 years ago to count the numerous capybaras, but we were not able to see a single one on my way out on Aug 11th.

But I felt good. I had seen jaguars! In many ways this is a big improvement from my trip to Belize five years back. First, the only wildlife I saw in Belize was howler monkeys and ants! And Second, I had that ridiculous episode with the Millers.

My experience with army ants was rather fascinating. Due to the lack of (at least viewable) wildlife in both Chan Chich, Lamanai, and the Cockscombe (!), I took an interest in the ubiquitous leaf cutting ants while in Belize. At every sunset, these tiny ants would start moving along the forest paths. They go up century old trees, cut a tiny piece of leaf and then carry them down the trees and walk hundreds of meters to their nest to grow fungus to produce food. They form green moving highways. I saw on a number of occasions, when a piece of leaf was too heavy so the carrrier ant had trouble erecting it, other ants would come to its rescue by helping pushing the leaf upright so the carrier ant could continue its journey. Such was the cooperation of the ants and no wonder they were able to build palaces that are comparable in size to what humans build. As Chairman Mao used to say: “To unite is power”.

After Stuart left early I remained in Belize hoping for my ever more remote Jaguar encounters. When that hope looked too dim, I decided to pursue my other interests –ancient Mayan cities. Tikal lied just across the border from the Lamanai Outpost lodge where I stayed, so I decided to visit the largest Mayan Ruined cities in Tikal of Guatemala.

The night before I went, I discovered a book in the Dining area of the lodge, called the “The world of Ants” by French Entomologist Remy Chauvin. I was immediately absorbed by such words: “An entomologist is not inevitably the harmless eccentric found in the school prize books of my childhood, with long hair, clothes flying and a big hat with a few butterflies or beetles pinned to it; often he was pictured contemplating rather abstractedly through a magnifying glass some minute insect, at the base of a flower corolla. Around this picture would be set the famous dictum: nature is most to be admired in the smallest…).” I delved into it until the generator at the lodge turned off and I retreated to my oil-lamp-lit hut.

I was fascinated by this book and started to understand the ubiquitous leaf-cutters that I had been observing every day. I fell asleep contently, looking forward to getting up at 6.30am next morning for Tikal. I was woken up by some intense itching, and started scratching my skin. Mosquitos must have been attacking me but I was impressed by how they managed to reach nearly all parts of my body under the blanket! I used the opportunity to go to the bathroom and it was 4.30am. While I was sitting on the toilet, with the dim light from the oil lamp, I raised my head and got a fright! I saw the entire bathroom wall covered with ants!

For the rest of the two hours, I wrapped myself up in the sheet and lied still till the wake-up call rang. I got ready very quickly and checked the bathroom again –the ants were mostly gone with the exception of a few. I met up with my driver/guide at the reception. I told him about the ants and the mosquito bites. He looked alarmed: “These must have been army ants! And you were on their way!”

I counted 168 ant bites. The ants apparently inject a kind of acid into anything they come across which cause the itching that I experienced. The itch took quite a few months to ease away but the marks from the bites did not completely disappear until over a year later. The long lasting memories of these bites served as a reminder for me to find this book by Mr. Chauvin urgently as soon as I got back to London. I searched it on Amazon.com and was thankfully rewarded with the only copy (used) there was to find! Despite that the site said that this fascinating and humorously written book published in 1970, was going to be republished, it never happened, to my great disappointment.

Army ants, or military ants, are remarkable creatures. I now often have visions of the ant queen wrapped up inside a big ant ball rolling forward, ready to devour anything they could tackle on their way –other insects, rodents and even piglets! Fortunately or unfortunately, I never encountered them again in my later visits to wildlife reserves, not even during this trip to the Pantanal.

But hats off to Mr. Chauvin! Because of you, I have gained so much respect for the ants and their world. I often wonder how much of our netherworld belongs to ants of various kinds…

Still, I am more pleased that five years later, instead of leaf-cutters or army ants, I saw jaguars –what beauty and power! If I did not see any jaguars with the ultimate jaguar biologist this time, how and where else would I ever see them?

I can’t thank Peter enough for his organization and time. And I promise to return.

As soon as the cell phone signal was back, I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that my poor husband had been waiting for me in Buenos Aires! Off we went to see the Tangos!

(Afterwords: BA flight back to London was cancelled on our way back from Buenos Aires, so we had to go through New York with American Airlines. 36 hours later we were back.)

Sunday, 26 August 2007


Being Green is now POP. The ex-future president Al Gore has added allure to this otherwise often sniffed-at cause, previously championed mostly by bearded environmentalists. The likes of Zac Goldsmith has brought even more glamour to being green and everyone is seemingly jumping on the bandwagon. Or at least in appearance.

This makes a veteran Green freak such as myself rather more proud. I was green since I was a teenager, many years ago, way before the word Green existed in its current meaning. I understood intensely the problems of overpopulation in China since I was in high school, when China started applying the one child policy. I vowed to never contribute to this overpopulation mess by having children of my own unless I must do, for the love of a man. I strongly believed and still believe now that China would never be a match to the other great industrial and developed powers of the world unless its population size is dramatically reduced -where on earth would China be able to find all the natural resources needed to sustain the appetite of a huge population of 1.4 billion with the same standard of living as that of Europe, even less the US???!!! It is scary for me to even imagine that day coming, with several hundred million cars that go around in circles in a great number of densely populated cities in China. To be frank, the China I grew up in under Mao was far far less polluted than now-we used to see beautiful blue autumn skies. With China’s modernization came industrialization, whose inseperable twins are pollution and resource depletion. I dread to go to my home town Beijing now as the air is foul and blue skies have altogether disappeared. The Chinese government is trying to clean up and doing everything they can, but with 1.4 billion people on the road to modernization and westernization, what can you do????

I have chosen to live in the great city of London, where there are at least some control on carbon emissions. We do not even own a car here. I love the London underground despite its exuberant fees which the next mayor should cut by at least half to encourage more use of public transport. One can have a glimpse of Londoner’s life through the underground and feel in touch with reality. Just yesterday, there was an announcement in the London Underground, as quoted in the free Lite newspaper, to this effect: “If you see a German standing and if you have a free seat next to you, do not offer it to him. Take it yourself”. This is London! One can not- not love it!

