On being prey..

March 13, 2009

My first blog, raided from old camp logs, was of early days of my career in the Paraguayan Chaco.  Specifically, a first-hand encounter with a scarcely seen large mammal, the Chacoan Peccary (Catagonus wagneri).  This blog is similar, in that it describes another first-hand encounter with a scarcely seen large mammal – the Jaguar (Panthera onca).

Jakob, my Paraguayan counterpart at the time, was a Mennonite who had lived in the Chaco for practically his whole life.  I was fresh out of my undergraduate program in my early 20’s, given this incredible opportunity to live and work in the Chaco by Dr. Kurt Benirschke (more about Dr. B in a future blog). 

We were doing some survey work in the northern Chaco, and continued straight north into southeastern Dept. Santa Cruz, Bolivia– somewhat of a risky move at the time, as parts of Bolivia weren’t nearly as safe back then.  We were able to observe numerous species of little-known birds and collected transect data throughout the northern Chaco on various game species: Chaco chachalacas (Ortalis canicollis), primates such as night monkey (Aotus trivirgatus) and dusky titi (Callicebus moloch), and a variety of larger mammals: brown brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira), collared (Tayassu tajacu) and white-lipped peccaries (T. pecari), and lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris).  We even collected data on other species of lesser-known mammals, including Felids (wild cats).

I successfully traversed three major life ‘stepping stones’ on that trip:
1) I got in and out of Bolivia safely (my first trip of what would be several),
2) I experienced the most tranquil moment of clarity I had experienced in my life thus far (in the middle of a vast private estancia [ranch] reserve), and
3) I encountered my first jaguar of what would be several (a live one, not its tracks).

The first experience was a personal adventure mission.  As I mentioned, parts of Bolivia weren’t nearly as safe back then.  Our vehicle was thoroughly frisked at all the military checkpoints, but we made them happy to let us pass with the standard bribe of a beer, bag of chipas or pack of smokes. 

Jakob (R) and the author (L), stirring the stew
Jakob (L) and the author (R), stirring the stew
(photo by J.U. Peters)

The second experience happened in the immediate vicinity of ‘Linea 6’ (Line 6) – much of the territory we were navigating was too primitive to refer to by place names or townships, as nothing on that level of order had been established yet, just pure pristine wilderness.  We were camping on a vast private estancia that comprised a portion of the southwestern periphery of Brazil’s vast Pantanal wetland. We spent all day walking through tropical dry forest studying monkeys, and driving through mostly desiccated wetland plain counting several species storks and ibises. We ended the day perfectly with Jakob teaching me how to catch scissor-tailed nightjars (Hydropsalis torquata) at our campsite with bare hands!  By the campfire that evening as our ‘critter stew’ simmered, it dawned on me how lucky I was to see pristine wilderness that was far from the threat of development.  It never even occurred to me that such a beautiful and tranquil place existed, but I thanked my lucky stars that I was able to experience it firsthand.

The story of the third experience technically comprises the contents of this blog.

Jaguar (photo by D.M. Brooks)

Jaguar (photo by D.M. Brooks)

On being prey..

4 July 1990
Cerro León, Defensores del Chaco Natl. Park, Paraguay

Well, Happy 214th B-day to the USA!  Wish I were home to celebrate, but in a way I’m having a celebration of my own tonight.  What an incredible trip this has been.  We made it into Bolivia and back in one piece, and I’ve seen all sorts of wildlife I haven’t seen yet in the Chaco since we’ve now reached the northern, more tropical sector.  As I write dusky titi monkeys are vocalizing their duet calls between territories.  I’m hearing more pairs (= higher densities?) here in the hills, than in the lowlands both here and in Bolivia.  What an incredible expedition this has been!

Last night we had just cleared the Military station at Fortín La Gerenza, where they were eager to make us unpack everything in the truck until we handed them some chipas and brewsky.  Although I’m inclined to think poorly of the soldiers for this behavior, I know that their bribes are driven by desperation.  When we were further north, just a short distance from the Bolivian frontier, there was a shack perhaps a few feet square, mostly open, not sheltered with mosquito screen, shade or anything.  Inside were a couple of empty boxes that once contained shotgun shell cartridges, a dirty blanket and some moth-eaten clothing punctuated with holes.  The dying coals of a recent fire were close to the shack.  As we went down the road, we came upon a young soldier, perhaps 16, barefoot and wearing crusty clothes, he was carrying a shotgun over his shoulder.  He told us he ran very low on cartridges a week ago to hunt dinner, and was waiting for the compound to drop off more supplies.  Feeling sorry for the kid, we had lunch with him, and left him with some food and supplies.  We didn’t have the size ammo he needed for his shotgun, but we promised to relay the message to his headquarters that he was in dire need of supplies or being relieved by someone.

