The pounding on my door jolts me awake. “Get up!” a voice booms. “They caught a jaguar!”
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It’s 2 a.m. I stumble into my clothes, grab my gear and slip into the full-moon-lit night. Within minutes, I’m in a boat with three biologists blasting up the wide Cuiabá River in southwestern Brazil’s vast Pantanal wetlands, the boatman pushing the 115-horsepower engine full throttle. We disembark, climb into a pickup truck and bump through scrubby pastureland.
Half a mile in we see them: two Brazilian biologists and a veterinarian are kneeling in a semicircle, their headlamps spotlighting a tranquilized jaguar. It’s a young male, about 4 years old: He’s not fully grown and the dagger-like, two-inch canines that protrude from his slack jaw are pearly white and show no signs of wear.
A device clipped to his tongue monitors heart rate and respiration. Under the sedative, the cat stares open-eyed, having lost his blink reflex. Joares May, the veterinarian, dons surgical gloves, puts salve in the jaguar’s eyes and shields them with a bandanna. He draws blood and urine, collects fur for DNA studies and pulls off ticks that he will scan for diseases. Three members of the research team affix a black rubber collar around the cat’s neck. It’s fitted with a satellite transmitter that—if all goes well—will send four GPS locations daily for the next two years, allowing the team to track the cat’s movements.
It takes five men to heft the cat onto a scale: He weighs 203 pounds. They measure his length, girth, tail and skull. He bears evidence of fighting, probably battling another male over territory. May dabs salve on half-healed cuts covering the cat’s massive head and paws. He’s also missing half an ear. The team nicknames him “Holyfield,” after Evander Holyfield, the boxer who lost a portion of his ear to Mike Tyson’s teeth in 1997; certainly the jaguar’s compact, muscular body radiates the power of a prizefighter. Officially, the animal will be designated M7272.
In dozens of trips into the green heart of Central America’s rain forests over 20-plus years, I’d never even glimpsed a jaguar. I am stunned by the majesty of this animal. His rosette-spotted coat is exquisite. Alan Rabinowitz, the world’s foremost jaguar expert, stands beside me. “What a beauty,” he says.
The vet completes his tests and still Holyfield hasn’t stirred. We take turns crouching beside him, posing for snapshots. There is nothing like being this close to a sleeping jaguar, breathing in his musky scent, stroking his smooth fur. But taking these pictures feels somehow wrong, reminiscent of trophy photos.
The jaguar blinks. It’s time to go. The vet and a biologist stay behind to watch over him until he wakes completely and stumbles off. We motor back to our lodgings as feeble, predawn light pales the sky.
The jaguar, Panthera onca, also called el tigre, is the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world, after the tiger and lion. It has been a symbol of power across the Americas, woven into culture and religion at least as far back as the Olmec civilization in 1150 B.C.; the Olmecs depicted half-human, half-jaguar figures in their art. The Maya associated jaguars with warfare and the afterlife; modern Mayan shamans are thought to be able to take on a jaguar’s form. In 15th-century Bolivia, Moxos Indian priests were initiated by battling a jaguar until wounded by the cat, considered an embodied god. The Aztec emperor Montezuma was draped in jaguar skins when he went to war; conquered enemies gave jaguar pelts in tribute.
In antiquity, killing a jaguar was often part of a religious ceremony or a mark of status. But as ranches and settlements sprang up across Latin America, jaguars lost their religious significance. Demonized as dangerous predators, they were routinely shot. The fashion craze for fur after World War II added to the carnage; in 1969 alone, the United States imported nearly 10,000 jaguar pelts. Only a 1973 international ban stemmed the trade. Killing jaguars is now illegal throughout their range, but enforcement is minimal, and the cats have been wiped out in El Salvador and Uruguay. Meanwhile, over the past century people have razed or developed 39 percent of jaguars’ original habitat across Central and South America.