Despite my happy sacrifice of personal conveniences for the health of the planet, I am not sure that the whole issue of Green awareness is getting anywhere in terms of action. Of course Al Gore’s Live Earth Concerts attracted a lot of folks and raised quite a bit of money. But where is the action in the daily life of 6 billion homo sapiens, growing fourfold since 1900 and to reach 9.2 (to be conservative) billion by 2050!

I can’t say for the British, the Europeans or the South Africans. But I can say that every Chinese is acutely aware of the problem of overpopulation and pollution in China. Yet, how many are willing to forego the pleasure of proudly owning a brand new car which shows off one’s hard earned social status that comes with the acquisition of the vehicle?? The car manufacturers are certainly not there to discourage folks from buying any for the sake of the Chinese environment?! Not a Japanese carmaker, not an American Carmaker and not even an European car maker! And even less a Chinese carmaker who is on the race to become the cheapest and most profitable carmaker in one of the largest markets in the world!

Pity those last primal forests around the world- they will be made into quality tables, beds and shelves to adorn the houses of the newly rich Chinese and Indians. Yes there is illegal trafficking. But government policy is one thing and law enforcement is yet another. And the health of the planet is still very very far from the agenda of world leaders judging from both points.

Even with government policy, how do you police six billion people (and increasing exponentially)? And on a personal level, why should someone like myself continue to care when other homo sapiens who have offsprings do not?!

And even the most benign intentioned green person such as myself has her dalliances. Yes I do not own a car in London, but I take the planes a lot. I hate planes still I like to be in interesting places, particularly where there are ancient civilizations and big wild cats. I am more than happy to forego the process of taking those dreadful flights-if you can tell me how.

In the meantime, I continue to take my London Underground.

Saturday, 25 August 2007


I can not get style sense out of my life. Some find it interesting; some find it incomprehensible and yet others find it contradictory. For a woman who spends a large part of her present life in a remote area of South Africa, and living among tigers & African wildlife there, the image one most likely conjures of me is someone with plain t-shirts, sneakers and unkempt hair. Interestingly, I was mostly in that gear when I first started working in the fashion business in Italy, right after business school in the US.

I always loved fashion, or rather, style and beauty. Cats and many animals are beautiful and that is one of the reasons I love cats. In the period when China was most boring in terms of style, I used to sew and later design my own clothes when everyone else was still wearing blue and green Mao uniforms. I even got bashed in university for wearing something too “risqué”. I tried to enrol in fashion school after I moved to Europe but was found to have no great talent in this field. Therefore I decided to pursue fashion from business perspective after a MBA degree.

One of the leftover style sense from business school at Wharton was T-shirts and sneakers. But not all T-shirts are the same and not sneakers are the same. However, after I was asked a few times if I was a student by kind and often doting Italians, I decided to invest in a totally different wardrobe to match my newly acquired position as Licensing Manager of Fila Sports. The transformation made all my Italian friends proud and I indeed blended into Italian society very quickly, with my honey brown sheep skin coat, and fine wool Etro scarf, etc.

I found Italian fashion beautiful and classy, one of the reasons I wanted to work in Italy and in Italian fashion. Italians are stylish, almost all of them are. Italians proudly told me: “We (Italians) are all artists!” and I agree with them. There is intrinsic style in the everyday life of every Italian, and they do not follow fashion. But after spending some time there, I started to notice something similar between the Italians and the Chinese, not least in their personality and cultures, but also in style. Granted the Italians are artists and have great sense of style but I had a hard time telling them apart from their back. They all loved the English country style- Barbour coat is a prized item. They loved a good pair of Levis too. In the end, I could conjure up the stylish but typical Italian look much in the same way as I could conjure up a typical but unstylish Chinese look from before the 1990s.

London was therefore an eye opener in the true sense of fashion. One can not ignore fashion and style. Not much of a TV junkie, I can not say anything about the TV but what to buy and what to wear is almost in everyday’s and every paper and magazine. The iconic Kate Moss, born in the year of the Tiger much to my delight, is followed intensely by women of all ages. So is Vicky Pollard. London is indeed the centre of fashion and style, and in fact, individuality. I rather admire the girls bearing their long legs in the starkest rainy winter day, wearing the smallest mini one can find.

But it is in Buenos Aires, I find style, beauty and creativity. The majestic palatial buildings from a bygone age of prosperity often evokes in me a great sense of pity and longing-I wondered what was the root cause for its decline. The inimitable Tango only deepens that sense due to its sensual beauty yet dignity and grace. And the fashion designs! They are just unmatched. The items (clothing, jewelry, décor items etc. ) are often beautifully crafted, yet simple and creative, which evokes an long Italian tradition. Despite my life at a wildlife reserve, Buenos Aires and its designs are just something I can not bypass. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the pesos have been devaluated so shopping in BA continues to be a pleasure this August.

This is one of the few small luxuries I still keep, since I started the Chinese Tiger Reintroduction project which has practically consumed my whole life. Since I spend a lot of time at Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa, so as to not let those beautiful pieces go waste, I now dress up for TigerWoods, Madonna, Cathay and 327 every day! These beauties surely appreciate the Buenos Aires Style since 327 and Cathay had a good Tango lately!

Friday, 10 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar -Day 9: “Steamed Piranha”

In the early morning we went out to the same place where we saw the two jaguars yesterday and there was no sign of them today. We also went to check the Caiman carcass that we saw yesterday killed by a jaguar but it was gone. From the tracks and from the position of the vultures we could tell the jaguar had dragged it to the area where there was a dense growth of trees. I wish we had a vehicle so we could go tracking the jaguar.

I was still fortunate to see an Iguana, a caiman with a newly caught fish in its mouth. It was also a rare chance to learn about the fauna and flora of Pantanal. There are 3500 species of plants and 500 species of birds. Although I have traversed 800 kms of river, I only saw a tiny fraction of what is available here in nature.

