N.J. Scientists Capture First Photo of Elusive Panama Jaguar

Jungle-entangled Barro Colorado Island, which sits midway in the path of the Panama Canal in Central America, is a paradise for biologists and has been described as the best-studied tropical real estate in the western hemisphere.

The island, just 25 miles from Panama City, is home to 42 species of mammals. No-nonsense 100-pound pumas, ocelots and Margay wildcats, Spider monkeys and 72 species of bats claim the jungle as home.

But in the nearly 90 years that scientists studied life on Barro Colorado, none have photographed a jaguar, an elusive and nocturnal animal that is the largest species of cat in the Americas that biologists believed inhabits or at least visits from the Panamanian rainforest 200 yards across the canal.

Well, not until April 20 that is. That was the day when at 3:07 a.m., an infrared camera mounted along a jungle path by Montclair State University mammalogist Jacalyn Willis and her husband and naturalist Greg Willis, captured a shot of a tawny yellow and black-spotted adult jaguar as it trotted along a jungle trail.

The photograph is big news in the science community.

"I hope it is a sign that jaguars are hanging on in Central Panama until the Panamanian government gets better protections in place, Jacalyn Willis said Wednesday.

Since 1974, Willis and her husband have traveled to the island annually to conduct a census of the wildlife. When not hiking separately through the island — the better to sight more wildlife — they make their home in Sparta, Sussex County. At Montclair State, Jacalyn Willis is director of the Professional Resources in Science and Math Center where she oversees the instruction of educators on how to teach science and math.

She offered insight into the excitement over the photograph. "These cats are incredibly elusive and sightings on the mainland, let alone Barro Colorado Island, are extremely rare. This is what makes this photo so exciting - it offers proof positive that despite all the obstacles it faces this species is still making its way in Panama. We will be on the lookout for jaguar scat and tracks, and we will hope this individual passes by another camera trap before it leaves the island.''

Willis said she and her husband have used mounted cameras on Barro Colorado since 1994, the last time a jaguar was spotted there. The cameras have snapped over 64,000 photos of wildlife but never captured a jaguar.

"I would like more lay people to know what we do and how the population of animals changes through time,'' she said.

Mammalogists are attempting to closely follow jaguars in Central and South America where they are considered near endangered and virtually every nation has laws to protect them - at least on paper. Last year, a jaguar was captured near Tucson, Az., tagged with a satellite-tracking collar and released. Jaguars were last seen in the American Southwest in the middle of the last century.

But in Central America, jaguars are frequently shot on sight. Willis said when a jaguar is found in the jungles on the Panamanian mainland it is usually dead, killed for its pelt. She said biologists cannot get government officials to move against hunters and prosecute them.

Commenting on the Willis photo, William Laurance, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on the island, said, "Jaguars need remarkably large expanses of habitat to survive and Barro Colorado is too small to support even one animal. But the presence of even the odd individual that swims out there means that jaguars are still moving through the canal area between patches of fragmented forest.''

Greg Willis doesn't need a photograph to describe a jaguar on the island. In 1983, while conducting a wildlife census and walking alone in the jungle he came face to face with a jaguar sitting on a trail in broad daylight.

"They got a good look at each other,'' Jacalyn Willis recalled, "but the jaguar wasn't startled. It looked at him and walked away. It was the first known sighting of a jaguar on the island.