Big cats breed obsession, and the jaguar is the biggest one there is in the New World.
For centuries, this perfect predator's little-known habits and little-seen form have been wrapped into human ritual and art, appearing in creation myths, sacrificial routines and the deepest, darkest fears and excitements of the common jungle dweller. The jaguar is a god, and gods can do whatever they want.
New Mexico-based writer Richard Mahler found that out at his expense, but for his trouble, he has produced an interesting hybrid of travelogue, cultural history and species primer in The Jaguar's Shadow: Searching for a Mythic Cat, an engrossing record of his two-year quest for a wilderness run-in with Panthera onca.
Mahler's quest was inspired in part by those now-famous photographs taken by hunter Warner Glenn when his hunting dogs cornered a male jaguar in the Peloncillo Mountains east of Tucson in 1996. That same year, a different jaguar—the late, lamented Macho B—was treed southwest of Tucson by hunting dogs belonging to Jack Childs, who would later go on to photograph Macho B and another male jaguar dozens of times with a camera hidden in the wilderness.
The fact that the jaguar deigns to stroll through Southern Arizona on occasion restores to the region a kind of mystery that had been lost among the cul-de-sacs. The fact that both Glenn's jaguar and Macho B are now dead, one from a federale's bullet and the other from a botched collaring attempt, brings us back down to earth. In fact, as Mahler finds out while traveling through the American borderlands, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica and even Panama, many residents of those humid and green countries where the jaguar is most at home don't really believe that there are any jaguars left.
And if they happened to see one, they'd most likely shoot it. The jaguar, for all our worship and love, is relentlessly hunted throughout Central America, Mahler discovers. This state of contradiction, along with the quick pace of that region's habitat destruction, may spell doom for the big cat long-term.
Mahler mixes his country-hopping search to see the jaguar in the wild—which he admits from the outset is nearly an impossible thing to do—with facts about Panthera onca and tales of how various New World cultures have used the cat as god, talisman, totem and resource since the first time a human met a jaguar. He delves deep into the considerable body of literature on the jaguar, most of it speculation, at best, up until a few decades ago when jaguar field research took a huge leap forward in Belize with Alan Rabinowitz. Mahler interviews Rabinowitz and other field researchers, and talks to archeologists, zoologists, hunters, guides, peasants and tourists, all of whom have a different take on the jaguar. This excellent book is as much an introduction to the science and lore of the jaguar as it is a thoughtful and sad account of its probable passing from the world within the next century. Mahler makes a strong case for saving the big cat, and by extension, all top predators. He also reports on some hopeful signs, including a gradual change in the jaguar's "varmint" status in Sonora's machismo-soaked ranch country, where any wild cat should fear for its life.
Despite all his hard-nosed research, Mahler's search is primarily a religious one. He is not really looking for a real jaguar, but for what the jaguar means, and what we will lose when it's gone.
One night, naked and groggy in a jungle hut on a preserve, Mahler hears a jaguar rumble and moan from the darkness. It comes as a revelation, giving just enough proof of its existence to keep Mahler on the trail, though he knows in his heart that he is chasing a shadow only.
Mahler reveals himself, and sums up quite perfectly what it is about jaguars that keeps fascinating humans, when a field researcher turns the tables on the interviewer late in the book, and asks Mahler why he is so "passionate" about jaguars.
"I like it that jaguars are generally quiet, cautious, self-sufficient—and rather inscrutable," he says. "They are observers, like writers, and I admire their resourcefulness and adaptability. But most of all, I simply consider them to be a miracle, one of many in nature that I don't feel we can afford to lose."