On the trail of jaguars with Steve Winter for National Geographic – Part II

Are we in a jaguar haven? Yes, but…

Abraham Puc Gil, a biologist with the jaguar conservation program in El Zapotal, leads our group along a trail towards an open cenote often visited by the reserve’s dozen or so resident jaguars. Steve Winter and Bertie Gregory are right behind him as we quietly make our final approach, our spirits high and filled with expectation.

With the benefit of data from the reserve’s monitoring program, Steve has chosen several possible locations for three trap-cameras, and this cenote is at the top of our list.

To our collective peace of mind, we’re not facing risks comparable to those experienced by Steve while photographing tigers in India and Asia (as told in Part I of this story). Jaguars are apex predators in the Yucatan Peninsula but, unlike tigers, they don’t have the nefarious reputation of being man eaters. If anything, jaguars have been on the receiving end of human capacity for destruction for centuries, which may partially explain why they prefer to avoid us.

A stone figure of a double jaguar (or puma), found by Catherwood and Stephens in Uxmal. (Reproduction of a drawing by Frederick Catherwood).

According to scientific estimates, there were about 100,000 jaguars in the Americas when the Spanish conquistadors first set foot on these lands at the end of the XV century.

CENJAGUAR, a project that studies the populations of jaguars and their natural prey, has estimated that some 4,000 jaguars still survive in Mexican territory today.

Graph those numbers on a simple population chart and the result will be a plummeting curve that could end soon with the jaguar’s disappearance. Indeed, numbers may have dropped further since those studies were completed, and Panthera onca is currently listed by Mexican law as a species under threat of extinction (NOM-059-ECOL-2010), a status confirmed by CITES in its 2010 Appendix I.

Consider also this mind-boggling fact: the Yucatan Peninsula occupies only 9.23 % of Mexico’s total territory, yet half of all surviving jaguars in the country are believed to be here. This gives credence to policies aimed at the protection of the peninsula’s biodiversity, as exemplified by the gigantic Calakmul Biosphere Reserve with its 700,000-plus hectares of protected forests, as well as by much smaller private reserves like El Zapotal, with its 2,538 hectares of protected habitat that serve as a buffer zone for the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve.

But before we allow ourselves to be swept by optimism, those same figures should trigger loud alarms for every additional patch of forest that is lost in this wonderful peninsula, since no other factor threatens biodiversity as much as loss and fragmentation of habitat. Quietly but steadily the forces of “development” continue to advance in the Yucatan Peninsula with a harsh toll on biodiversity.

Deforestation on the outskirts of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Sadly, in spite of the jaguar’s legally protected status, jaguar hunting also continues to take its toll, be it for macho bragging rights, monetary interest or conflict with human activities. Loss of pigs, cows, goats and even dogs taken by a jaguar from a rural community can trigger a hunting party, and Panthera onca has poor chances of saving its pelt when cornered by a pack of dogs followed by men with shotguns.

In a recent bizarre incident, a jaguar puppy was unjustifiably killed after wondering into the grounds of a beach resort in Quintana Roo, allegedly to protect the “safety” of hotel guests.

Add roadkill to the mix, ongoing loss of habitat and subsistence hunting that targets the jaguar’s natural prey, and there’s plenty of cause for concern.

It follows that, on his mission to photograph Mexico’s jaguars for National Geographic, Steve Winter has come to the right place, but finding a jaguar and getting successful images is far from guaranteed.

Jaguars come here to drink, but are we in the right spot for a camera-trap?

As evidenced by pictures shown to us by Abraham the night before, we’re about to reach a permanent water reservoir often used by jaguars and other mammals to quench their thirst. On top of that data, there’s also my own anecdotical evidence: a few years earlier I was blessed to be among a group of biologists when we came upon an adult sleeping jaguar on this very spot, a sight I’ll never forget. We watched in awe for what seemed like a long time, our hearts pumping fast. Then the jaguar lifted its gorgeous head, twitched its ears and looked straight at us with mesmerizing effect. Finally Balam got up, turned around and walked slowly away into the bushes. We were left speechless.

Endowed with all this information but having never seen the place, Steve has his mind set on rigging a camera in the water by the edge of the cenote, looking out, so as to photograph any jaguar that may come for a drink, along with its liquid reflection. But as the trail opens and we finally reach our destination, to our surprise and disappointment, we find it much changed from how I remembered it. Reeds have grown taller and water now extends beyond the edges of the cenote, flooding the area where the jaguar had been napping on that lucky day.

A visual record of a jaguar at the same location Steve was considering for his first set-up. (Camera-trap image by Biologist Abraham Puc Gil for Pronatura Península de Yucatán).

