The Jaguar Is Made for the Age of Humans

A writer comes face-to-face with the cat deep in the Amazon jungle and left with a new understanding of its surprising resilience to poaching and habitat loss.

“There’s a jaguar in the baño,” George Olah told me with a small smile.

“Um?” I managed, squinting into the dusky Amazon forest surrounding our camp.

“She’s behind that tree. Look for spots,” Olah said. Then: “No. That tree,” pointing to a trunk between 30 and 40 feet away.

In an instant, I registered that, yes, the bathroom trail we had cut through the Peruvian jungle was indeed occupied by a member of the largest cat species in the Americas. She was so close that if she launched herself at one of us, it would be game over in seconds.

“Shiiiiiiiiit,” I said as we—unarmed except for a couple of machetes and a small slingshot—quickly moved closer to get a better look.

Powerful predators that kill by puncturing skulls with their tremendous bite, jaguars reign over both ecosystems and mythologies. Everyone hopes to see one of the spotted cats when they visit this part of Peru, and on several earlier occasions, I’d been lucky enough to glimpse the cats along the riverbank. But this was the first time I’d been jaguar’d out of the damn bathroom.

And it was the first time I experienced what I’ve learned to call jaguarness.

It was our second night in Peru’s Candamo Valley, which is tucked between two Andean ridges in the country’s southeast. Olah, a conservation geneticist at Australian National University, was looking for wild macaws to catch and outfit with satellite tracking collars, and he was hoping to find the colorful birds here, in one of the most remote places on Earth.

To get to Candamo, we had spent several days traveling by motorized canoe, first up the Río Tambopata, then on the swift and treacherous Távara, and finally through the series of rapids that guard the valley’s mouth. Candamo is so isolated, and so tricky to get into, that it has earned the nickname “the last rain forest without humans.”

No one has ever really lived in Candamo. Or at least, there’s no evidence for continual human habitation, though rumors swirl about drug runners using the 350,000-acre patch of rain forest to move their wares across the Bolivian border by air. But even the rubber hunters of the 1800s, who so completely bled the area’s trees, mostly stopped short of Candamo. Now, the only lingering signs of their presence are downriver along the Távara, not far from the site where both Peruvian and foreign scientists once tried—and failed—to establish a research station.

So Candamo’s wildness only thrusts itself upon a handful of researchers, the occasional lucky journalist, and indigenous fishermen, the only people allowed to hunt in the valley. In other words, this rain forest is arguably one of the most stubbornly isolated places on the planet—and perfect for finding truly untamed animals.

Before departing for Candamo, we were told to expect some unusual behavior from critters unaccustomed to humans. We heard about monkeys dropping out of trees to investigate their strange bipedal cousins; and once we arrived, we quickly learned that the caiman lounging in the river didn’t bother to swim away while we rinsed off our dishes.

But jaguars that crept into campsites, completely unruffled by a bunch of humans with headlamps, tents, and Olah’s phone blasting the same silly pop song over and over? No one expected that.

Had I done a bit more research, I would have learned that in one sense, our experience wasn’t that unusual. Many humans who visit the Peruvian rain forest are calmly watched by a jaguar or two. Most of them, however, don’t realize they’re under surveillance.

The Ese’Eja, indigenous to this area of Peru, say that the jaguar only shows himself to you when you are ready to see him, and Panthera onca generally live in solitude and take great care to avoid conflict with humans. In fact, while individual lions, tigers, and leopards have hunted people, jaguars have never been known to systematically pursue us.

Those who have studied jaguars say they sense a kind of preternatural consciousness in the beasts, a combination of disciplined energy and shrewd awareness that allows the jaguar to unleash its power in calculated ways. Alan Rabinowitz, struggling to find the right words, calls it simply “jaguarness.”

“There weren’t really proper English terms I could put together which really get it,” says Rabinowitz, the chief scientist for the global wildcat conservation organization Panthera. “I sometimes say ‘gentle giant,’ but it’s not a giant among the cats and it’s not gentle, really. It’s this very, very powerful animal that you could walk up to and holler at, and it’ll go away.”

