A writer comes face-to-face with the cat deep in the Amazon jungle and left with a new understanding of its surprising resilience to poaching and habitat loss.
“There’s a jaguar in the baño,” George Olah told me with a small smile.
“Um?” I managed, squinting into the dusky Amazon forest surrounding our camp.
“She’s behind that tree. Look for spots,” Olah said. Then: “No. That tree,” pointing to a trunk between 30 and 40 feet away.
In an instant, I registered that, yes, the bathroom trail we had cut through the Peruvian jungle was indeed occupied by a member of the largest cat species in the Americas. She was so close that if she launched herself at one of us, it would be game over in seconds.
“Shiiiiiiiiit,” I said as we—unarmed except for a couple of machetes and a small slingshot—quickly moved closer to get a better look.
Powerful predators that kill by puncturing skulls with their tremendous bite, jaguars reign over both ecosystems and mythologies. Everyone hopes to see one of the spotted cats when they visit this part of Peru, and on several earlier occasions, I’d been lucky enough to glimpse the cats along the riverbank. But this was the first time I’d been jaguar’d out of the damn bathroom.
And it was the first time I experienced what I’ve learned to call jaguarness.
It was our second night in Peru’s Candamo Valley, which is tucked between two Andean ridges in the country’s southeast. Olah, a conservation geneticist at Australian National University, was looking for wild macaws to catch and outfit with satellite tracking collars, and he was hoping to find the colorful birds here, in one of the most remote places on Earth.
To get to Candamo, we had spent several days traveling by motorized canoe, first up the Río Tambopata, then on the swift and treacherous Távara, and finally through the series of rapids that guard the valley’s mouth. Candamo is so isolated, and so tricky to get into, that it has earned the nickname “the last rain forest without humans.”
No one has ever really lived in Candamo. Or at least, there’s no evidence for continual human habitation, though rumors swirl about drug runners using the 350,000-acre patch of rain forest to move their wares across the Bolivian border by air. But even the rubber hunters of the 1800s, who so completely bled the area’s trees, mostly stopped short of Candamo. Now, the only lingering signs of their presence are downriver along the Távara, not far from the site where both Peruvian and foreign scientists once tried—and failed—to establish a research station.
So Candamo’s wildness only thrusts itself upon a handful of researchers, the occasional lucky journalist, and indigenous fishermen, the only people allowed to hunt in the valley. In other words, this rain forest is arguably one of the most stubbornly isolated places on the planet—and perfect for finding truly untamed animals.
Before departing for Candamo, we were told to expect some unusual behavior from critters unaccustomed to humans. We heard about monkeys dropping out of trees to investigate their strange bipedal cousins; and once we arrived, we quickly learned that the caiman lounging in the river didn’t bother to swim away while we rinsed off our dishes.
But jaguars that crept into campsites, completely unruffled by a bunch of humans with headlamps, tents, and Olah’s phone blasting the same silly pop song over and over? No one expected that.
Had I done a bit more research, I would have learned that in one sense, our experience wasn’t that unusual. Many humans who visit the Peruvian rain forest are calmly watched by a jaguar or two. Most of them, however, don’t realize they’re under surveillance.
The Ese’Eja, indigenous to this area of Peru, say that the jaguar only shows himself to you when you are ready to see him, and Panthera onca generally live in solitude and take great care to avoid conflict with humans. In fact, while individual lions, tigers, and leopards have hunted people, jaguars have never been known to systematically pursue us.
Those who have studied jaguars say they sense a kind of preternatural consciousness in the beasts, a combination of disciplined energy and shrewd awareness that allows the jaguar to unleash its power in calculated ways. Alan Rabinowitz, struggling to find the right words, calls it simply “jaguarness.”
“There weren’t really proper English terms I could put together which really get it,” says Rabinowitz, the chief scientist for the global wildcat conservation organization Panthera. “I sometimes say ‘gentle giant,’ but it’s not a giant among the cats and it’s not gentle, really. It’s this very, very powerful animal that you could walk up to and holler at, and it’ll go away.”
Those seemingly contradictory qualities, along with the jaguars’ exquisite predatory capabilities, offer the cats hope of surviving in a human-dominated age.