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Searching For Jaguars in Sonora

The Northern Jaguar Project Reserve

Sonora, Mexico

By Peter Lourie

The Plan

My recent trip to find jaguars in Sonora, Mexico, is a good example of how my adventures often begin and proceed. As with previous journeys south of the border, I was looking forward to that sense of freedom I get when I leave the United States, and especially when I head to Latin countries.

How did I find out that the north-central portion of the Mexican state of Sonora was a hotspot for jaguars and jaguar sightings? Or that a group out of Tucson, Arizona, had bought a few large ranches there and started a jaguar reserve under the name of the Northern Jaguar Project?  How did I find myself first in 2016, and now again in 2018, in downtown Tucson at the project’s headquarters, an old colonial house owned by the project founder and director, Diana Hadley?

It started beside the hospital bed of my best buddy Dave Somoza who had pneumonia so bad he was inches away from going on a respirator.  

Dave said he’d been reading a 2015 issue of the Nature Conservancy Magazine about ranchers and conservationists joining forces to protect the Malpai Borderlands region which straddles the extreme southeast corner of Arizona and the southwest corner of New Mexico.

According to the article, one of the ranchers there had sited jaguars in the USA above the Mexican border. Interesting in and of itself but the article also mentioned a key rancher named Drummond Hadley.

The name caught Dave’s attention. He’d grown up with the Hadleys in New Mexico and the connection immediately made him think of me. He thought I might be interested in the idea of jaguars roaming that far north—which are typically thought of as jungle creatures.  Dave knows I love the southwest as much as he does and would find a “desert jaguar” fascinating.

He did a little more research and discovered that Drummond’s widow, Diana Hadley, was the Director of the Northern Jaguar Project, an organization that was establishing a jaguar reserve. The NJP was transforming this land from working cattle ranches into a true wildlife sanctuary.

I reached out to Diane and was ecstatic when she said I could drive the seven hours into Sonora, Mexico, and stay at the Project’s house in a little dusty town called Sahuaripa (“Yellow Ant” in the native Opata language). What a gift!

I agreed to make an adventure presentation to the kids in one of the local schools like I do for schools all across the country. I would communicate to the students that I was there to learn from them and from the animals and mountains they live in, particularly to learn a little bit about the jaguar. Some of the kids in the presentation would be sons and daughters of the vaqueros who work on ranches in and near the reserve. Some of their folks had seen jaguars.

I slept uneasily the night before my journey, as I often do before starting out on a new adventure. The initial steps were in place but who knew how it would all evolve.

The next morning, I got an early start out of Tucson and drove south into unknown territory.


Sahuaripa (Yellow Ant)

I drove two hours to the border town of Douglas (passing through Tombstone!) before hitting my first obstacle just across the border in Agua Prieta, Brown Water.

The trouble came when I stopped to get my tourist visa and temporary importation car permit, which I needed because I was driving beyond 30 kilometers of the border. One needs the full VIN number typed out on the rental contract, evidence of car insurance, passport and driver’s license. Apparently, Enterprise car rental company only includes half the VIN number on its contracts.  This presents a huge problem to bureaucrats balking at numbers that don’t match exactly.

With no way to fix the issue through official channels, and not wanting to drive the two hours back to Tucson, I took matters into my own hands. After a two hour delay and some fancy digital footwork doctoring the contract PDF, I was ready to go again.

Permit in place, I continued driving south through a few pueblos to Moctezuma and hung a left on a desolate but strangely beautiful, untraveled route to Sahuaripa. The road was quite tame yet it felt like pure adventure, showing me once again that you don’t have to hang off a cliff to feel the thrill of exploration.

In fact, I haven’t felt so free on a road like that in a long time. Can a road make you free?  This one did. This deserted track gave me back the freedom I came for.

Not one sign, not one homestead, not one store, nothing but the way the landscape has always been. It was the end of the world. On the twisty incline into the mountains, I shouted into the wind of my open window. I stopped and ate an apple and some cashews. I passed two cars in two hours. I drove too fast, then slowed way too slow, then dodged rockslides in the middle of the road. I even pulled over to do a little freedom dance in the dusty dry mesquite.

Although I’ve lived for years in Ecuador and Brazil and traveled throughout Mexico and other Latin American countries, I haven’t done much poking around in recent years, and I’d never been to Sonora. 