Those seemingly contradictory qualities, along with the jaguars’ exquisite predatory capabilities, offer the cats hope of surviving in a human-dominated age.

No one knew how long the jaguar had been watching us. We’d pulled our canoe up to the spot in the late afternoon, then macheted a clearing in a flat patch of jungle uphill from the river. Then we’d cooked dinner under the observant gaze of several monkeys, and afterward, one of our crew had headed to the baño. Along the way, he had noticed the twin orbs glowing in the beam of his headlamp.

“The light was not too strong, her pupils were still very wide,” reported Davíd Attila Molnár, a filmmaker. “I saw two sparkling eyes that were dangerously far away from one another.”

Molnár quickly retreated. But the jaguar stayed near her tree, even after all nine of us showed up for a look. She occasionally yawned, displaying an impressive mouthful of teeth. Eventually, she curled up in the leaves like a house cat on a window seat and went to sleep, her sporadically twitching ears visible through the brush.

A photograph of a jaguar behind jungle plants at night
The jaguar at the author’s camp (Nadia Drake)

After 20 minutes, she stirred, woke up, and set her golden eyes upon us once again.

We weighed our options with a mix of bemusement and awe. Should we post rotating pairs of guards? Try and scare her off? Forget about the whole situation and go to sleep?

Spent from a long day of fighting off swarms of bugs, I went to bed, wagering that an otherwise nonaggressive jaguar wouldn’t suddenly decide to eat me.

Rafael Hoogesteijn, a veterinarian and biologist in the Brazilian Pantanal who has studied jaguars since the 1980s, is aware of only one instance in which a wild jaguar killed a human without provocation: In 2008, in the northern Pantanal, a cat dragged a fisherman from his tent and killed him, eating part of his face and neck.

But, “that jaguar population had been baited for some time,” Hoogesteijn says. Baiting, which is now forbidden by the Brazilian government, is a strategy used to lure jaguars onto beaches with various meats so that when boats full of tourists arrive, the habituated cats do, too.

“When the cats are not baited, they get angry, and then you have accidents happen,” says Hoogesteijn. “But people go on doing it because they gain a lot of tips from tourists.”

The handful of other documented jaguar attacks on humans have primarily occurred when the cats are provoked by hunters and their dogs, are disturbed near a fresh prey carcass, or are protecting their cubs. In some cases, it’s not even clear whether the attack was the work of a jaguar or a puma, the second-largest cat in the Americas.

“There is no reason, really, to be fearing jaguars if you don’t mess with them,” Hoogesteijn says. “In the wild, they don’t want any confrontation with humans—they see you as another very potent predator.”

Of the more than 160 interactions Hoogesteijn has had with jaguars, he says he only felt truly threatened once, when a jaguar mock-charged him and his colleague Fernando Tortato. “He was running, really mad, angry, roaring, showing his teeth, hair bristling—and stopped about 10 or 12 meters from us and then jumped off the road,” he recalls. “We almost shitted our pants.”

Statistic after statistic suggests that, left on their own in the wild, unprovoked jaguars just aren’t inclined to attack humans (captive jaguars, unfortunately, are a different story), although we certainly make easy prey for a cat that normally weighs between 100 and 200 pounds, can bite through armored reptiles and turtle shells, and is strong enough to haul cows and tapirs into trees.

“I’m much more afraid of walking in grizzly-bear country than I am of walking in big-cat country,” Rabinowitz says.

Not long after dozing off, I awoke to Olah shaking my tent, yelling that we needed to abandon camp and run for the boat, NOW. I grabbed my camera and headlamp and threw open the tent flap, expecting to see eight panicked people sliding down the trail to the riverbank, jaguar in pursuit.

Instead, I saw eight people standing almost completely still, transfixed by the large, dappled cat gracefully, silently stepping down the hill. Her muscled body stretched and contracted as if she were a coiled spring, each foot falling perfectly into place. When she reached the small, shrubby patch of forest, she paused, settled down in the foliage, and stared at us.