Brown Brocket (photo by D.M. Brooks)

Brown Brocket (photo by D.M. Brooks)

So when we got to La Gerenza we did relay the message, only to have it fall on the deaf ears of the guards frisking the truck.  So we asked to speak with an officer in charge, but got the typical ‘mañana’ runaround.  Well, not knowing what else to do, we reluctantly pulled out of La Gerenza.  By then it was nightfall.  There were many brown brocket deer on the ‘dirt road.’  You could pick up their eye shine as they looked up into the truck headlights, then they would look away (eye shine disappeared), then eye shine again for a moment until the little deer vanished as it entered the dark abyss of dry forest.  There were several deer encounters over the course of an hour or two.  Then there was one who didn’t look away out of the truck’s headlights, just kept staring straight ahead and its eyes seemed to be further apart.  It was hard to see details from far away due to the road dust on this hot, dry night.  But as we got closer I could barely make out the shoulder blade haunches on the back alternating up then down, up then down, advancing closer with a slow and stealthy strut.  As Jakob sped up the animal turned and sauntered into the forest.  We slowed down because we figured we had lost it.  Just as we got 20-30 feet away from the area where we saw it, the animal’s front half poked out of the forest onto the road.  I could see it was no deer at all, but a jaguar!! 

It was hard to make out the details, as there was much road dust everywhere blending in with the only beam of light, that of the headlights, surrounded by the pitch black of the forest that engulfed the dirt road on either side.  As soon as we realized what it was we jumped out of the truck.  I could hear the jaguar walking on dry leaves in the darkened abyss of the forest perhaps 10-15 feet from where I stood at the edge of the road.  As Jakob’s door slammed shut I heard the jaguar make a quick ‘whoosh’ sound like it was crouching.  Then it dawned on me that large cats often crouch before attacking their prey.  That’s when I slowly slipped back into the passenger side of the truck.  Something overcame my body, such that I involuntarily froze absolutely motionless.  Even though I could not see the jaguar I could feel it watching me as I sat there in its cold, gripping field of view.  Something conjured up from our ancestors in millennia past, where I felt what it was like to be prey.  I think every hair on the back of my neck was erect.  I then realized the window was still open, and as I tried to weigh the advantage of rolling it up and risking stimulating an attack through my movement, versus remaining absolutely motionless but providing an opening for the jaguar to attack directly.  Before I came to a decision, Jakob started the truck and we were off. 

Postlog (3 March 2009): Well, what I experienced on that trip was both an intense and incredible experience.  I have the gift of remembering the detail as if it occurred just yesterday.  Back then (two decades ago) large cats roamed freely in the vast and pristine northern Chaco.  The Ruta Trans-Chaco (a paved road from the capitol of Asuncion clear into Bolivia) was not even halfway developed through the Paraguayan Chaco, and consequently of little threat to the pristine wilderness in the north.  Today it provides regular international traffic, and with easier access comes the unstoppable decay of the unspoiled land.  Back then, there were hunters who were paid well by cooperatives of estancia owners to do nothing but hunt large cats.  As these ranches were rare in the northern Chaco, so were the hunters who rapidly depleted populations of these top carnivores. 

Although I had a meeting in Asuncion about 10 years ago, unfortunately I was unable to retrace my prior footsteps since I had to be in northern Mexico for another meeting only 2 nights after my arrival.  The trip from the airport to Asuncion that used to be a dark undeveloped road is now full of Blockbuster video stores, Pizza Hut, and other similar signs of intense urban development.  Not a good omen for things up north.  I really need to get back to the Chaco for a visit to see how the big kitties are faring…

Authored By Dan Brooks

As curator of vertebrate zoology, Dr. Brooks has more backbone(s) than anyone at the Museum! He is recognized internationally as the authority on Cracids - the most threatened family of birds in the Americas. With an active research program studying birds and mammals of Texas and the tropics, Brooks advises several grad students internationally. At HMNS, Brooks served as project manager of the world-renowned Frensley-Graham Hall of African Wildlife, overseeing building by an incredibly diverse array of talent by some 50 individuals. He has also created and/or served as curator for various traveling exhibits, including "Cracids: on Wings of Peril".

7 responses to “On being prey..”

  1. Mike & Ellen says:

    Hi Danny:

    We really enjoyed your latest edition of your blog. Stunning photo of the jaguar.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. Claire says:

    Great story Dan. Your encounter is even more chilling 20 years later thinking of how the wilderness is disappearing and these beautiful animals are gone.

  3. Karl Lassberg says:

    Dan…I honor your passion. You are a man of integrity and I appreciate your commitment to the non-human residents of our home. I have a tendency to live in a human vacuum populated by Blockbusters and Pizza Huts where large cats are only pictures or heavily edited television shows for children. You motivate me to remove my children from the vacuum to let them know that there is a world beyond our world…and it is an important one.

    Thank you and I invite you to hold me accountable to this.

  4. Raoel says:

    Nice blog Dan

    Looking forward for the future posts!

  5. R.L.Dick Brooks says:

    Dan: Great story teller, I enjoyed your blog. Probably would have been concerned about letting you go if I had known back then what you would face. Dick

  6. Dan,

    I enjoyed the post — probably more than I would have enjoyed the stew!

    Is the collared peccary on the Chaco the same as the collared peccaries in south Texas? How far north does the jaguar range now?

  7. Dan says:

    Kind thanks to all of you for your kind replies.

    Karl – I’m holding you to it! Maybe we’ll take our families camping in rural W. Tx. once Levi gets old enough.

    JZ – The stew was darn tasty. Same species of peccary, though the subspecies are different. There is a (very) small population of jags living on the border of Arizona/New Mexico down south, where these state butt up against Mexico.

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