The Cat That Walks by Itself

In Mexico’s Maya jungle, the survival of the jaguar hangs on radio collars, hounds and former hunters

The tracks on the old logging road were unmistakable. A jaguar had recently passed through. Marks of a huge feline paw led from the road into la Selva Maya, a vast expanse of tropical forest stretching through southeastern Mexico, northeastern Guatemala and Belize. The dogs were in a frenzy, sniffing the scent of the jaguar. Everyone on the team looked at Pancho Zavala, a former hunter with extraordinary knowledge of the jungle, who nodded to the field biologist in charge. The team was going to chase the jaguar and capture it.

Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist and professor at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, codirects the ambitious jaguar project in Mexico's Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. The reserve, covering nearly 1,787,000 acres, probably contains the largest and densest jaguar population north of Panama.

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the third largest of the great cats after the tiger and the lion, but it is the least studied. Its spectacular spotted coat ranks it with nature's most beautiful animals and, thus, among the most vulnerable. In Calakmul, the goal is to fit jaguars with radio collars and then track them, gathering data on their range, habitat needs and behavior. But jaguars are clever and powerful and mysterious. They are solitary and secretive, elusive in ways that suggest great intelligence. They thrive in the dense rain forests and are primarily nocturnal. So the researchers in Calakmul are using hunting techniques to capture the cat.

Hounds are turned loose to chase a jaguar into a tree, where it can be safely tranquilized by dart, then weighed, measured and fitted with a radio collar.

Carlos Manterola, director general of Unidos para la Conservación and a project partner, is optimistic about protecting the Calakmul jaguars. "If we manage them right," he said, "we can at least keep the most viable population of jaguars in Central America alive for the long-term."

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.