No one knew what to do. Though the cat was not displaying any signs of aggression, we were a leap away from an apex predator that kills with a single bite and easily outweighed the smallest of us.

Unarmed, and reasoning that perhaps she might behave similarly to pumas—who retreat from or don’t bother larger animals—several of our team decided to link arms and slowly walk toward her, with the intention of gently driving her back into the forest. But as the human chain began moving down the trail, the jungle’s fiercest beast rose onto her paws and did a most unexpected thing: She padded toward them. Calmly, quietly, one foot in front of the other, the jaguar walked even farther into camp, on a collision course with our burliest crew members.

Once, in Belize, Rabinowitz had an encounter with a jaguar that mirrored our experience in Peru. He’d been tracking the cat for a while when suddenly, he realized that the joke was on him—the jaguar had circled around and was tracking the human. Soon, face to face with the cat and unsure what to do, Rabinowitz took the passive option.

“I could get big and scream and act crazy, but the cat wasn’t doing anything—it was just walking and curious,” he says. “So I kneeled. And the jaguar sat. Which is not what I expected.”

After a bit, Rabinowitz straightened up and slowly backed away. The cat did, too.

“He stood up, walked away, and looked back,” Rabinowitz recalls. “It was incredible. Well, it’s always incredible in retrospect. At the time it was pretty scary. You know there’s nothing you can do if that animal wants to hurt you.”

He and others suspect that the jaguar’s evolutionary history sets it apart from the other, more aggressive members of its Panthera genus. Though all the big cats predate humans, lions, tigers, and leopards share millions of years of evolutionary history with hominids, both ancient and modern, as a simple consequence of geographical distribution.

Jaguars, on the other hand, do not. Though their evolutionary tree is patchy at best, scientists suspect jaguars are descendants of Asia’s clouded leopards. Several hundred thousand years ago, those prehistoric jaguars—likely larger and lankier than the cats of today—crossed over the Beringian land bridge in the Arctic. And as they worked their way down the American continents, inhabiting territory that once stretched from the northern United States to southern Argentina, jaguars encountered dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, and mammoths—but no humans.

Humans didn’t follow the cats over that far-northern land bridge until about 20,000 years ago, and as a relatively recent addition to the Americas, humans never really came into conflict with jaguars—at least, not until a geologic eyeblink ago. During our eons of absence, the cats grew accustomed to a mostly solitary life in deserts and dense jungle habitats, sustained by a multitude of prey species that didn’t walk on two legs.

Hoogesteijn also points to the impacts of colonization and the recent, devastating rise of the pelt trade, both of which may have sculpted the jaguar’s current attitude toward humans.

“Hundreds of thousands of jaguars were killed all around Latin America,” Hoogesteijn says. “Those that survived were the more wary, the most secretive, and the least conspicuous.”

Whether through genes, learning, or a combination of both, those traits are likely prevalent in today’s declining population, which is now classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It occupies a small percentage of its historical range, which has contracted to exclude most of Argentina, El Salvador, and Uruguay. And, though jaguars were spotted near the Grand Canyon and along the west coast of California as recently as the early 1900s, only a handful of cats have since been seen in the deserts of the far southern United States.

Our jaguar, though, who lives deep in a valley where humans are scarce, apparently never learned that curiosity can occasionally kill a cat.

In the small, brushy clearing behind our camp, everyone stopped. The jaguar was just a few paces from four startled humans, and an easy leap from the spot where the rest of us were watching.

After a beat, both parties backed away, one more gracefully than the other. I’d begun to accept that a lurking carnivore was just a new reality to be endured until daybreak—let’s take turns on jaguar duty, in pairs!—when someone suggested that perhaps we ought to try slinging a few small rocks in her direction, using the slingshot we used to lob climbing ropes into the jungle canopy.

Our boat driver, Braulio Poje Mishaja—who’s from the Ese’Eja community of Infierno, near Puerto Maldonado—began to gently launch rocks toward the cat. They whooshed through the air, landing in the vegetation near the jaguar. Once, twice, three times. After a long, silent moment, she got up, turned around, and slowly stepped back up the hill and into the forest.

