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Interview by Inga Yandell TRACKING JAGUARS

Boone Smith is an expert in capturing big cats. In the National Geographic documentary “Hunt for the Shadow Cat” Boone was part of a research project tracking jaguars in the tropical forests of Belize, and the world’s largest wetland - the Brazilian Pantanal. Together with a team of scientists from Panthera, Boone helped uncover essential insights about jaguar corridor dynamics to tie together critical parts of Panthera’s Pantanal Jaguar Project.

What are the chief obstacles tracking Jaguars? The terrain. The particular area where we worked in Belize had recently had the upper canopy leveled by a hurricane 8-9 months prior. This allowed all the other vegetation to have incredibly rapid growth making travel very slow, and in some locations, nearly impossible. One of our primary study sites was located in a very rugged area with limestone hills and cliffs; this combined with the walls of vegetation made tracking an elusive cat very difficult. Jaguars are not necessarily shy, but the terrain they prefer is "jungle" in it's truest sense. Leaf and litter debris don't make for good tracking conditions, so we relied on other signs, scrapes, scent marks, and scats to guide us. Additionally, we would focus on areas where jaguars preferred prey items could be located (armadillos, peccary, paca, and agouti).

Do Jaguars exhibit any similar traits to other wild cats? All cats have some general traits and habits. Almost all are crepuscular, they travel paths of least resistance, and most define territories through scent marks and scrapes. The twist with cats is they have their individual personalities. This is where things can get tricky when trying to pattern a cat or understand movements. With the aid of GPS collars we are able to understand a cats movements based of environmental influences, and see where some learned behaviors or individual characteristics play into its use of the landscape.

How doe's 'tracking' influence research efforts and strategies? Tracking is where it all starts. Whether we are going to collar an animal, collect observation data or samples, tracking is where we initiate our efforts. Even the most simple presence absence studies start with identifying tracks and sign.

Do you require special equipment for this terrain? Every environment has it's challenges. In the jungle, a machete is probably your most important tool. Many plants have evolved through time to have thorns or spines as a defense strategy from herbivores, so being able to effectively use a sharp machete saves a lot

With Boone Smith

What is the impact of loosing a research subject to poaching? It is always difficult to lose a study animal, but even more so when it results from poaching. Most people don't realize the effort and time it takes to capture and collar a study animal. In the case of the jaguar, learning movement patterns, identifying travel routes, and timings, the effort can be months to capture one animal. It is devastating when you have to deal with such scenarios such as poaching. Really good conservation efforts come from long term data collection, so when you loose an animal prematurely and have to start over, it is valuable time lost; especially when you are dealing with an endangered or threatened species.

What instincts and skills did you draw on tracking the elusive cat? I used a lot of basic skills that I learned while tracking cougars. The jaguars struggle just like we do to navigate the thick jungle, so seeking out paths of least resistance was key. I spent of lot of time with the local biologist and his crew. Local knowledge and experience gave me a huge advantage as we started our initial search. Of course, it never hurts to have a couple "good hunches" that pay off, and I was lucky and had a couple of those.

What was it like encountering such a powerful animal up-close? It is really difficult to describe the power and beauty of these cats. I had very high expectations, but when I was able to actually put my hands on one and see it up close, it blew everything out of the water. The build of a jaguar defines power. That combined with a "king of the woods" attitude (and they are) makes for a rather humbling experience when you see one up close.

What did you learn about the Jaguar - through this experience? Obviously, we learned some really interesting behaviors about jaguars and gained some new insight into their secretive world but overall I gained a huge respect for this big cat. The jungle environment can be really harsh, and the jaguar thrives in this environment. Wet seasons, dry seasons, it does not matter; the jaguar has evolved to be a master of all. And then to couple that with the ability to makes changes in behavior patterns for avoidance strategies (females jaguars avoiding males), and you realize just how intelligent and dominant these spotted cats are.

It really is ironic when you think about jaguars and how they have defined cultures possibly more than any other species, and yet we know so little about them.


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