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!

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