I love the bright colors of the towns I drove through.  The sound of Mexican ballads blasting from cantinas and cars, and the smell of tacos and Pollo Asado simmering on outdoor grills. As I took in the sights and smells and sounds, I did notice myself starting to tire. Part of the fatigue may have been from getting older but another part was from worrying about whether I’d get along with the field biologists who would take me into the reserve.

I was excited to meet them but also nervous. Miguel Gómez Ramírez and Carmina Gutiérrez González had met at the University of Queretaro.  Studying under the biologist Carlos A Lopez Gonzalez, Carmina had written numbers of articles with Carlos with titles like “Jaguar interactions with pumas and prey at the northern edge of the Jaguars’ range.” Getting along would be essential to the rest of the trip.

In the dark, I arrived in Sahuaripa about a half hour before Miguel and Carmina got back from a day trip to Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora.  I was standing on the corner near the church when Miguel got out of his car and walked over to introduce himself. Immediately I could see he was a gentle and soft-spoken man.  He had a ready smile on his sweet face and led me to their house where I found Miguel’s wife Carmina to be just about the friendliest person I’d met in a long time. Her English was nearly perfect and we talked easily.  I tucked my rental car safely in the gated courtyard before collapsing in bed.

The next morning, I gave a little slideshow about some adventures I’ve had around the world to perhaps 35 students at the Escuela Escuadron 201 (The 201 Fighter Squadron from Mexico aided the Allied war effort in WW2 and was also known as the “Aztec Eagles”). Carmina helped me translate when I ran into difficulty.  Then we drove around town meeting some of the ranchers who had joined the Viviendo con Felinos Program (Living with Cats) that essentially has doubled the 55,000-acre area of the Reserve with fourteen ranchers now allowing camera traps on their land. These ranchers are committed to protecting wildlife, including the Jaguar.

One of the two dentists in town and one of the first ranchers to join the project’s Viviendo’s program, Diego Ezrre sat with us in the waiting area outside his office, between patients. If central casting sent over a dentist or doctor in a small town, Diego would be the guy.  He said that he had been the president of the Cattlemen’s Association when he was approached by the Project to join his ranch to the Reserve increase protection for animals. And, every time a  biologist’s camera trap caught an image of a big cat his land, he’d be paid for the photo.  (The Project compensates the ranchers for photos of the four cat species: 500 pesos for a bobcat ($25); 1000 ($50) pesos for puma, mountain lion; 1500 ($75) pesos for an ocelot, and 5000 ($250) pesos for a jaguar.)

Diego’s excitement about the wildlife on his ranch was infectious (he drives hours to get there every weekend), and he was so enthusiastic about the project, he decided to help other ranchers join, too. The object is to help preserve the Jaguars instead of fear and vilify them as natural enemies to horses and cattle.  So much better to preserve the wildlife on their land, to protect jaguars rather than kill them and sell their pelts. 

There didn’t seem to be any downside to inviting biologists onto their land, either. Not only do the ranchers profit from keeping animals alive, but they also take a real interest in seeing the wildlife that passes through their property.  Comparison between jaguar photos over time, here and in other parts of Sonora and up into Arizona, allows scientists like Miguel and Carmina to get a real sense of the habits and ranges of these magnificent creatures.

We slept another night in Sahuaripa to get an early start to the reserve the next morning.


The Jaguar Reserve is Remote

Miguel drove the Toyota 4Runner while Carmina sat in the back with Luis on her lap. We picked up Laco Duarte, the Project’s head cowboy, and drove out of town on a narrow, rocky road that got more and more rugged over the next five hours as we climbed into the mountains. Manuel drove so expertly I had no fear in the shotgun seat as we skirted huge cliffs. Miguel met every rock ledge and rut with absolute calm and confident control of the vehicle. I marveled at the degree of patience required for safe and steady progress. I would’ve been tempted to floor it and inevitably send us all tumbling.

In the back seat, Carmina sang lullabies to their little one-year-old, Luis.  This was Luis’ second visit to the reserve (he’d been here once when he was just six months old). I told myself that if these two field biologists were relaxed enough in such a remote place that they could bring along their little guy, I certainly could handle it if we got stuck out there with no sat phone!  

