“There’s a jaguar in the baño,” George Olah told me with a small smile.
“Um?” I managed, squinting into the dusky Amazon forest surrounding our camp.
“She’s behind that tree. Look for spots,” Olah said. Then: “No. That tree,” pointing to a trunk between 30 and 40 feet away.
In an instant, I registered that, yes, the bathroom trail we had cut through the Peruvian jungle was indeed occupied by a member of the largest cat species in the Americas. She was so close that if she launched herself at one of us, it would be game over in seconds.
“Shiiiiiiiiit,” I said as we—unarmed except for a couple of machetes and a small slingshot—quickly moved closer to get a better look.
Powerful predators that kill by puncturing skulls with their tremendous bite, jaguars reign over both ecosystems and mythologies. Everyone hopes to see one of the spotted cats when they visit this part of Peru, and on several earlier occasions I’d been lucky enough to glimpse the cats along the riverbank. But this was the first time I’d been jaguar’d out of the damn bathroom.
And it was the first time I experienced what I’ve learned to call jaguarness.
It was our second night in Peru’s Candamo Valley, which is tucked between two Andean ridges in the country’s southeast. Olah, a conservation geneticist at Australian National University, was looking for wild macaws to catch and outfit with satellite tracking collars, and he was hoping to find the colorful birds here, in one of the most remote places on Earth.
To get to Candamo, we had spent several days traveling by motorized canoe, first up the Río Tambopata, then on the swift and treacherous Távara, and finally through the series of rapids that guard the valley’s mouth. Candamo is so isolated, and so tricky to get into, that it has earned the nickname “the last rain forest without humans.”
No one has ever really lived in Candamo. Or at least, there’s no evidence for continual human habitation, though rumors swirl about drug runners using the 350,000-acre patch of rain forest to move their wares across the Bolivian border by air. But even the rubber hunters of the 1800s, who so completely bled the area’s trees, mostly stopped short of Candamo. Now, the only lingering signs of their presence are downriver along the Távara, not far from the site where both