The words of Señor Fernandez, the old prospector, come back to me as I lie groveling on the jungle floor. “A jaguar can sense which man is most afraid of him,” he’d told me. “It’s always this one that he follows.”
Up the trail ahead of me, I can see the slim figure of Aida Bustamente crouched in the undergrowth, studying a jumble of prints in the sand. Lithe and cat-like, she is known in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula as ‘The Jaguar Lady’ – and I already realize that she isn’t afraid of much at all. Her partner, Ric Moreno, is a little farther up the trail among the thick forest shadows. Between them, they have probably racked up more jungle hours on the trail of jaguars than almost anyone alive.
For much of the last decade they have been working to establish accurate figures on the populations of Latin America’s most endangered big cat. In all those years they have had just a handful of unforgettable sightings of the elusive king of the jungle. For them, this is just another day in the office and I am in no doubt whatsoever that, out of the three of us, it is only my heart that’s hammering like an old tractor engine.
Then I remember that Señor Fernandez had at least some words of reassurance for me: “It’s unlikely that a jaguar would want to eat you,” he said. “It’s just that…well, all cats have a mischievous streak.”