I was also surprised to find out from Peter Crawshaw that he was also attacked for training "lay" people who are keen on conservation but who did not have the relevant academic background, as Peter believes that in conservation it is not the academic background that counts but how passionate, dedicated and thus effective one's contribution is to conservation. He discussed it in his paper "the Recommendations on Study Design for Research Projects on Neotropical Felids" in 1991.

Having been maliciously attacked by some of the NGOs from the outset of setting up Save China's Tigers, I am very impressed by Peter's stance on this point, probably standing against a lot of peer pressure. Coming from a scientist this is particularly valuable since some "professionals" discard and sometimes even viciously attack efforts from "non-professionals" by hiding behind science. Judy Mills, then with Conservation International and now at the Esso sponsored "Save the Tiger" fund, was quoted in a 2003 Wall Street article on myself saying that Conservation should be left to conservationists, and that the only thing that comes out of what I do is a wealthy woman feels as if she has done something, etc. This is somewhat ironic since Judy Mills' own professional background was actually PR.

I have huge problems with this kind of attitudes championed by the likes of big NGOs such as the one represented by Judy Mills. For me, everyone on this planet should be a conservationist, as everyone in this world has a responsibility towards the health of this planet which is largely indicated by how much wilderness is still around. This attitude of Give-me-your-money-and-don't bother-about-what-I-do precisely holds the NGOs no accountability towards donors and supporters, and contributes to the inaction, ineffectiveness and inefficiencies of many of the big "conservation" NGOs, which seem to be more interested in promoting the preservation of their own organizations instead of the causes they were initially established for. The highly respected field biologist George Schaller wrote about how small a percentage of donor fund at WWF actually goes into conservation projects in his book "the Last Panda" and he was described as biting the hand that fed him.

These organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and IFAW, are however quick to jump on the bandwagon to criticize and even attack any other concrete actions such as ours, that they themselves hold with contempt.

I was also surprised to find out that Dr. Crawshaw is one of the 16 members of the core group of the Cat Specialist Group of the IUCN, as his name was not on that infamous 2003 letter addressed to the Minister of the Forestry Administration of China, which was signed by 7 people in the name of the "core" group of the Cat Specialist Group. In that letter the "core" group members threatened the Chinese government and said that they would never be involved with the Chinese Tiger project again if China sent the South China Tigers to South Africa for rewilding training. It was ironic since I had tried to enlist help from the Cat Specialist Group for nearly three years before that and all I received was cold shoulders, criticism and later on malicious attacks on both me and what was worse, supporters who endorsed our project. I personally can ignore these attacks but am disgusted when these NGOs go after our supporters in a vicious and often petty way. For example, one "core" member of the Cat Specialist Group tried to get the membership of one of our supporters in a conservation group cancelled for being involved our project. This kind of petty behaviour is such a shame coming from this "respected" biologist. However the most difficult obstacles created by these oppositions thus far have been our difficulties in raising much needed funding to start work on restoring land for the Chinese Tiger Pilot Reserves in China. If WWF, instead of lip servicing conservation, actually invests just ten percent of their annual income of half a billion US dollars into restoring land for the South China tigers, we would be able to have at least two new reserves reclaimed from agriculture for the sake of Tigers and biodiversity in China.

I admire scientists who do dare to bite the hand that feed them in the interests of the well-being of the planet earth. Only in this way, can these "hands" actually do something concrete for the survival of the natural world, not just the survival of these organizations. After all, if the very organizations that people are counting on to do something for the planet are actually not doing much, what other hope do we have for the survival of the wilderness, and indeed humans themselves in the end!!!

In the afternoon, I went out with Fiao and Chu to fish for dinner. We ate freshly caught fish last night and I was keen to be part of the fishing experience myself although I did not fish myself. There are very few fresh river catches nowadays available in China due to over depletion and pollution, so eating fresh catches from the river of Pantanal had been a delight.

The first fish caught by Chu was Piranha-the famous fish that attack any living creatures that are wounded. I was so excited to see a real Piranha caught but Chu disappointedly threw it back into the river. The second time he did the same, I asked him why. "We want Pacu". Why?? "Piranha is too small". I now understood that the purpose of this fishing trip was to fish only Pacu (a kind of flat fish) and anything else get thrown back.

"But smaller fishes are more tasty in China, more tender", I said, "We steam it". So when the third fish was again Piranha, Chu kept it murmuring "Ok, Piranha a' vapor"... It must be me since the next one, and the one after and the after were all Piranhas. There were only two Pacus caught.

I was so looking forward to the Piranha for dinner but when the two different fish dishes turned up, none was Piranha! It turned out that the locals here think better of Pacu so served us Pacu. But as Fiao said: "Piranha has much better meat than Pacu"!

Guess I will have to wait till next time to eat the Piranha since it is my last night here at the Pantanal!

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar -Day 8: “Onca, Onca, I See You!”

We set out early at sunrise and went into the tributaries to search for jaguars. It was such a beautiful place with birds and hundreds of Caimans. We were also lucky to see my second group of Giant Otters. The Otters were shy but very curious. Although they tried escaping they also could not resist their curiosity of peeping at us by risking getting closer by.

After two hours and several calls by Fiao, we still had no sight of any Jaguars. Peter started to say: "The Jaguars are not answering the calls. You’d better come back during wet season". Although I understand that it is not the mating season and therefore it is more difficult, but my hope was still to see a jaguar on this trip, even though I am sure I will be back again soon to see more jaguars, even during the wet summer season to risk being eaten alive by the mosquitoes who just love me (thank goodness there is no malaria in the Pantanal so I do not mind only the itchiness).

Despite my hope, I was getting mentally prepared to not see a jaguar at all on this trip and started to film other objects of interests using the precious film I have been saving for jaguar sightings. Chu stopped the boat at a local fisherman's hut and went to enquire with the fisherman's wife. The hut was big and beautiful and the canoe, dug out of one tree made by the Indians was very charming. The basket made of bamboo for holding fish resembles some of those used in the wet areas of Southern China. Chu came back said: "Nothing." There have been no jaguars around in this area.

