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!

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