As the shadows lengthened over the Yungas and the Bolivian sky faded to darkness, we pulled up beside a wooden hut a few metres back from the road. Beyond the hut an area had been hacked from the jungle by a road gang, and not long abandoned. It was the most suitable bivouac we’d seen during the previous hour’s driving. Who knew what we might find further along the road, or not, because of the darkness and the encroaching jungle, the vertical drops and steep-sided banks. And after a long day at the wheel we were both pretty bushed.
Christine strolled to the hut as children gazed from the single window, observing her every step. Inside the hut the woman in a wheelchair told her we were most welcome to camp on her land. As usual in Bolivia, the people were only too pleased to accommodate us. By the side of the woman in the wheelchair was an older lady, her mother, it later transpired. The mother was laid on a bed, covered in blankets. She lived alone in the hut.
I drove the camper round the back, passing a couple of giant riddles and a few mounds of soil, some baulks of timber and a rusting steel track shed by a bulldozer. Moments later the children pushed their mother over the rutted ground, heading for an adobe house a couple of hundred metres distant.
‘Why do you not park closer to our house?’ the woman asked. We told her we were fine where we were.
‘Are you not afraid of el tigre?’
‘El tigre?’ we said.
‘Yes. There were two of them. My husband shot the female. But the male, he keeps coming back, looking for her. It’s not safe for the children.’
I looked in the direction of the river, my eyes roving the impenetrable hillside above it. Was he out there, el tigre – the jaguar (Panthera onca) – I wondered. You could almost weep to hear of such a loss…but if it wasn’t safe for the children…
The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world, after the lion and the tiger. It is the largest feline in the Western Hemisphere and exists in eighteen countries throughout South America, from Mexico down to Argentina. The Mayan Indians thought the spotted coat of the jaguar represented the heavens of a starry night; the people of the Amazon believed its reflective eyes connected them to the spirit world. Deforestation and hunting by livestock ranchers are seriously jeopardising the jaguars survival. Will he still be around in the future? Various organisations are working on it, introducing such initiatives as creating safe corridors through which the creatures can roam between the national parks, and appealing to the ranchers not to shoot them. But the jaguar doesn’t always respect boundaries, and when you destroy his habitat, filling the void with cattle, inevitably one or two cows might be eaten.
The next morning we took a small gift to the adobe house. The woman sat on her bed, her back propped against the wall. Clothing seeped from bags scattered about the floor. Chickens had the run of the room. She pointed towards the window.
‘There’s el tigre,’ she said.
And there she was, her pelt, at least. She was pinned to a wooden frame. I hadn’t expected this. How naive of me. I’ve since read that a jaguar pelt fetches up to $1500 in the US. In the jungles of South America the jaguar is an apex predator. The apex predator species occupy the highest trophic levels (meaning the position on a food-chain) and have a crucial role in maintaining the health of their ecosystems. If you apply that to the human race, I suppose we’re not doing too well.