Searching For Jaguars In Paraguay

Monday, June 6, 2011


“Be Careful,” he shouted at me in clearly articulated Spanish as I began to walk towards the glowing green foliage of Cerro Cora National Park. “We’ve seen the jaguar out there three or four times already this month. It rained last night, so any prints you see will have been fresh.” As the park warden continued to ramble on about having enough water, sunscreen and bug spray, I nodded my head while pretending to listen. My ears, however, had heard the one word I both wanted and feared hearing: jaguar.

The Jaguar is among the most elusive animals in the world and, like many of the wild American cats, are stealth in their movements. They tend to stalk their targets in silence from tall grasses and thick brush while giving indication of their presence only through the footprints they leave behind in the Earth’s floor. Like a good mystery novel, the jaguar places both fear and intrigue into the minds of visitors. The sheer thought of their presence causes an overreaction in our body’s every sensation. It was that adrenaline flowing through my veins that stopped my heart, and everything it controls, when I heard the bone-chilling grumble shriek from behind me.

As I began my hike through this neglected national park in northern Paraguay, the mesmerizing intrigue of spotting an abundance of wildlife at first seemed to dominate my excited psyche. A wealth of odd-looking insects fluttered through the air and hopped along the dirt floor, and a wide range of birds flew through the air and settled down on the branches of trees looking down upon me in the same sort of curiosity as I stared up at them.

The scenery was far from unspectacular. A vast green ocean of dense tropical forest was interrupted only by tall pillars of bright red stone that jutted out randomly from the Earth’s crust. It is only from the view atop one of the nearby hills that the sheer size of the region can be fully appreciated. Thick red soil works as an anchor to tie in the range of flora that finds home in this remote park. It is amazing that such a large variety of life can exist in such a harsh climate; it is now 10 a.m. and already the thermometer has reached almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

My hike through the park started with little entertainment beyond the occasional chase of a small green insect doing its best impression of a lost twig. My eyes panned the horizon searching for wildlife: jaguars, pumas, capybaras or even snakes. As I glanced down to the path ahead I realized that I was only a foot from a brightly colored snake that quickly slid off into the tall grass. The open path ahead was soon overtaken by tall yellow grass and thick shrubbery, and I couldn’t help but think what may lay in this overgrowth as my blind feet step through. My mood flipped from intrigued to terrified. My feet hopped through the tall brush one elongated step after another, moving slowly, hopefully enticing whatever may be sitting at the bottom to move rather than bite. My senses were now fully charged and the things that were once intriguing were now rattling my mood.

The colorful bugs playing in the bushes crackled a frightened sound as each one of the movements startled my peace. The circling vultures overhead began to press my worries as well. How long would it take for someone to find me out here in the middle of nowhere? When I signed the guest register I noticed that there had been only one other visitor to the park’s hiking trails over the past month, an American who visited two weeks ago.

The park’s trail was as varied as the vegetation that surrounded it and the wildlife that inhabited it. One moment the path led downward into a hidden rainforest encapsulated by a canopy of tropical leaves. Later, the track climbed upward onto a flattened plateau that would be monotonous in its bland gray color if it were not for the bright red tail peaking through. It is here, I thought to myself, that the jaguar must find its home, hiding amongst the jagged edges of the 10-foot-high grasses.

My suspicions were reinforced as I came across a set of paw prints pressed into the soft soil of the trail. I wasn’t sure that they were jaguar, but what I did know was that they were big, and that they had been left by a cat that was moving in the same direction as I was — and they were fresh. I had hiked for two hours now and I could see my destination — a small hill with a lookout point — in the distance. I pulled my camera to my chest and told myself that the attached monopod could be used as a weapon should the situation arise.

I followed the tracks for 20 minutes while my neck worked overtime twisting my head on its swivel. Without a sight of a jaguar — my quest and my nemesis — I saw the fork I was warned of in the trail ahead of me. I diverted off to the left to climb the hill for the view I was promised. As I climbed the rudimentary path to the top, I was not disappointed with the reward I was left gazing at across the valley.

The vast, green tropical land flowed over the region while clouds casted shadows on the radiant colors saturated from the flora. Tall peaks formed statue-like mountains in the distance that seemed to look down on, and protect, the forest. As I sat down to enjoy my lunch in the comforting shade of a type of tree I had never seen before, I couldn’t help but wonder why so few people visit this natural paradise.

After lunch I began to make my way out of the park, in search of the highway I was told was about a 45-minute walk away. My excited feet scampered with a little more fervor than usual as I heard the breaking sound of a thundershower behind me in the not-too-far-off distance. As I rejoined the trail, I was once again confronted by the prints, and I again returned to following them without a choice.

My desperation grew a little bit stronger as I could sense the storm drawing closer behind me. I stopped to drink the last drops of water left in my plastic bottle. As I was screwing the lid back on, a fierce growl shrieked from behind me causing me to drop the lid. Upon recovery of my motor skills, I twisted my head in fear and intrigue. To my disappointment and content I saw a construction crew on the highway in the distance and a backhoe working at the pavement causing a scraping growl. I wandered up to the highway with a grin on my face and flagged down a bus to the next town.

By Brendan van Son


About the Author

Brendan van Son is a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. He has traveled to 6 of the 7 continents and shares his experiences through his variety of published articles and his website: Brendan’s Adventures: The World is my Jungle Gym.

[The Jaguar by Russell Hatherley/Flickr; Remaining photos by the Author]

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