A Jaguar Named Hope

06/08/18
by Franklin Castañeda, Ph.D.

Ever since I started working in the jungle, I’ve dreamed of coming face to face with a wild jaguar. I’ve walked countless hours in the forest with my camera at the ready, just in case I was lucky enough to spot one of the elusive cats. After 25 years of waiting, my day finally came. This is the heart-pounding story of my encounter with Esperanza, a female jaguar from Honduras.

This past March, Panthera, Washington State University, and the Wildlife Conservation Center Dinant-Farallones collaborated on a camera trap survey within a private natural reserve. The reserve encompasses about 6,000 hectares of forest surround by agriculture and cattle pastures, the wildlife within protected by dedicated rangers.

During our first day exploring the reserve, we came across an ocelot, white-tailed deer, and many jaguar tracks. This is uncommon in Honduras, so I knew right away that I was in a special place.

While setting up camera traps one day, we found what seemed to be a fresh jaguar kill. It was approaching nightfall, so I asked my partners to help me set up a hammock in a nearby tree.

The author sets up what he hopes is a prime jaguar-viewing spot.

The air hummed, hot and still. The forest was dead silent, and mosquitos were eating me alive—I had skipped insect repellant for fear that the scent might frighten an approaching cat.

I waited patiently as it got dark, camera in hand, the anticipation building with each passing moment. I briefly switched on my headlamp, shined my light in front of me where I suspected the cat would appear, fired a couple of test shots with my Canon EOS30D to assess light conditions and focus, then turned off the light and froze again.

Finally, I saw a shadow moving slowly across the forest floor about 10 meters away from my tree. The creature casting it made no sound; it almost seemed to be floating over the dry leaves.

I turned on my headlamp, and there she was: a beautiful female jaguar right before my eyes!

A beautiful jaguar slinks through the forest.

At first she did not react to my flashlight—she either didn’t notice it, or it didn’t faze her. But maybe it was the sound of the shutter as I snapped my first picture that got her attention.  

Suddenly, she stopped, lifted her head up, sniffed the air, and started walking toward me. “Oh, my God,” I thought.

I will never forget my heartbeat in that moment, wild in my chest. She came as close as 5 meters away from my tree before she stopped again and looked up, our eyes meeting for what seemed like an eternity.  

Although I know that jaguars almost never attack humans, being so close to such a powerful predator, knowing that she could join me in my tree in one jump…there is nothing that prepares you for the wonderful adrenaline of that moment. And a moment—maybe 20 seconds —was all it was.

The jaguar locks eyes with the author.

Before I knew it, she turned around and quietly disappeared beyond the reach of my flashlight, but not before I managed to take a second picture with my sweaty hands.

As scientists, we use camera traps to study these wonderful cats. Jaguars can be individually identified by the rosettes on their flanks, as these patterns are unique for each animal. In my eight years as country director for Panthera, we have captured about 45 different jaguars across the Honduran Jaguar Corridor, even naming a few.

There was “Blanca,” named after Mrs. Blanca Jeanette Kawas, who founded an important national park in Honduras and was assassinated in the ‘90s by its opponents.

We dubbed another jaguar “Timido,” meaning “shy” in Spanish, as he only showed up on camera traps deep within the forest, far away from humans. Over the years, Timido started shifting his territory closer to humans, a risky move—we eventually found him dead, a bullet in his head.  

Panthera and our partners are working to reduce habitat loss and poaching in key jaguar areas. Although the task sometimes seems monumental, we have a motto: “Not being able to do it all is no excuse to do nothing.” With that in mind and with the optimism inspired by my first jaguar sighting, I have named this jaguar Esperanza, which means hope.

The author and a group of community park rangers patrol at Cusuco National Park in western Honduras.

We now have 40 camera traps set up within Esperanza’s range. In a few weeks, when we check our cameras, we will be able to learn more about her and other jaguars in the area, as well as the status of jaguar prey species and potential threats to their survival.

Until then, part of my heart will remain in that tree, where I found hope for the fate of the jaguar.

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