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.)

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