BY IAN JAMES
GUATOPO NATIONAL PARK, Venezuela — The search begins where a dirt road ends, in a forest festooned with vines and filled with the chatter of trilling birds. This is the realm of jaguars, and a young biologist has made it her mission to find them.
Emiliana Isasi-Catala wades through a creek and moves nimbly through the foliage, scanning the dark earth for the distinctive round toes of jaguar tracks and the faint trails of smaller animals they prey on: agoutis, tapirs, peccaries and armadillos.
“A track,” she exclaims. “It looks like jaguar.”
Isasi-Catala is carrying out the first study in Venezuela to use cameras equipped with motion sensors to estimate the size of a jaguar population. So far, her results have yielded an estimate of one jaguar every 12 square miles in the heart of this national park southeast of Caracas — which suggests about 40 jaguars in the entire park if further studies confirm similar numbers in other areas.
Her search is driven by a sense of personal connection to elusive creatures that even when filmed remain mysterious and ghostly, just beyond reach. She also sees a larger purpose in her research: helping the jaguars survive through the protection of a network of wildlife reserves and corridors across Latin America.
Jaguars are the largest land predators in the Americas. They once roamed widely from the southwestern United States to Argentina, but have lost more than 40 percent of their natural territory and have disappeared from Uruguay, El Salvador and many other areas. Heavy hunting for their spotted coats decimated their numbers in the 1960s and early 1970s until the pelt trade was largely halted.
Today jaguars are listed as a “near threatened” species. They are vulnerable due to expanding farmland and roads, and conflicts with ranchers who view them as cattle killers and shoot them on sight or poison them. No one has any good estimates of how many jaguars are left in the wild.
Isasi-Catala is also gathering a wealth of information about their prey in a park that is a crossroads for wildlife. “It is a very important area for jaguar conservation,” she said.
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