I watch as Steve carefully surveys the area and looks for animal tracks (signs of the jaguar’s prey are also valuable clues), and it strikes me that the photographer has also become a tracker and a hunter. Yet a hunter might do the easy thing, using a tied-down live dog or a piece of meat to attract the hungry predator, something Steve would never do. Besides the obvious ethical questions, he explains, it would also produce bad pictures. After all, who wants to see a jaguar feeding on a man-provided carcass or a captive, terrified dog? “The moment someone introduces bait in the scene, the natural behavior of the animal is gone“, he admonishes.

After several minutes of careful consideration Steve rules the location out. In order to rig all the elements of a camera-trap he needs two or three elevated points on which to secure lights (such as branches) and there are none here that seem adequate. He also needs a good spot to set the camera in its weather-sealed box and two suitable opposing points across the animal’s expected path of travel to rig the TrailMaster box and its separate laser emitter, brains and eyes of the triggering system.

Besides, as great as the idea of looking out from the water seemed, framing options aren’t all that great through the only narrow window now allowed by the overgrown vegetation. “I’m very picky as to where I place my cameras”, Steve says. “If you want to make a great image, it’s not enough to have the jaguar there. You need the surroundings to be worth looking at”.

Steve and Bertie examine animal tracks. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A decision is therefore made to walk back along the trail to the small petrified forest we crossed earlier. The jaguar must come down that trail in order to reach the water, and the petrified surroundings have an eerie quality that Steve likes. Once there, judging by Steve’s attitude, our prospects seem to be improving. “I like branches like these, we can illuminate them to give the image what I call the spooky factor”, he says. “I mean, sometimes I like to create images that can be a bit scary, to give the viewer a sense of what it would be like to come upon this mighty predator at night, in the forest”.

The first critical decision is where to place the camera-trap, but having chosen a spot, how to compose and light the image are the crux of the matter. This means anticipating what the animal will do, as well as hoping for a bit of luck. All of Steve’s acumen as a photographer must come into play when confronted with each possible location for a camera setup. Decisions need to be made on the spot involving photo technique, aesthetic vision, fidgety technology and decidedly physical work.

The most pressing question is so daunting it’s almost funny: the main subject isn’t there!. The photographer needs to visualize and pre-compose an image based on his prediction of where the animal will be. Success is never to be taken for granted, which makes experience and well-honed instincts all the more important.

There are many other unknowns. Will the jaguar come at night, or during the day? Considering both possible scenarios, how should the exposure be set? From what direction will the animal come? Will the jaguar notice that something has changed and walk around, out of frame? Will depth of field be sufficient to keep the animal in focus? Will birds activate the system repeatedly and drain the batteries? What about monkeys, always curious, are they around? Do people come to these parts, and if so, will someone steal the gear?

Basic components of Steve’s camera-trap system, from left to right: plastic cable ties, PVC tube with caps (translucent on one end) for the strobes, black aluminum foil to control light spill, main TrailMaster unit, laser emitter, weather-sealed box with DSLR and wide-angle zoom lens. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Using abraham as a stand-in, Steve pre-composes his shot based on the presumption of where the jaguar will be. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

With the camera now in its weather-sealed box, composition and focus must be confirmed before locking everything down. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Steve and Bertie get busy setting up the first camera-trap, a laborious process made a bit harder today as some of the strobes refuse to work the way they should. We all pitch in, carrying old logs to the chosen spot in order to provide additional rigging surfaces. We’re just getting started and this is only the first camera set-up, with two more to go. Once everything is finally set all cables and gear must be disguised as much as possible.

It’ll be nighttime before we’re finished, so camera-trap #2 will have to wait for the next day. Having walked back to headquarters boots come off and a warm dinner with abundant wine provide the perfect complement for Steve’s repertoire of fascinating tales. One of those stories (which he recounts here) is precisely about how his first successful camera-trap image was of a jaguar, which he photographed in Costa Rica while doing a story on Quetzals. That photo was published in National Geographic as part of the magazine’s first story ever on jaguars, so in a way this expedition in the Yucatan is like coming back full circle for Steve.

Good moods and camaraderie make it easy for the clock to race towards midnight, but the next day has plenty of hard work in store for us. Eventually we hit our bunks and hammocks for a much deserved night of rest, with mighty jaguars still on our minds. Tomorrow we’ll first double-check camera-trap #1, then proceed to install two more, one of them in the water. The day holds an auspicious surprise for us as this story continues in Part III.

Camaraderie, good energy and professionalism all come in the package with these guys. It makes hard work so much easier! (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

I.G.H.

With special thanks to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatán for logistical support and access to El Zapotal private reserve.

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