A Cougar Tracks Jaguars In Belize

An adventure traveler ditches her worries about the economy and seizes the moment to search for the elusive cat in Belize.

By Katherine Lanpher
Katherine Lanpher and Rudy Ramirez, a naturalist from Belize, track jaguars.
Photograph: Photo by: Jessica Antola

I am going to need a lot of second chances if I am going to see a jaguar. While tourism books warn you that the chances are nil, Saqui is more sanguine. He has known people to spot one in their first half hour. He points to a scuff in the ground. Jaguar scratch. It’s the end of the mating season, and the cat raked his paw in the earth to leave both scent and a message: I’m around.

Not that I can see him.

As we walk through an archway of cohune palms two stories high, the trail curves, and suddenly we are in a vast grove of green. Even the air looks emerald-hued. “The old-growth forest,” Saqui announces, as if throwing open the doors to an enchanted castle.

The trees are more than a century old, with thick trunks and big buttress roots that rise some five feet above the ground. Vines loop from tree to tree,bromeliads and orchids sitting on them like birds on a wire. As we walk, the smells shift between the musk of tapir and monkey to the sweet scent of a philodendron in bloom.

“If this forest were not here, the jaguar would not be here,” Saqui says. He has his own quest: to help tourists realize that the preserve is a package deal. You have to want to save it all.

Two predawn hikes, one night patrol, one hilltop climb, and here is the closest I come to a jaguar while in Cockscomb: a pile of poop. On my last afternoon in the sanctuary, Saqui discovers the fresh scat on the trail. “This is the shit! This is the shit, I’m telling you!” he says, with no apparent sense of irony. “This is the closest you can get!”

I am not as moved. Poop is poop.

“The jaguars,” Saqui says with a sigh, “are really here. It’s just all about the timing. And the best time for me to see a jaguar is when I’m not looking.”

Just like love, I say, and he nods his head. We are headed into the nearby village, where he and his wife, Aurora Garcia Saqui, have a restaurant and guest rooms, and where Aurora runs an herbal healing practice. She also has a booming business dispensing Mayan blessings. I ask for one and watch as she wraps the leaf of a pheasant tail plant around my wrists. Then she places it on my head, and whispers a prayer in a dialect of the Yucatán Mayan.

The pheasant tail should draw out any negativity, she says, and I am instructed to throw it over my shoulder into a river sometime after four pm and then walk away and not look back.

The next morning, when Saqui arrives for my last predawn pickup—this time, I’m leaving for the zoo—he has the mien of a doctor with a bad diagnosis. “Katherine,” he says, “I have bad news. We saw el tigre.”

El tigre is what most native Belizeans call the jaguar. As Saqui drove to-ward my cabin, the cat darted across the road, not far from a jaguar crossing sign posted on the preserve. On the drive out, Saqui stops to show me the faint imprints left by a cat that has now disappeared into mahogany trees.

I had missed it by minutes.

My next stop is the one surefire place to see a jaguar. A beloved national institution, the Belize Zoo was founded in 1983 by Sharon Matola, a biologist and U.S. Air Force veteran who had also worked as a lion tamer. Lured to Belize to help with a nature documentary, Matola was left in charge of the animals when the filming was over; today the zoo she started has 45 species of animals on 29 acres.

She introduces me to Junior, the offspring of a jaguar who was brought to the zoo. We duck under an electric wire and enter the animal’s enclosure. (He’s being kept in a shelter for the time being.) Once Matola and I are locked in a cage, Junior is released.

Now I am face-to-face with a two-year-old jaguar, close enough to see his whiskers glint black and gold in the light. I brush my hands against his fur and tremble a little. Yes, I want to see a jaguar in the wild, but there’s no denying that outside of the zoo I would never get this close.

The next day, I cruise up the New River to the ruins of Lamanai, built when people didn’t just revere jaguars but incorporated them into their religion. Local villagers have stories of running into a jaguar on the road. When, I wonder, will that happen to me?

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