Emil's Encounter With a Jaguar

Living with Jaguars

By Emil Flota

Mr. Flota was born in the village of San Lazaro in the Orange Walk District of northern Belize. He works at Chan Chich Lodge in Gallon Jug, which is situated in a protected private forest that has one of the highest densities of jaguars in the world. He is the bartender and horse rangler for the Lodge. Mr. Flota related this story to Jacalyn Willis, a biologist working in the tropics and at the Lodge. She wrote down his story as he told it.

One sunny morning in July I decided to take a walk on the old limestone road here called Sylvester Village Road. It cuts through forest that has been selectively logged, leaving a mixed habitat good for birds. I took my binoculars and camera. As I came out of the little housing area where I live at Chan Chich Lodge, and swung around a bend in the path to get onto the road, I saw a jaguar walking ahead of me in the same direction. Now, we live in jaguar territory in a private preserve in northern Belize, so it happens fairly often that someone will see a jaguar, which usually disappears quickly. But this jaguar had not yet noticed me and was about 30 yards ahead.

I tried to take some photos, but they weren’t very good, so I walked a lot faster, and got more excited and more nervous as I got closer. The jaguar disappeared around a curve in the road, so I thought I would lose him as he might slip into the forest as soon as I appeared around the curve. I got him in sight again, but he had turned around and was now coming toward me. He still had not noticed me because he was very busy. I was clearly in his territory: he was marking the site, rubbing against low branches, sniffing, and spraying urine. The odor was very strong, and now I took more photos. I held my breath to keep the camera steady, but soon my hands began to shake a lot as he came closer. To make matters worse, I had a sense of someone behind me, yet could not take my eyes off the jaguar in front of me. He looked up and noticed me, and stared straight at me. Now I was scared, and battling the shaking of my hands as I kept taking more photos. I had to remind myself to keep breathing, as I tried to also keep steady.

He looked me over with golden eyes, carefully and curiously, with his ears pricked forward. We stood that way for several long minutes. Casually he glanced to the forest, and seemed to lose interest in me. Then he turned around again and headed up the road, taking one last glance at me before leaving me behind, still shaking but breathing more easily.

A face-to-face encounter like this one is not very common, so I consider myself very fortunate. His appearance is distinctive because he has a short tail. He is not the only male jaguar in the area, so he does a lot of marking and moving about. This particular jaguar has appeared on the photos from the Lodge’s camera-traps set by Jacalyn and Gregory Willis and the staff of the lodge. He has appeared in many sequences of photos mating with a small female, as well as patrolling his territory that we live within. We at Chan Chich consider ourselves lucky to be guests in his territory.