I am afraid this post has little to do with jaguars. Nor does it directly relate to big cats. Instead, it is an attempt to sort out some of the thoughts that have been plaguing my overactive mind. To do so, I will have to disclose dreams that I have kept secret for many years.
To varying degrees, many of my posts have mentioned tropical rain forests. This is partly for practical reasons. While I believe jaguars can eventually learn to live in human-dominated landscapes, this change will take time. In order to give them this time, we need to keep as much of their habitat intact as possible. The Amazon rain forest is one of the regions where long-term persistence of jaguars is most likely, despite its low suitability for the species (Caso et al., 2008). So by helping to protect the Amazon I am also supporting jaguar conservation. But my fascination with this great forest goes beyond the practical.
As I stated before, I first learned about the Amazon rain forest in fourth grade. During that year much of my science curriculum revolved around tropical rain forests. My teacher did her best to explain how important these ecosystems are, and how quickly we are losing them. She must have done a good job, because I still remember those lessons. Of course, I also benefited from my location.
Since I grew up just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, my parents often took me to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. The zoo was my favorite place in the world, because it was where I could see many of the animals I was fascinated by. I particularly enjoyed visiting The RainForest.
The RainForest is a massive facility designed to give visitors a sense of what it is like to be in a tropical forest. The heat is turned up, there are periodic “thunderstorms,” and the exhibits are full of plants and animals from relevant biomes. I loved that place. While I knew it was artificial, as a child it was not hard to imagine myself exploring a real jungle. The Amazon in particular dominated my daydreams.
Unlike my zeal for wild animals, I have never been able to fully ignore my fascination with the Amazon. It was always there: lurking just outside conscious awareness. When confronted with appropriate triggers my childhood dreams would suddenly make themselves known again. Images of lush tropical forests would steal my attention, temporarily drawing my gaze. But I always reasoned such moments away.
However, there was one experience that defied rationalization. In December of 2011, I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in psychology. Since I was unsure of what I wanted to do, I decided to join the Lutheran Volunteer Corps before continuing my education. Since I did not have to leave for that program until August 2012, I spent much of my plentiful free time exploring local parks and watching natural history programs. It was through the show River Monsters that I learned about the incredible nation of Guyana.
Guyana is a small South American country that is exceptional for a number of reasons. First, it has been recognized by the international community for its commitment to sustainable development (The Guardian, 2013). Second, it is home to one of the largest swathes of unbroken rain forest in the Americas. And herein lies the reason it is often on my mind.
As I stated above, I learned about Guyana from the well-known series River Monsters. This is an exciting and educational program that follows extreme angler Jeremy Wade as he searches for dangerous freshwater fish. In the episode “Lair of Giants,” Wade travels down Guyana’s Essequibo River in order to explore one of the last true wildernesses on Earth.
Something about that episode caught my attention like no other show has ever done. I do not know if it was the views of untainted South American rain forest, the air of adventure, or the sudden resurgence of repressed dreams, but while I watched “Lair of Giants” nothing else mattered. My whole body was seized in an aura of intense expectation. I held my breath, focused solely on the images before me, and felt a powerful sensation well up deep within my chest. I knew I had to go there. Somehow I had to experience the Guyanese rain forest for myself.
It has been three years since I first saw “Lair of Giants,” but I have never forgotten the effect it had on me. While my initial excitement has cooled down a bit, I still dream of experiencing those forests directly. Before I learned there are fields dedicated to blending psychology and conservation I had planned on joining the Peace Corps after earning my Master’s degree. My plan was to fandangle my way into Guyana; and there build a resume so impressive that I could force my way into a conservation-based career. But now that may not be necessary.
Of all the non-governmental organizations trying to help big cats, Panthera ranks among the most effective. Its CEO is Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, who is perhaps the jaguar’s greatest advocate. In 2013, Panthera was invited to Guyana by its minister of natural resources (Rabinowitz, 2014). The Guyanese government wants to begin protecting jaguars now, before their situation becomes critical. Now that international jaguar conservation has been initiated in Guyana, there is a possibility that I will one day work there.
While my obsession with jaguars may be the most acute passion in my life, my fascination with the Amazon is my most enduring. It is like a low, continuously burning fire that refuses to be put out. The more I learn about jaguar conservation, the more prominent this flame becomes. Maybe, just maybe, my current path is leading me to fulfill my childhood dreams.