I was certainly losing more hope and started checking and cleaning my video camera. Suddenly, Fiao tapped on my shoulder and Peter said in a hushed voice: "there, there, the jaguar!" I turned around half believing since I could not see anything. But my eyes focused and I saw it! Actually I saw two!!! I did not make the mistake I made a number of times before when I saw other big cats, and pushed the right camera buttons and captured the magnificent images of these two beautiful creatures. One of the jaguars was clearly a cub and they were shy. In a matter of seconds they fled. I would not have believed my luck if I did not capture their images on my video camera! Onca, Onca, thank you so much for making my dream come true, even if it was for a brief moment! It was exactly 9am.

Actually I should thank Dr. Crawshaw. I think he feels as much relieved as Fiao and Chu. I certainly did not expect to have such a warm welcome and good preparation as if I were a state guest with so many people involved in helping me sighting a jaguar. I feel forever indebted to their hospitality.

The Juguars we saw must have been a mother with her cub. I was ready to just disembark here and follow the jaguars if I was allowed!

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar - Day 7: “Amanha!”

Today we had to leave early at 6 am to reach the next stop -Peschero de Pirigara- five and a half hours away. It feels like I barely slept at all since we finished dinner at about 11.30 last night. What ever little I had to pack was done under torch light.

We traveled along first the Cuiaba River, and for a little while the Negrito River. I lost account the number of Caimans I saw along the way-there seemed to be one every ten meters along the river banks. By this calculation there must be 100 Caiman per kilometer and a total of 15000 Caimans for the 150 kms of distance to Porto Jofre where we would pick up another park employee . The Negrito River was the only one that the Giant Otters still survived in the 80s before their recovery.

We were late by an hour and we picked up Oelio, nicked named Fiao. Fiao is in his late fifties and is a jaguar trekking expert. In March when a Brazilian TV Channel came to do a documentary on the Pantanal, Fiao managed to get them film 20 jaguars in five days, including two matings in this ranch-fishing camp of a family -that we are heading now. All my hope is now staked on Fiao!

We arrived in our destination after a further two hours. The Keepers of the camp welcomed us into the house and it is fairly luxurious compared to others where I stayed up to now. The owners of the ranch do not come very often, probably like me and Stuart with our reserve in South Africa. Afternoon was leisure time and I was so glad that the weather kept up the nice trend continuously.

Fiao worked for 24 years for the parks services in law enforcement, after some time as field guide. One of his job was to go out into the rivers helping out people who got lost, which is easy I must say. He lives near Porto Jofre. He has two grown children-a boy and a girl.

This camp is near the State National Park where an American who owns a ranch baits the jaguars for his tourists, which has been very controversial. Although baiting is banned there is not enough law enforcement in the parks managed at the State level. Even yesterday his tourists saw five jaguars all at once.

Although I have information that in South Africa, some private game reserves bait leopards for tourists, and the very famous lodge Tiger Top in Nepal baits tigers as well, where the tourist dollars contribute to conservation, and does not alter the behaviour of wildlife themselves and baiting is not illegal, I personally do not think it is a bad thing. However, seeing five jaguars at once is very unusual and I begin to see the points made by Jose Augosto-Director of the Mato Grosso National Park. He argued yesterday that baiting alter the behaviours of jaguars. I was of the opinion, based on my understanding of the leopard and tiger cases, that it should only alter the behaviours of the animals in that particular territory, which is normally a male, and/or a female with her cubs. However, here in the Pantanal, I speculate that due to the mass body of water systems, the jaguars, though territorial, would have a harder time keeping their territorial scent markings, which in circumstances of dry land act as deterrence to other jaguars. Therefore, the territories of jaguars overlap a lot more, particularly in wet seasons. Baiting consequently could potentially alter the behaviours of many different individuals as the territorial markings are not as clear as in the cases of dry land animals.

Nonetheless, it certainly requires some careful monitoring of the baited jaguars in order to confirm this is indeed true. I will leave this subject to biologists such as Peter. In the mean time, my mind concentrates on seeing a wild jaguar!

In late afternoon, we were out on our first attempt. Besides Fiao, the keeper of the house nick named "Chu", joined us. Chu's brother nicknamed "Negritto" whom I met in early afternoon showed us some scars from a skirmish with a male jaguar in February. The Jaguar had taken one of the horses from the other house of the camp's owner nearby, and when Negritto approached him in the boat, the jaguar lounged at him on the boat. Negritto fend the jaguar off with the paddle and jumped into the water. Nonetheless, he was left a few claw marks on his hands. It was no fault of the jaguar-he was defending his food! Chu himself lost 50 heads of cattle to the jaguars in the first year he brought them here, with 20 of them taken within the first month.

No jaguar sightings, but we were rewarded with a tortoise struggling to swim to a bank in the river. Peter picked it up and brought it to the river bank..."AMANHA", meaning "tomorrow" as Fiao said when we stepped off the boat. I do hope Peter's pressure on him does not make him lose confidence in his abilities to "produce" the jaguar for me.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar - Day 6: “Onca, Onca, Where Are You?”

The Jaguar is called Onca Pintada in Portuguese. My history with the Onca dated back quite a few years back. Trying to sight big wild cats before I die is of course my passion, if not an obsession, but the big cats that are more difficult to sight certainly get me more determined to chase after them. The Jaguar is up the rank there with the snow leopard.

I actually contacted Dr. Peter Crawshaw in 2001, soon after he returned to field research and was starting to capture pumas, half of the time in Southern Brazil and half of the time in the Pantanal. I was also put in touch with a husband and wife team working for World Conservation Society (WCS) in Belize-the Millers. Eventually, after some research I decided to go to Belize, since the travel literature appeared to give higher chance of jaguar sightings in Belize, particularly in the famous Cockscombe National Park where there reputed to be around 800 jaguars and where the well known biologist Alan Robinowitz worked for many years on Jaguar research. The fact that I was in touch with Caroline Miller and her husband who have been camera-trapping the jaguars made it even more attractive. In my wildest dreams, I was hoping to be invited to go on the camera trapping trips once I got to the area where they worked.

