This blog is the beginning of a new series on redefining the Jaguar Corridor in Peru and the threats facing the wild cats that live there. Our first forays into the Peruvian Amazon attempt to locate and study the immense variety of wildlife that make their homes here, focusing especially on jaguars. While it’s uncommon to spot a jaguar in the wild here, it turns out that we came pretty close.
Looking down at the jaguar footprint reminds me just how big this big cat is and just how close I got to looking it in the eye. In September of 2019, we set out to find the Americas’ largest and most elusive predator —and we almost did.
East of the typical tourist destinations like Machu Picchu sits the Peruvian Amazon, making up 60% of the country and 13% of the Amazon Basin, the sanctuary of the otorongo, the Peruvian word for jaguar. Despite possessing the second largest population of jaguars, Peru has long been on the outskirts of jaguar conservation. Years of uncontrolled agricultural expansion in the Amazon and a lack of research into the country’s jaguar populations have made it difficult to direct conservation efforts.
At Panthera’s South America hub in Cali, Colombia, we’ve set out to learn more about the Jaguar Corridor in Peru as part of our work with Conexión Jaguar. We’re studying jaguars and other mammal populations in Biored, a consortium of private conservation areas in the Department of Ucayali in Southeastern Peru. Biored was formed by concerned citizens to combat illegal logging and to build regional solutions to conservation issues. Panthera, through Conexión Jaguar, is helping Biored develop carbon credits as a long-term source of income to fund conservation activities.
As part of our research in the area, we planned to survey two concessions using camera traps. We selected these locations because they seemed reasonably “easy” to access and appeared to have high conservation value. However, getting there wasn’t all that easy. We traveled from Colombia to Lima and then to Pucallpa—the second largest city in the Peruvian Amazon. There, we met with leaders from Biored and prepared for a 13-hour trip by speedboat to San Miguel de Chamburi, a small indigenous community on the banks of the Tamaya River.
Traveling by boat, we were able to see the best and the worst of the Ucayali Region. The pressures on local forests became overwhelmingly apparent as soon as we left Pucallpa. We tallied upwards of 40 shipments of illegal timber being taken down river. Logging is the main income for most of the people in the region—one known for high levels of poverty and low government influence. The forests had been selectively logged over the last decades, some by wealthy groups taking advantage of limited government intervention to decimate large areas, but mostly by smaller groups of locals taking out a dozen or so trees at a time.
There were some amazing sights from the boat as well; pink dolphins (Inia geoffrensis) could be seen and heard around us, and we witnessed a giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) swim across the river. These wildlife encounters gave us encouragement for what we might find later in our surveys in these concessions.
We arrived first at Mario Castillo’s Ecotourism Concession, an 8,000 hectare (19,700 acres) forested area deep in the Amazon that had also undergone years of illegal timber extraction before it was awarded to him. Mario now watches everyone that comes and goes in the concession and assured us that we were going to find jaguars here.
Mario told us “Ahí abajo es silencio, no llega nadie,” or “Down there it’s silent, no one goes there.”
After a night of sleep in our hammocks (just a couple feet above the chickens and pigs), we hopped on a smaller boat to make our way another hour down the Yucanya River to find a collpa (a patch of saline land where large mammals often bathe in the mud) to set up our camera traps. It was more than we could have imagined; there were hundreds of tapir and peccary tracks, followed by signs of an intimidatingly large jaguar.
After walking nine hours in 90-degree heat, I took a dip in the river. As I walked back up onto the shore I spotted fresh jaguar prints, coming down the bank and crossing the river. This big cat must have swam across when we were installing our cameras only hours before. This exciting sign proved we were in the right place, and that in this corner of “silence” that Mario protected, we had a good chance of capturing a photo of a jaguar.
Collecting evidence of wildlife like jaguars and their prey like the giant otters, tapirs or giant armadillos, gives us hope for the future of this area as a conservation corridor. We will use this proof to validate the work that Biored has been doing to conserve these immense forests and reduce illegal timber extraction within them. Soon, we’ll recover the 50 cameras we installed, and hopefully, we’ll find the otorongo that we narrowly missed.
Stay tuned for more incredible stories from Peru and across the globe where Panthera works to study and protect all 40 species of wild cats!