You were responsible for the world's first jaguar sanctuary, the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. Why are these protected areas so critical?
I’ve learned over the years that if we want a world with animals we need to let them roam. They need a core area, a home, a protected space. In order to have a life, a space to reproduce and exist, they need a private home; a ground zero. They will have to exist in other areas, cultivated areas shared with humans, movement corridors, but these core protected areas have to exist if we are to succeed in preserving the natural world.
I don’t keep count but I think it is seven protected spaces I’ve helped establish now, although I’m frustrated as there is still so much to do, and still so much work ahead to ensure the protected spaces that wildlife (and us humans) need are preserved.
What has been your most moving natural world experience to date?
There are two I’d like to share, one involving animals and the second involving humans.
After the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve in Belize was successfully set up I returned back to the area to say a final goodbye. Having spent thousands of hours tracking jaguars through the region I was able to recognise the tracks of individuals, but I noticed tracks from a new jaguar and started to follow them as I took a last walk along the edge of the forest along the trail of an old timber road. I was alone and had no equipment with me, not even a flashlight, and lost track of time following the tracks. Realising that dusk was falling and not wanting to find myself out in the jungle with no equipment, I turned to head back towards camp and realised that the jaguar I had been tracking had circled round and had been tracking me for quite a while, his prints in my footsteps.
It’s rare to see a jaguar in the jungle here, yet in front of me was a large male. I was blocking his way back to the jungle and he was blocking my way back to camp. I knew not to turn and run – with cats you should make yourself large and dominant – but instead I squatted down and stared. The jaguar then did something very unusual. He sat down, and just stared back. Staring into his eyes took me back to the hours spent as a child with the jaguar at the Bronx Zoo. I didn’t feel immediately under threat but wasn’t sure what to do, and decided to slowly back away. As I moved away I tripped, landing flat on my back, totally exposed to this powerful, wild cat. My heart was racing – I thought this could well be my end. Then, as I lay on the ground the jaguar got up and walked past, off into the jungle. Scared and shaking I watched it walk away, back into its protected space, its home.
As somebody who has shied away from humans it surprises me that my second most moving natural world experience was actually with humans.
I was travelling through the Sundarbans, a region in southern Bangladesh and the extreme southern part of the Indian state of West Bengal. The mangrove forest here is home to a number of threatened species, such as the estuarine crocodile, and to one of the largest populations of tigers in one area. However it is an area of much human-wildlife conflict and there are more accounts of human killings by tigers here than anywhere else; most villagers will have personally (or know somebody who has) lost friends or relatives to a tiger attack.
Most of the people living here rely on fishing as their livelihood, putting them in the tiger’s habitat. It is considered bad luck in the villages to associate with those who have lost a relative to a tiger and, normally because it is the men who come in contact with the tigers, you find groups of women who are tiger widows, living as outcasts on the edge of the village. I met with some of these women, who have very little and are the poorest of the poor, but what affected me is that they didn’t hate the tigers. The tigers literally have ruined their lives; yet there is no animosity. I asked them if they would be happy if there were no tigers and they were vehement that the tigers are part of their environment. They are in the tiger’s home and the tigers are just doing what tigers do. Despite the fact that their lives have been irrevocably changed they showed more ecological awareness than you so often find in the Western world.
It made me believe, more than ever, that people can live with these cats.