How wrong I was!! When Stuart and I got to the area where the Millers were based and where a well established tourist lodge operated, the owners promised to alert the Millers that I was there and would like to meet them. Days went by and every time I enquired, owner of the lodge would say they were out inspecting the camera traps but a message had been left for them. Although I found it strange that the Millers did not return any messages with suggested time or place to meet, even briefly, I continued to be hopeful, whiling away time observing the fascinating leave-cutters, a kind of ants that were but the only creatures to be seen besides the ubiquitous howler monkeys.

On our last day, on our way back from an excursion to see forests, our driver/guide spotted the four wheel drive jeep ahead of us and said that was the Millers' vehicle coming back from their camera trap inspections.. I excitedly asked the driver to please do stop them as I had been in touch with them and was hoping to meet them before we leave here. The driver stopped and jumped out of our vehicle and went forward to speak to the Millers. Stuart and I were waiting for our driver's signal so we could go over to meet the Millers. We waited and waited and eventually decided to get out and go forward myself, despite Stuart's objection for fear that the Millers may not want to meet us at all for one reason or another. "Why wouldn't they???!!!" That kind of social behaviour would certainly not register with me.

They of course indeed wouldn't want to meet us as I was soon to find out. When I got to the side of the car where Caroline Miller was sitting, I spotted the little Chihuahua dog in her arms! Our driver looked embarrassed when he saw me approaching but Caroline Miller looked at me coldly, without any sign of acknowledging that we even communicated by email, even less a courtesy handshake. She also showed no sign of embarrassment for being caught inspecting jaguar camera traps with a lap dog. This image of a WCS field biologist going on field trips with lap dog in arm were to leave me a long lasting comical impression.

What do these big NGOs actually do? Can donors actually trust what they do with donor’s money? The Millers seemed to me more like any well fed and well paid business expats with their huge perks and comfortable life style than a tough going field ecologist!!

Not only did I not see any Oncas in Belize, the encounter with the lap dog holding WCS field people working on jaguar research made me doubt about the actions and objectives of many of the high flying big NGOs.

Therefore I am glad there are still true field scientists such as Peter Craws haw around, so wildlife might still have some hope!

I was glad to see that the wind calmed down this morning so we were able to proceed as planned. Peter took me to the third lake of the series of four lakes-Lake Gaiva, which is partly owned by Bolivia. We approached closer to the mountain range and it was just beautiful.

Compared to our reserve Laohu Valley, this part of Pantanal is both more remote and less remote. It is more remote because it is a lot harder to get to and there are practically no communications-no phones, no radios and no internet. People pas messages on by telling boats that pass by. The facilities such as accommodations are a lot simpler than South African reserves although several steps ahead than those in China. It feels however less remote because the Paraguay River is a river highway and there are often tourist fisherman's cruisers and soybean carriers that pass by, which leaves a false impression of being close to human activities.

This is my fourth day on the river and I have still not seen jaguars. It reminded me of Peter Mathessan's book "the Snow Leopard" where the author went on an expedition with George Schaller in the Himalayan to search for the snow leopard but never saw one himself. I start to wonder if these big cats have sixth sense-it appears every time I intentionally go on an expedition to sight the big cats, I never see one. It is almost as if they want to make it harder for me knowing that I will be coming back again and again.

On way back to the headquarters, we stopped at a neighbouring ranch which is a fishing camp for a wealthy family from Sao Paolo. The couple who looks after the place-Hildabrando and Elza came to meet us and offered us a coffee. The path that leads to their house had fresh paw prints of a jaguar from yesterday.

Over coffee Hildabrando told us a story of a jaguar trying to get his dog through the mosquito door about 3 weeks ago. When he put a piece of meat inside his kitchen mosquito door, the jaguar stood up trying to get to it from outside the door. Hildabrando and Elza had a field day of fun with the jaguar.

We continued our search for the jaguars after the afternoon coffee. In a small tributary, we banked at an opening and Peter found fresh Jaguar tracks of a big male amongst tracks of white lipped peccary. I was all excited. Peter called by imitating the sound of a female, using a local made instrument made a curved tube and a piece of bamboo acting as amplifier. Normally during breeding season between February and April, the jaguars of opposite sex would reply to the call. In non-breeding season, they sometimes would come investigating any way. However, there was no sign of jaguar today... Well at least I was close having seen fresh jaguar tracks.

At the spot where Peter laid a camera trap, where fishermen have been laying baits of fish for the female jaguar to show to paying tourists, we saw a number of vultures perched on the tree, which got us excited again. There has been a research paper, according to Peter, that describes how vultures follow the jaguars. We went on the bank again but there was no sign of either fresh baits or jaguar tracks. In the end, Peter believed that the vultures were just there hoping there were fish!

Although another day passed that I did not see the jaguar, I felt a step closer!

Monday, 6 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar - Day 5: “Giant Otters of the Acurizal”

Last night saw the arrival of the Park's Director Jose Augusto and another park employee, who normally spend a week per month here. The employee immediately embarked on cooking and the smell of the meat was so appetizing that I could not refuse their hospitality.

The Park is an UN World Heritage site but I hear of the difficulties of obtaining any UNESCO funding to improve the infrastructures. I am not surprised. Like many big NGOs in conservation, they seem not interested in field results but only in meetings, conferences, workshops, seminars, where they can fly their staff to exotic locations in style. This is an aspect that upsets me so much, thinking those retirees saving up whatever they have to donate to these big NGOs who are actually not spending the donated funding on what the donors thought the NGOs should be spending on. Coming from private sector and doing what I do for passion, I found the behaviours of most of the big NGOs such as WWF and IFAW unacceptable. What is worse, they do not hesitate to criticize, and even attack projects that are actually doing something to help wildlife, such as that of ours.

A beautiful day again and we set off to visit the ranch Acurizal around 9.30am and the ride was about an hour. Acurizal is where Peter started his jaguar research career exactly 30 years ago. It was cattle ranch then but was acquired in 1997 by a local NGO "Eco-Tropicale" which bought it with the money donated by the Nature Conservancy-one of the few big NGOs that that are actually doing something concrete instead of lip-servicing to conservation.

The area is 14000 hectares and a couple Claudio and Monica and a young man look after the place. After lunch we set off in the tractor to install camera traps. Claudio has identified the paw prints of a puma, tapir and white lipped peccary (a kind of wild pig) in the little inland trail. This is where both the territory of jaguars and pumas cross due to both the relative dry areas and the water. Puma is also called Mountain lions indicting its preferred habitat whereas jaguars just love the water.