I tried to take notes in my little notebook knowing full well that it’d be impossible later to read that scribble. Hour after hour I tried to record what I was seeing but couldn’t steady my pen for half a second. Still, a fellow has to try.

After all, there was so much to see. I couldn’t take my eyes off the magic of the views!  The distant lines of mountains off toward Chihuahua. The Sierra Madres. This was Traven’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre country. I hadn’t seen a place this wild since I left Richard Leakey’s camp on Lake Turkana in northwestern Kenya.

In the five hours it took to reach the reserve, we passed a single pickup truck and a few cows in the thorn scrub.  We were lucky it was so dry. You could see the deep ruts that had formed on a previous trip in the rain. I could only imagine someone trying to navigate their way through the muck along the cliffs.

I hopped out maybe twelve times to open and close cattle gates. When we finally got to the Babisal camp just after dusk, three cowboys; Laco’s son, Braulio Duarte; Braulio’s son, Braulio Jr., and Manuel Rivas were standing in front of the crackling fire. Every month, these NJP employees work twenty days straight maintaining roads and fixing up camps and then the other ten days they’re in town.

All three welcomed us with warm greetings. I was a little tentative with my rusty Spanish but Miguel helped put me at ease and made sure I got a good dinner of tortillas, beans, rice, and meat. He included me without being overbearing and gave me all the space I needed.

Tired from our travels, I set up my little tent by a nearby stream and listened to the men laughing around the fire. Eventually, I laid down to sleep and immediately regretted my decision to pack one of those ultralight sleeping pads. The thing about tiny pads is that you fill them with air but they don’t work. There’s no padding there. You lie on your hip bone and all the air rushes to other parts of the pad. Both hips spent the entire night digging into the ground. To this day, I’m not sure I have ever slept well in a tent, and yet it’s so cool to be in a little canvas house that I love it just the same.

The next day, Miguel and I went on a hike to check some camera traps and again we were driving through riverbeds that certainly didn’t look like a car could pass. Thankfully, Miguel took his time as this little snippet shows.

Miguel showed me why he sets camera traps on either side of a stream bed.  A jaguar walks by setting off each trap which takes photos of both sides of the animal. This is important for tracking because not only does a Jaguar have its own distinct spots, but each side of the individual is distinct from the other.  

I like to think that Miguel and I clicked during our time out in the bush. When he pulled out a drone to video a portion of the reserve from a bird’s eye view, we laughed like a couple of boys with a new toy. When Luis is a few years older, no doubt he’ll be blown away by his father’s drone too.

Even though Miguel has a twinge of that biologist’s reticence to discuss his feelings and is clearly more comfortable talking about plants and trees, it was his constant smile and gentle laughter that always came through when we bantered back and forth half in English, half in Spanish. For every question about the flora and fauna of the area, Miguel gave wonderfully accurate and satisfying answers. He named and described with vivid details the matorral of mesquite and wild cotton trees, the variety of acacia tree and two kinds of palms. Then we started laughing as he pulled out the drone again to record parts of the river that forms the eastern border of the reserve.

Would that I could have stayed out there learning about Sonora and flying that drone for longer but this first venture to the reserve was a short one. When I thought about the trip before I left, I wondered if perhaps this topic might lead to a bigger story. Now I wasn’t so sure. But first, I have to type out what notes I can read and dive back into the subject through books and articles piling up in my home office (a cabin three hundred feet from my house in Vermont).  

But I think I did make a small discovery once I was back in Sahuaripa and preparing to leave for Tucson. Rather than one large book, I think I want to collect my photos and video and weave them with words into a series of smaller posts.

I want to keep it simple, and I know now that I don’t have to find the story of my life as the Incan treasure story became the story of my youth.  I’m okay with keeping it short. And that’s a big relief because in the back of my head, the whole time leading up to the journey, I’d been thinking that this was my new treasure story, this would be my big book!  Why not? After all, I love a desert, I love rocks, I love mining (my dad was in mining), I love Mexico, I love tacos, and now I love Jaguars.

But no, it doesn’t have to be anything it isn’t. I just want to come back and spend more time in that remote and magic land.  Get to know the cowboy Laco and his son Braulio, the young scientists Miguel and Carmina, and maybe do another slideshow in the school. I can’t wait to drive again on that deserted road where I felt so free.  I am darn happy I went. And I will be glad for the next trip, too.


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