Ultimately, studies of DNA from jaguars throughout their range will determine whether or not the corridor project will enable populations to interbreed with other populations. George Amato, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, directs the world’s largest cat genetics program; the museum’s freezers hold more than 600 DNA samples from around 100 different jaguars, and Panthera regularly sends Amato new samples of jaguar scat. “In five years we’ll know every jaguar by name,” he jokes.
Near sunset, I join the team and we head upriver in three boats, scouring small creeks in the fading light. Our boatman scans the shoreline with a powerful spotlight. The beam swarms with insects and the frenetic flights of fish-eating bats. Along the shore, the orange glints of hundreds of pairs of caiman eyes shine brightly, like runway reflectors on a landing strip, guiding us back toward the lodge under a swollen moon.
A few miles from one of Panthera’s conservation ranches, we spot a male jaguar lying on a beach. He seems unconcerned by our presence. He yawns, rests his head on his paws, then slowly, luxuriously, grooms himself like a massive housecat. When he’s finished, he rises, stretches and saunters off into the brush.
A mile on, another good-sized animal swims by us. The boatman points. “Onça,” he whispers, Portuguese for jaguar. It bounds onto the bank, water flying as it shakes. It’s a female. She lopes off into the head-high grasses like a spotted apparition. We kill the engine and wait for another glimpse. She reappears, leaping effortlessly onto a high rock.
Two nights later, the biologists trap and collar a young female. We wonder if it’s the cat we’d seen. This one, F7271, is nicknamed “Espada” for a spade-shaped marking on her side.
The two young collared cats—Holyfield and Espada—represent precisely the demographic the jaguar corridor is designed for: the young and mobile.
The collars will later reveal that Espada traveled 85 miles in 76 days, staying mostly on one of the conservation ranches and within the adjacent state park. Her territory overlapped with Holyfield’s, who traveled 111 miles in 46 days.
The key to the success of the corridor project, says Quigley, “is that we’re not starting too late.” Unlike other species in the Panthera genus, such as tigers and snow leopards, jaguars may escape the endangered species list.
“Fortunately,” adds Kaplan, “a sufficient amount of land and political will exists that the jaguar really has a fighting chance.”
Sharon Guynup is a writer in Hoboken, New Jersey, who specializes in science, health and the environment. Conservation photographer Steve Winter works for Panthera.