Mosquitoes were attacking us but Peter assured us this is nothing compared to summer. After the three camera traps were laid on the path, we went out on the river to set the last one for the day. The sun is setting and the water was calm as a mirror. We parked the boat at a potential site and Claudio went on the river bank to examine the location. Just when I turned my head around trying to film the sunset, I saw the heads of some animals sticking out from water: "Giant Otters"! I screamed. Having looked at all the video clips and photos of Giant Otters taken by Caroline and Peter, I instinctively called out. Giant Otters almost went extinct here in the Pantanal and started coming back from mid 80s to mid 90s. The Otters seemed to be defending their territories and made this aggression sound towards us. Some of them stuck their heads out in protest. But they quickly dispersed and we could see their trails all over the bay.

Peter said "I consider this as lucky as sighting the jaguars". Well it certainly made my day!

Game of Big Cat Love

Anyone who owns cats truly understands why the term "Sex kitten" is applied to sexy human females. It is hard to resist a cat's seductive power. Once a writer said: "One either loves cats, or does not know them". Let's rather hope this is so -better than believe there are such hard-hearted humans who are not touched by the seductive power of a cat!

Watching the game of love being played by the biggest cats of all is a great previledge, for which I am truly grateful. Cathay started showing signs of oestrus a couple of days ago-allowing TigerWoods to smell her rear etc. Yesterday afternoon, she was at her most seductive self.

She would rub her head against TigerWoods, cuddle up to him, slap him gentlly, push him playfully, jump over him light-footedly, in an effort to get TigerWoods mate with her. But when TigerWoods tried to bite the neck of Cathay in mating position, she would dash off. TigerWoods also did not want to show he is easy to get. When he is snubbed, he would just go and lie down by himself when Cathay had already positioned herself right in front of him!

I don't know what happened at night. At 5.30am this morning when I went to see them again, they both went to sleep around 5.45 am, very early compared to the normal 7.30am when the sun starts to shine hard.

During the afternoon monitoring at about 5.43pm, I heard the distinctive roars coming out of the 9 hectare camp and rushed over to find Cathay rolling belly up. It might be the heat-the two were not mating as frequently as in August. I waited nearly another hour before another successful mating attempt occurred. There were a couple of attempts between the two successful ones where the couple tried, but struggling to co-operate. One can almost feel that Cathay got frustrated or annoyed and just sauntered off from under TigerWoods, while he was still busy positioning himself.

Its been three weeks since Cathay gave birth. The first time a tiger comes into oestrus again after giving birth is normally the most fertle. Fingers crossed we will have some more South China Tiger babies in a few months' time.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar - Day 4: “A Tough Gentleman”

When the generator turned off, I realized I should have brought a torch. I managed to get to bed with the aid of the cell phone light. I was exhausted and slept deeply. I was confused by the singing of the moon parakeets (birds with green colors) whenever I woke up during the nights-it was not an indication of morning-they were just singing all night through.

Peter was already up and was checking the camera traps he was planning to install today. He apologized for the noises he made over night-which I did hear but soon fell back to sleep. He had another migraine attack over the night and a very severe one. I could not believe that he has to endure this two or three times a week. In fact he only revealed to me now that he had three (!) Kidney stones attacks just three weeks ago and had to go to the hospital to remove the last two. He did not tell me about it for fear that I might cancel the trip to visit. I was both full of admiration for him and gratitude for this both tough and gentle soul.

Speaking of toughness, both of Peter's lower legs beneath the knees lost sensations after an accident on June 5 in 1998 (world environment day!). He was testing an old ultralight (used for aero survey), which incidentally is reputably the world's most dangerous aircraft/sport, when the aircraft was crossed wired and could only go up. He crash-landed from 12 meters and one section of his vertebrates got crashed into the spinal cord, the spinal liquid flow was blocked and he was paralyzed for a month. He wasn't sure whether he would be able to walk or worse, drive again. He spent nine months receiving complicated treatment and recovering and through electric shock treatment was able to recover the use of his legs. He continued with his puma and jaguar research work till today and yesterday which completed his 30 years of service when he landed in Acurizal to meet George Schaller-the famous conservation guru. We all know George Schaller’s fame but I am glad that there are field scientists like Peter whose head and feet are both on the ground and work hard and anonymously in often very harsh conditions for the sake of this planets' most beautiful cats and biodiversity.

Peter's life and experience are such a contrast to the two other jaguar researchers I met in Belize -Carolyn and Bruce Miller, who work for WCS (World Conservation Society attached to the Bronx Zoo in New York) based in Belize. I will come back to my unpleasant and almost comical but most memorable encounters with them another day.

We went for a short ride in the Cuiaba River around 12pm. It turned out to be a gorgeous day. The sun shone and the water flat as mirror. Birds of all kinds abound and Caimans were sunbathing all over. Peter assured me they won't jump onto the boat so I was able to get some very close shots of them. An adult paraguian caiman is about two meters long, versus the black caiman which could be over 6 meters long and which would attack animals including people. These paraguians looked so docile that one almost feels like caressing them.

We went for a sundown ride again after an afternoon tea. Life is very simple and conditions here are a far cry from the national parks facilities in South Africa. I am impressed by such dedicated scientists who lead such a life simply for their love of wildlife. In his 50's Peter, born of English father, is divorced and his children are all grown up. He gave up the directorship of the Predator’s Institute he founded in 2001 to return to the simple life of a field biologist in order to be close to nature. His house is very modest, almost like a big dormitory. He sometimes pays out of his own pockets to look after state properties such as boats (like a car in the Pantanal), which is similar to the situation of another dedicated conservationist I know-Nick Marks, who is now based in Cambodia. Life in the field is not easy due to lack of resources but Peter managed to continue 30 years of dedicated research to the big cats.

Peter laid 3 camera traps and in the very first location, we saw a number of jaguar pug marks-probably from a mother and a cub. Although I have not seen any jaguars, the simple facts to know they are around, makes me smile.

