Encounters with a Jaguar in the Peruvian Amazon


The principal predator of the Amazon, stealthy and stunning, it saunters through its habitat with the knowledge of it being the top of the food chain. It is the jaguar that those who come to the Amazon wish to see…


The canoe slowed suddenly. I looked at the banks of the Tambopata River on either side, but couldn’t see any wildlife. Why were we stopping? I turned in my seat to see what was happening behind me. The boat driver was speaking through a walkie-talkie. Our guides watched him expectantly, so we tourists did too. He said something I couldn’t hear over the drone of the motor, and a murmur rippled along the length of the boat.

“They’ve seen a jaguar.”

“Who’s seen a jaguar?” I asked. “Where?”

“The other Rainforest Expeditions canoe. Behind us,” Paul, our guide, replied.

I glanced around again. There was no sign of another boat. That meant the jaguar was not anywhere nearby. My hopes died.

It was the afternoon of October 2nd. We had decided to take advantage of a week’s school holiday to bring our kids, aged 12 and 13, to the rainforest on a family trip. We’d left Puerto Maldonado earlier that day and were on our way to Refugio Amazonas where we would spend one night before heading deeper into the jungle to the Tambopata Research Centre, also managed by Rainforest Expeditions.

I’d guess that 99% of tourists long to see a jaguar on such a trip and we were no different. But it looked like we were out of luck, at least for today.

Or were we?

Our boat driver didn’t seem to think so. “So, do we turn back? It’s about 10 minutes downriver.”

The guides looked at each other and spoke in unison: “Vamos!”

We all grinned, but privately I thought the chances were slim we’d see the cat. It wasn’t like it was going to hang around waiting for us, was it? Besides, it was already 4 pm. It would be dusk in an hour…

Our canoe turned in a great circle and headed back the way we’d come. Everyone was on full alert now. Soon we spotted a Rainforest Expeditions boat, surging towards us, spray flying from its bows. My heart sank once again. So the jaguar had gone, just as I’d thought. But it turned out not to be the boat that had notified us of the sighting. 

We rounded yet another meander… and then we saw it. The boat was stationary and all its passengers had binoculars and cameras trained on something on the shore.

We rushed to get our own gear out of our backpacks. Excitement mounted as we approached the other canoe. Its motorista pointed and we all craned forward.

“Ohhhhh…” This from my daughter.

There she was. Lying on her side, sleeping, every sleek inch of her the epitome of wild, feline beauty.

It never fails to move me, how such a sublime creature can seem so remote from the mud, the rot, the rampant chaos that is the rainforest. So much a part of it, and yet not of this world.

The two boats were less than 10 meters away from her, but she continued to doze peacefully, her head resting on one paw, only occasionally opening celadon eyes to glance at us.

We lingered for half an hour and when we finally, reluctantly, left her she still hadn’t stirred.

That night at dinner I overheard a guide mention there had been a report of a jaguar having killed a young cow. She wondered whether it had been ‘our’ female. If so, she said, her days were numbered. I thought of how I’d imagined the jaguar to be untouched and untouchable, and knew that I was wrong. Inevitably, her fate and that of her kind lie in our hands.

(With grateful thanks to Rainforest Expeditions, and to Paul, for a truly memorable trip).


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Jessica Groenendijk

Jessica is a Dutch biologist turned conservationist and writer. She fuses her work in conservation and her personal experiences of wildlife and wild places with her passion for words and photography to help connect people with nature. Her writing has been published in BBC Wildlife Magazine, Earth Island Journal, The Island Review, and Africa Geographic, as well as in Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine and Zoomorphic, amongst others. Her blog Nature Bytes was Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards. She is a member of The Society of Authors and is currently working on a book on giant otters and their conservation. She lives with her husband, two kids, and too many other animals near Lima, Peru.