Saturday 29 April 2017

On seeing a wild jaguar in the Peruvian Amazon for Mama Amazonica

The first time I went to the Peruvian Amazon last June, to Tambopata Research Centre in the middle of a vast protected national park, I hoped to see a jaguar. It's easier to see them in the Brazilian Pantanal, but I wanted to see one in the rainforest, so I knew I was asking the impossible. Everywhere we went we found traces: fresh pug-prints that I placed my hand inside, knowing he/she had just passed, we visited a farm where a jaguar was stealing the farmer's pet cats, other guides showed me photos of jaguars they'd glimpsed along the riverbanks. 

Our guide Berli said our only chance of spotting one was to travel up and down the river, so we booked a powered canoe to do this, but alas it rained hard in the Puna mountains, and the Tambopata river rose, bearing massive trunks downstream past our lodge, making the river too dangerous even with a navigator, so those trips were cancelled. Berli told me how he once was on the path by the boatmen's hut, when he came across a jaguar and a puma facing each other. Other guides said they'd seen them swimming across the river or darting among the bamboo stems above the rootmatted banks. I braced myself for the likelihood that a sighting would be brief.

I returned home not exactly disappointed, because I'd seen so much else: a harpy eagle, a tayra, black and spectacled caimans, all the kinds of monkeys endemic to the area, giant river otters. There was much material to weave into my collection Mama Amazonica, the Arts Council funded research was successful. I had precise sense-impressions of the fauna and flora, and the sounds of the forest, which at predawn are otherworldly, with the bats, pale-winged trumpeters, musician wrens, and howler and titi monkey crescendos. I felt I'd immersed myself in primary lowland forest where the mammal population is at its optimum, because no one else, apart from the scientists and guests of TRC, are allowed in the park. 

I could write new poems imagining my mentally ill mother as the Amazon rainforest – a journey I'd embarked upon because when I pictured her as animals and plants in the Amazon I was able to love my estranged parent. I wanted a book of this love and I wanted the book to burgeon and floresce, to be a place where the love would grow secretly, have its own eco-system, a memorial to her and to a vanishing wonder.

But a few months later I found myself dreaming of TRC again, a longing that wouldn't leave me alone until I'd booked another trip.

So I went in December, at the start of the rainy season, not the best time to go for rivertrips. But this time we saw even more wildlife than before: giant river otters again, coming up to our catamaran, capybaras mating on the river. We even saw two king vultures perched on the riverside on top of poles, another of my 'special' animals. Despite the rains, with some patience, we saw all the large macaws at the claylicks, and at Chuncho claylick one of the drivers said he'd recently spied a jaguar walking along the top of the cliff, over the clay caves, stalking the gold and blue and scarlet macaws. At the fishing pond I saw hoatzins with their chick in the nest, and at the mammal claylick we watched a harpy eagle chick, high up in the kapok tree nest. We passed roosts of nighthawks on riverlogs. We even came across pale-winged trumpeters on the paths at daytime, and our new guide Jungle Paul mimicked their song so they sang their extraordinary notes that I'd usually hear just before dawn, out in broad daylight. 

And so we came to the end of our trip and it was time to go back from TRC, downstream to the lodge in the buffer zone, Refugio Amazonas. We got up at 4 and were through the forest and on the river by 4.45, watching dawn slowly lighting up the banks, the unforgettable sight of steam rising from the trees and mist clearing from the river.

Several hours later we passed the checkpoint at the border of the national park, and that's when Paul whispered 'Gato!!!' Was it an ocelot? No, it was a jaguar! He was lying on a high log above a throne of driftwood, drying his coat after swimming across the rough river. He looked at us and did not move. The engine cut, and our boat gently rocked towards his shore. Paul, the motorista, the navigator and my husband Brian jostled on the narrow prow with their cameras. I sat sideways, facing him, focusing the binoculars. I looked with all my power. Afterwards Paul said we watched him for maybe 10-15 minutes before he descended and vanished, but it felt like hours, some of the best hours of my life, the air glistening like it did on my second wedding day.

The photo of the jaguar was taken by Paul Francisco Condori Vilca.