It was dark when we got back and the generator is on. The lights at the headquarters are the only lights one could see in sight, with the exception of the Milky Way, hanging brightly above. I am looking forward to the shower-probably the faintest possible water stream I have ever encountered in a shower in my life. At least today I know how to adjust the tap to make it a hot one!

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar - Day 3: “Gone with the wind”

The wind howled through the night and I was concerned that we might have to postpone the trip today. Peter mentioned yesterday that he hoped the weather stayed calm for today since we would be making a long boat trip and it would be difficult with the wavy water with wind. The wind was still strong after I rose and got ready. Peter was supposed to pick me up at 7.30am.

I went to sleep late at around 2am, having had dinner at Peter's house, meeting two of his friends who were young biologists. Carolina showed me her video clips of giant otters, playing, eating and fighting etc, and this was so unusual and fascinating! Of course it whetted my appetite even more besides the potential jaguar sightings.

I was much too early still after having had my breakfast and the hotel's internet was so slow so I could not get much work done. This made me more nervous as I waited for Peter. Peter was again an hour late, or so I thought. Last night he sms-ed me to say he would be half an hour late but he came more than an hour later. I was too embarrassed to call him thinking he must be caught up with something. When he arrived he apologized he suffered migraine last night so I had thought he was mistaken with the time while in pain. But this morning again he said he was sorry he was late for 15 minutes. I was hoping he was not suffering from migraine again but out of precautions asked the reception upon checking out-so what time is it now??? To my total embarrassment I found out Corumba is an hour earlier than Sao Paulo! So I had actually been foolishly using the wrong time and got up much too early while I could use the sleep! This also explained why it took an hour and half for the flight to arrive while the schedule appeared to be only 40 minutes.

Peter was indeed concerned with the weather since it looked gloomy and wind was still blowing hard. He had actually organized a much bigger boat already out of concern for my safety and well being. He is really considerate and was sharing also his concerns for me on the boat trip. Although this borrowed boat is much faster and safer than his boat, he was worried it might not change much under such windy conditions. On the other hand he was also worried that my time is limited and if we did wait and the weather tomorrow might be worse then it would have been better if we left today. In the end, I managed to show Peter the other side of me-a tough cookie having endured all kinds of worse traveling or living conditions! His colleague Gioberto who was dropping us off also assured him that this bigger boat was more than trustworthy to do its job of getting us to our destinations-the headquarters of the Pantanal Matogrosso National Park.
So we set off at 9am even though Peter himself was still uncomfortable with the boat and the weather.
The weather was unseasonably cold again today and riding on a fast boat only makes it worse. But it was not as bumpy as we thought. I was so pleasantly taken aback by the abundant bird life- grey and white egrets, tuiuius, anhingas, herons, vultures etc. It resembles the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Upon taking a wrong turn into a tributary, we were rewarded by 3 capybaras-the largest rodents in the world. They seemed unbothered by our presence.

However, just when Peter tried to avoid the big waves by crossing the river to the other side, the motor of the boat lost power...

We tried to peddle to the side of the river to a less windy corner but the wind was strong. I was getting worried that the boat might topple and not sure if there were piranhas in the Paraguian River. We managed to reach the side of the river with thick water plants and the motor just seemed to refuse to start, and if it did start it refused to hold. Eventually Peter started to think what would be our options-we could wait for one of the big but not so frequent transport boat come by and get the boat towed. But today is Saturday so any of these boats would be heading to the opposite direction that we wanted to go. I was toying in my head what kind of scenarios that would be-but prepared for the worst as I have two sleeping bags etc. After a short discussion, we thought to just try another trick on starting the boat.

To our pleasant surprise the motor suddenly went into action and seemed to hold again.... So we decided to capitalize on the momentum and just push on non-stop.. Three Caimans and five hours later, we actually arrived at our destination, in time for the beautiful sunset...

The headquarter is situated on a small island and one family acts as guards: father, daughter, son-in-law and the infant grand daughter. There was also a retired ex warden living here. The house that we are staying in is wooden and is used by the Park director and guests. The surrounding was peaceful and charming - the songs of birds were the only sound one could hear besides the wind...

And no doubt the jaguars are also watching.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar - Day 2: "Arriving at Corumba"

I was nervous whole night and woke up early. Somehow, for some one as seasoned a traveler as
me, going to Corumba is becoming a big task. My whole goal today was determined not to go to the wrong location of Cuiaba again! I went to the airport early and must have asked so many different people-airline officers, passengers, etc to confirm that the flight I was boarding was meant to go to Corumba and I did not have to change flight indeed this time.

When I asked my fellow passenger seated next to me to confirm, he said he was going to Corumba himself. Claudio was a smiling friendly man in his fifties and we struck a conversation to while away the time since I was too unsettled to concentrate on the book I was reading. Claudio, an engineer working for the biggest construction company in Brazil (and probably the biggest in the world, if I understood him correctly) lives in Pattino but is now working on a road project in Bolivia, just across the border from Corumba which is a frontier town as I found out in the map. He spends about four weeks working on the Bolivian project and then spend one week back at home, hence today he was on his way back to work. Upon leaving the flight, he kindly invited me and my Brazilian friends to have lunch with him on Sunday at his house. I had a hard time to get my message across, that I will be on a board for the next days chasing the jaguars, hopefully, so I won’t be able to accept his kind invitation.

Happily, I did arrive in Corumba and was picked up first by Peter’s colleagues since he was doing a live TV interview in the car. I was received by the Reserve manager and a young researcher called Rugero, who flew to Peter’s celebration party from Sao Paolo yesterday. And then Peter himself. It was a good encounter since although Peter and I have only been communicating by email, it seems like we are already good old friends and this was a very happy reunion!

Corumba is a charming little town but the aero view of the area was fantastic-lush green areas with many waterways. I am now looking forward to the start of our jaguar chasing trip tomorrow, having now resigned that my blackberry will definitely not work in this area...after repeated calls by our kind new office assistant Susan to try to find out why from O2 Blackberry customer service! Well, thank TIM Brasil for my ´`Data Connection Refused``...I can now forget about office work for a while.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Call of the Jaguar - Day 1: "Holidays not for us"

The flight was uneventful and we arrived in Sao Paolo Guarulhos on time. The immigration queue was long and slow and when we were finally at an immigration desk, the officer thumbed through Stuart's passport back and forth and eventually asked: “where is your visa?” We looked at him puzzled "do we need a visa"? He said to me: "you, no. He, yes".

