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Spying on Nature

Images from a series of clandestine cameras star in this fascinating primer on border wildlife


A few years ago, I was sloshing through a pathless riparian canyon a few miles north of the border when I heard the unmistakable sound of a camera snapshot. I looked around a bit and discovered a not-well-hidden, motion-detecting camera hanging low on a tree.

I had heard about the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project and its hidden wilderness cameras, but its researchers--and everybody else involved over the past decade or so in the study and protection of southeastern Arizona's few remaining jaguars--necessarily refused to reveal where the cameras had been placed. It occurred to me that day that perhaps my pale right leg--and the hippie-style, trailer-park tattoo I'd had inked on it in my youth--had just become part of a peerless record of nature's hidden hours.

Retired land surveyor and mountain-lion hunter Jack Childs and his wife, retired educator Anna Childs, founded the BJDP in 2001, several years after they'd become members of the very exclusive group of humans ever to see the roaring jungle cat in the wild. Researchers now believe, based on the work of the Childs and others, that the jaguar reaches the northernmost edge of its vast range in the misty, watered canyons of the Arizona borderlands.

As the Childs tell it in their important new book, Ambushed on the Jaguar Trail: Hidden Cameras on the Mexican Border, available now from Rio Nuevo, the couple first encountered the jaguar while riding mules in the Baboquivari Mountains in the late summer of 1996. They were not really hunting so much as giving their hounds a chance to stretch their legs after being cooped up all summer. As hunting hounds will do, the dogs picked up a scent and followed it to its natural conclusion. But when the Childs arrived to see what beast the dogs had treed, instead of a cougar, they found a spotted male jaguar resting calmly on a limb.

Their lives were never the same.

The Childs cobbled together a few grants and donations to eventually begin their ambitious detection project, which is an ongoing and integral part of the efforts of the Arizona-New Mexico Jaguar Conservation Team. The couple, working with a few other researchers, place heat-and-motion-detecting "camera traps" in ideal jaguar habitat throughout the borderlands, and visit them regularly to change the film and batteries. The project has been responsible for photographing, many times, two distinct male jaguars--called Macho A and Macho B--who stalk the canyons and mountains just north of the line. The Childs have yet to photograph female jaguars, or to prove that Arizona's jaguars are anything but opportunistic wanderers, perhaps from a well-known population of male and female jaguars in the Sonoran wilds about 150 miles south of Douglas.

The Macho sightings have been enough to keep the project going, and that is as it should be. However, as the Childs' book makes clear, the longed-for jaguar is only one of more than 20 other large mammals that appear in the project's photographs--including Homo sapiens. The photos show black bears playing and eating; cougars tussling around like house cats, marking their territory and hunting; bobcats doing likewise; and various raccoons, coatis, skunks, foxes, ringtails, badgers, bovines and other borderland creatures doing what they do when they think we're not watching. These photographs show us a hidden, often nocturnal world of predator and prey, a bustling dimension of the Arizona backcountry in which our own arbitrary borders have no meaning.

The cameras have even photographed at least two species--the Gould's turkey and the Mexican brown-nosed opossum--which were thought to be gone from this region. And while there are a few humans that show up in the photographs--the usual hunters and hikers and pot-smugglers, as well as several inexplicably naked men strolling along the trails--my leg didn't make the cut.

This book works on a variety of levels: It is the simple, and simply told, tale of two lovers of the Western landscape who found a new life in retirement chasing a mysterious big cat, while collecting the proof and reasoning needed to protect that cat's wide range; it is a field report on an important project in borderland biology and ecology; and it is an often-beautiful photographic record of a world that very few of us will ever get to see--the unknowable wilderness night, when all the elusive creatures of the borderlands are out making their terrible, wonderful rounds of life and death.

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