Alan Rabinowitz begins his compelling story of the jaguar with two experiences of meeting one. The first was in the zoo, as a child. The second, more than two decades later, is set in Belize, a key part of the ‘Jaguar Corridor’ that Rabinowitz has fought to preserve through Mesoamerica and into the northern parts of South America. Tracking a large animal in the forest but deciding it was a lost cause, he turns on the path only to find the jaguar he thought he was following has been tracking him. The huge cat sits down to watch him, and Rabinowitz does likewise. Eventually, they both go peacefully on their separate ways.
Rabinowitz recalls his boyhood visits to see the jaguar in the local zoo as a crucial influence on his career: when he left university, he went to work on a jaguar research project and then went on to set up the first-ever jaguar reserve, in Belize. He then moved away from work on jaguars only to return to them later and become the mover behind the Latin American governments’ formal recognition of the Jaguar Corridor, El Paseo Panthera. To achieve this he has of course become an expert on the animal, and especially of what he calls its ‘jaguarness’ – what makes it different from other big cats in temperament and behaviour, and specifically what characteristics allow it to survive or even prosper in close proximity to man. To do this he goes back to the origins of the jaguar in the Pleistocene when, millennia before man would make the same journey, the jaguar’s ancestors crossed what is now the Bering Strait but was then a land bridge, eventually reaching and crossing another (more recent) land bridge, the one joining the two American continents at Panama. In doing so the big cats adapted to the extremes of climate from the Siberian tundra to the tropical forests of Amazonia – and did so better than other big cat species.
It was the American branch of the originally much more widely distributed jaguar family that survived as the others died off. Today its range, though much reduced, is still extensive, and still bridges two continents. Furthermore, DNA testing has shown that jaguars in Mexico are still the same species as those in – say – Paraguay, testifying to the fact that fertile males must still travel long distances up and down the corridor. An important reason why they have been able to do this is that they have been less threatened by man than other big cats. Many of the Pre-Colombian civilisations such as the Aztecs, Maya and Inca regarded jaguars with great respect or even as deities. Soon after the conquistadores arrived, there was in any case a huge fall in human population numbers as disease, enslavement and conquest killed a high proportion of the indigenous peoples: as a result, jaguars prospered in areas that became much more sparsely inhabited by man.
In modern times, while there is conflict between ranchers and the big cats, it is not on the scale of such problems in say Africa or India (in respect of lions and tigers). Nor are jaguar body-parts sought for their supposed medicinal benefits. Most importantly, as Rabinowitz shows, jaguars generally avoid contact with humans rather than threatening them: they are perfectly capable of picking their way quietly around cultivated areas at night time to move from one area of forest to another, without the inhabitants even being aware they are doing so.
For all these reasons, combined with his own political work in persuading governments to adopt a common project of protecting the jaguar, Rabinowitz is optimistic about its future. I sincerely hope he’s right. As a resident of Nicaragua, part of the Jaguar Corridor which has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in Latin America, I would love to share his optimism and his faith in the jaguar’s ability to survive.