"You are saying Americans need visa to go to Brazil?" He said "yes".
Then he waved his hand and said "wait" and came back a few minutes later with another officer-someone obviously senior and spoke good English. He explained that there was nothing he could do but to send Stuart out -Americans are now required visas as it is a reciprocal policy, apparently installed since a couple of years in retaliation of US immigration making it hard on Brazilians entering the US.

Clearly ordinary Americans are suffering the consequences of their government’s foreign policy. Funny that myself holding a European passport, do not need a visa but my husband does being an American!

Stuart felt resigned and said he will return to London, but I quickly got to work trying to find a way to get Stuart a visa and the best was for him to go to Buenos Aires and try to get a visa there. We might have to make changes to the travel plans that Peter Craws has spent months deciding on, which is to travel down the rivers in his little boat to gain the best chances of seeing a jaguar. But now we could only decide what to do once Stuart gets to Buenos Aires and get to the Brazilian embassy to find out his visa status. I did whatever I could and left him in the hands of the British Airways personnel. Although still worrying about him there was not much else I could do for the moment.

I was able to catch my own flight 3804, happy that I will now arrive in my destination Cuiaba on time where I would be picked up by Peter Crawshaw. The flight did not leave until an hour later, and it also strangely lasted 1 hour 30 minutes instead of 40 minutes as indicated on my schedule. At least I made it to my destination, or so I thought!

After disembarking, after all the luggage on the belt was picked up, mine were not there!? I hastened to the officer nearby and he looked at my tickets and started to talk to his colleagues on his walkie-talkie- I thought he was trying to get my bags from the my plane which was about to depart for Brasilia. Then he said to me in a combination of Portuguese and English: "come quickly, the plane is waiting-you need to go to Brasil, this is Cuiaba". NO, I am here. This is where I need to be", I said. "This is Cuiba, you need to go to Brasilia for Corumba.” He said in Portuguese, which I imagined I understood somewhat, but I was confused as I heard him as if saying “this is somewhere but you need to go to Brasilia to get to somewhere!" However I obligingly followed him and boarded the same flight that I came from, and welcomed back by the same hostesses!

I showed my ticket to one of the hostesses-a very pretty dark haired girl speaking fluent American English, who looked confused for a minute-since the duration indicated on my flight schedule was different from reality. Any way, I needed to head to Brasilia and then head to my destination Corumba-not Cuiaba! I now recall that Peter had specially warned me not to get confused by the two similar sounding places when I made my booking. I had only time to hastily fire off a couple of smses to let Peter know that I ended up in the wrong place, before the plane took off which actually did not reach him as I sent to the wrong number in haste. I felt so guilty since Peter has a celebration party planned by his colleagues for his 30 years of jaguar research today not long after my supposed arrival time!

Well I have certainly missed the only chance to reach Corumba today as there is only one flight a day. I am also wondering if the tigers are sending me protest messages.....

I only got hold of Peter when I landed in Brasilia-the capital of brazil-telling him I decided to make an aero tour of Brazil’s cities. Peter told me my bags were safely in Corumba and this is the first time my luggage arrived in the right destination ahead of me-while I myself got lost in the deep blue sky of Brazil.

In Brasilia, I was given first class service by TAM officer Dacil. I told him it was my fault to not to get off at Campo Grande to make the change but he kindly put me up in the hotel with all expenses paid by TAM. I did not expect that, especially since I got used to the poor service by SA express which just abandoned its passengers on a flight between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town where Stuart and I ended up driving the 1000km overnight last year. TAM instead got me chauffeured to my hotel and I did not have to worry about anything except searching for a shop to buy mini-dv tapes for my digital video camera, since my tapes went to Buenos Aires with Stuart. I needed to buy them to film just in case Stuart could not make it into Brazil in time. Just when I was getting desperate after searching two shopping malls in vain, I saw a few loose tapes lying around in the corner of this tiny photo shop. I grabbed all four of them even though they were sold at such inflated prices -images and memories of this jaguar search trip is of course at the heart of this whole trip!

I tried to call Stuart a few times and smsed him but still no news and his phone was off. Just when I turned on CNN watching that British Airways has been rated the worst European carrier, he called. And the news from the embassy was not good-it takes at least 3 days and up to 15 days for him to get a visa to Brazil. So it only makes sense for Stuart to head back to London for work again

Another Chinese saying: good things have a lot of obstacles! Fingers crossed that I do see a jaguar!!!

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

The call of the jaguar

There is a saying in Chinese: disasters happen all at the same time. This could be said of our first day of our holiday in Brazil.

Stuart and I have not taken proper holidays for a year and half. So when opportunities arose to visit the biologist Peter Crawshaw who has been working on jaguar research for 30 years and who promised that I would see at least one wild jaguar, should I stay a minimum 10 days in the Pantanal where he has been conducting research, I took the offer! I tried in vain to see any jaguars in Belize 5 years ago, not even in the famous Cockscomb National Park where there reputed to be 800 jaguars. In fact the only animals I saw there were howller monkeys, a couple of poisonous snakes and leave-cutters!

It took Peter considerable time to plan our trip, especially since Stuart, concerned about work, was not sure if he could make it, and if he could make it for all of the time, etc. As Peter planned to take us on a boat trip to unchartered areas for extended period to increase the chances of sighting jaguars, where the Joe public is not allowed to go without special permissions, we needed to coordinate our schedules carefully. We were all very happy when Stuart finally decided not to miss this rare opportunity and would join me from the start and cut end of the trip in Argentina short, since it meant that Peter would have less of a headache trying to co-ordinate different schedules. But we were wrong!

When Stuart realized that the days he cut short at the end of the trip were actually weekend days, we tried to make the changes at the Heathrow airport. But that was not to be since I had bought non changeable and non-refundable tickets.