¿Qué significa el tigre para los Ese’Eja?” I asked Poje Mishaja. What does the jaguar mean to the Ese’Eja?

Es el rey de la selva,” he answered. The king of the jungle.

Many humans just don’t think they can tolerate large, toothy beasts as neighbors, no matter how peaceful those beasts may be. In North America, we’ve dramatically reduced the ranges of pumas, bears, and wolves, executing “problem” animals, claiming pelts for trophies, and moving into territories that simply can’t support healthy populations of both humans and predators. Sometimes, our actions have rendered entire subspecies extinct, and the loss of these top carnivores has ecosystem-wide effects that are slowly making themselves known.

In Africa, lions have lost nearly half their population in just two decades, and across Asia, tigers are doing similarly poorly. In Latin America, jaguars are suffering heavy losses, too. The exact number of jaguars killed each year is not known—it’s illegal to kill the cats throughout their range, so data are scarce and unreliable—but biologists estimate the numbers to be in the hundreds, especially in countries like Brazil, where the bulk of the jaguar population lives.

Today, most of the cats are killed out of fear or in retaliation for attacks on livestock, but there’s a rising threat in Bolivia, where buying pressure from Chinese medicinal markets is now focused on the spotted cats. Chinese buyers might shell out more than $100 for a single jaguar canine tooth—and given that each cat has four of those teeth, and the laws prohibiting killing are rarely enforced, it’s more than enough economic incentive for poachers.

“It’s not going to be long before they come here,” says Daniel Couceiro, a biologist who works near the Bolivian border in Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve.

But a new population estimate, based largely on the results of 117 camera-trapping studies and some models of human population density, suggests there could be more than 170,000 jaguars throughout the Americas. That number might not sound too bad, but the researchers caution that the estimate is likely to be optimistic—and that population numbers could be much higher, if the cats were able to reclaim their ancestral territories.

So there’s hope for the jaguar. Perhaps more than any of its Panthera kin, it’s a triple threat, extremely adept at swimming, climbing trees, and roaming the land. Its ability to take advantage of the landscape surely helped it survive the mass extinction at the end of the Pleistocene, which left only two large cat species in the Americas, and its diverse menu means there’s almost always something a jaguar can catch and eat. Perhaps most importantly, its solitary nature means that it can live on the fringes of human habitation, slinking through the underbrush in search of capybaras and other treats, often without being detected at all.

“Their ability to adjust to a variety of environments, including ‘edge’ environments, makes them better adapted for a humanized world,” says the University of Alabama’s Michael Steinberg, who studies attitudes toward jaguars among the Maya in Belize. But, he says, “Jaguars won’t survive without a sympathetic or at least neutral local human population, and they need forested areas through which they can move, hunt, and retreat.”

While jaguars do need continuous corridors of habitat, Rabinowitz says that most of those spaces already exist, and are already being used by humans in ways that allow jaguars to disperse, rest, hunt, and survive.

Through its Jaguar Corridor Initiative, Panthera is working with governments from Mexico to Argentina to protect and maintain lands for jaguar survival, to convince Latin America governments that it’s important to enforce legislation protecting the cats. And, they want to enlist the Chinese government’s help in quelling demand for these otherwise useless animal parts.

Jaguarness, Rabinowitz says, will take care of the rest if all of that falls into place. “The jaguar is adaptive, it’s smart, it’s resilient,” he says. “If the jaguar falls, a hell of a lot is going to be falling before it.”

Most of the others had gone to bed, and camp was quiet, but Olah and I stayed up, passing a bottle of rum back and forth and keeping a wary eye out for our feline friend. We sat near the baño where the jaguar had materialized hours earlier, sweeping our headlamps in great, looping arcs. Yet all we saw were ghostly spiderwebs, glittering with tiny, gleaming eyes.

She was probably just out of sight, quietly watching us watch for her. But we never saw her again.