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 covered with fallen leaves 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. It looks like jaguar," she exclaims, while climbing a steep slope. Squatting to examine the swipe of bare earth, she concludes a big cat was moving downhill and slipped a little. She speaks into her audio recorder: "Signs of a feline. Let's see if we find more tracks up there."
Isasi-Catala, 32, 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 (30 square kilometers) 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 that are carving away at their habitat, 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, and that's why work like Isasi-Catala's is important.
In Guatopo National Park, she often comes upon the stumps of trees felled by illegal loggers and the camps of poachers who hunt animals that are prey for jaguars. She saw National Guard troops arrest three hunters carrying shotguns, and suspects hunters or loggers were to blame for stealing one of her cameras.
In spite of the problems, she is encouraged that a healthy number of jaguars remain in the park – and if this "umbrella species" at the top of the food chain is alive and well, it's a good sign the rest of the ecosystem is intact.
"Her work is very valuable," said Rafael Hoogesteijn, a Venezuelan veterinarian and jaguar expert who works in Brazil for the organization Panthera, dedicated to saving wild cats, and who focuses on strategies for preventing jaguars from preying on cattle.
He said that besides her groundbreaking work documenting jaguars, 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," he said.
One day in July, Isasi-Catala is hiking to the top of a ridge to check an infrared camera set up to capture video and photographs of any passing jaguar. She plots a course using a GPS she wears around her neck, and three park rangers swing machetes to clear a path.
Checking the camera that she strapped to a tree one month earlier, she finds it recorded only a small number of videos – she later sees they were images of tapirs – and decides to move the camera to another tree nearby where the ground is covered with tracks of deer and armadillos.
She aims the camera using a red laser pointer and activates it. The motion sensor will trigger filming whenever anything passes, day or night.
Her study is the focus of her doctoral thesis at Simon Bolivar University. She has done her research on a shoestring budget, gathering donated cameras and buying others with her own money. She relies on her father to drive her research volunteers in an old, battered Range Rover, and works late nights writing up results and browsing her video clips, rarely finding a jaguar.
Hiking up to 12 miles (20 kilometers) a day in the mountainous park, she takes little notice of the swarms of mosquitoes or the ticks that latch on to her body.
In December, she finally got her first big reward when she checked the memory card of one camera. Browsing through the black-and-white videos on her laptop, she saw a spotted neck and back glide across the bottom of the frame – and she shouted with joy.
Each jaguar's pattern of spots is unique, identifiable like a fingerprint. The same male jaguar later reappeared in another video curiously sniffing the camera and then peering directly into the lens.
"They're magical, you know?," she says. "When you see a jaguar, even if it's in a photo, it gives you a sense of greatness. That's when you say, nature definitely is incredible."
She named that first animal "Tobe," which means jaguar in the Warao Indian language. Three others that appeared later – Maro, Kaikuse and Paneme – were named in other indigenous languages.
Cat researchers sometimes use perfume to attract passing felines. Isasi-Catala uses Perfumes Factory "Chanel." She douses a piece of cotton, places it in a jar with holes punched in the lid, and tapes it to a tree.
The scent seems to make some cats pause. But when the last of the four jaguars, Paneme, appeared in a fog-like haze, apparently after a rainstorm, she reared up to sniff the perfume and retreated, baring her teeth.
Much of the frenzy that followed wasn't captured on camera. The jaguar attacked the perfume jar and a video camera, which was left hanging at an odd angle with claw marks on the duct tape. The jaguar also completely destroyed an older still-photo camera, pulling it apart and exposing the film.
Isasi-Catala suspects the cameras and the scent of perfume set off the cat, and that she may have been aggressive because she was pregnant.
The cameras have captured images of a wide variety of animals, including five other smaller cat species found in Venezuela, from an ocelot to a jaguarundi to a puma. During her expeditions, Isasi-Catala has also learned to identify many signs: the odor of urine, claw marks on fallen trees, exposed earth where cats rake both front paws to mark their territory.
Park ranger Habi Veroes, who has worked with her on the project, has showed her how to distinguish the territorial scrapings of a jaguar from those of a puma, or cougar. She often tells Veroes that she dreams one day people will drive through Guatopo National Park and see big signs declaring it a jaguar refuge.
The 37-year-old park ranger is a rarity: someone who has actually seen a jaguar face to face. Veroes recalls that he froze and leapt back when the jaguar lifted its head and stared at him with a penetrating gaze, then vanished.
Jaguars have long been sacred creatures and totems in the indigenous myths of Latin America, feared and revered as volatile spirits, gods or symbols of nature's power. The ancient Maya adorned temples with carved images of jaguars. In some indigenous cultures, it is traditionally said that a shaman's spirit can transform into a jaguar.
Venezuelans typically call the animals "tigres," or tigers. They feature prominently as fearsome characters in folk tales told to children, and images of them are immortalized in murals on city walls. Yet for most, jaguars seem distant or nonexistent.
Some people who live near the park find Isasi-Catala's work curious and have taken to calling her "la tigrera," or "the tiger lady."
She says it's time people rediscover a sense of awe at jaguars – especially because they are under threat.
Across Latin America, the organization Panthera is promoting the establishment of a "jaguar corridor," a network of pathways used by the cats to roam between wilderness sanctuaries. Experts view the project as critical to guarantee the genetic mixing essential to preserving the species.
The best hope of saving jaguars is through working with governments and local people to recognize their paths, said Alan Rabinowitz, a zoologist who is president and CEO of New York-based Panthera and whose research in Belize in the 1980s led to the creation of the world's first jaguar preserve.
"Every place throughout their range I go, they're still being shot and their habitat is still being fragmented," Rabinowitz said. "Every place I go and look for them, they are at risk."
Researchers have been using camera traps for surveys in places from Brazil to Mexico, and last year one image captured a jaguar – they are powerful swimmers – on Barro Colorado Island in a lake in the Panama Canal.
On her daylong hike, Isasi-Catala doesn't positively identify a single track. But that doesn't discourage her – she knows the jaguars are here.
She is thrilled by the thought that at any given moment, a jaguar might be peering at her silently through the trees.