Saturday, July 13, 2024

Calling a jaguar proved unsuccessful but it was a good adventure

Martha Armanta is the founder and president of Conrehabit, a Mexican conservation organization which provides wildlife rescue services as well as community outreach programs in the rural areas of southern Sinaloa, Mexico. Part 1 of this series can be found here.

I had been working with Martha for about a year when one day she announced a trip to the village of the bramador to test the potential for ecotourism.

I bombarded Martha with questions about the nature of the mission, where we would stay, how many people would come — and what is a bramador? With a smile and a palpable sense of enthusiasm she said, “El bramador is a master jaguar caller and he will try to call in a cat for us.” Bramador means “roarer” or “one who roars,” in this case a jaguar caller.

She went on to elaborate about how this place is not on any tourist itinerary and that the people were ready to share some of their natural treasures with the outside world. This looked to be an excellent cultural encounter with people very lightly touched by modern society.

This outing would be a test of the viability of ecotourism in areas where jaguars are being hunted because of livestock predation or “sport” shooting. If villagers perceived that the jaguar could be worth more alive than dead, it would be a first step in slowing the pervasive process of wildlife depredation along with habitat destruction.

A kitchen in the village.
A kitchen in the village.

So our theory was that if eight gringos between the ages of 55 and 65 survived the culture shock of a trip with no restaurants, no hotels, no pavement, no telephones, no internet, no toilet seats and best of all, “no way out” until the next day, it just might work.

After arrangements had been put in place and enough brave souls had been located, Martha and I left town as a caravan of three vehicles with 10 people — along with my half wild dog Snickers — and headed into the lower reaches of the western Sierra Madre.

We arrived in the village about sunset and were greeted by a group of a dozen men and boys dressed in their Sunday best. The village jefe, Don Panchito, directed us to the home of the bramador where our vehicles disgorged their passengers.

The nine foreigners milled about and met the locals, while Martha helped to translate the many questions and corresponding answers that spilled forth from both sides of the language barrier. The minute that Snickers emerged from my truck she was surrounded by a dozen village dogs and all hackles were raised.

The attending canines went through the body language requirements, seemed to accept each other, and Snickers drifted off with them into the background menagerie of chickens, horses, mules and a few burros.

The talk turned towards the jaguars and the coming attempt to call one to within hearing distance. The plan was to head into the forest around 9:00pm, get four to five kilometers out and then let the bramador roar.

Making tortillas for breakfast.
Making tortillas for breakfast.

Don German was a man of medium height, slight build and somewhere around 60 years old, though it was hard to tell. The device he employs to imitate the low roar of the jaguar is a polished gourd less than a meter in length, with a hole in each end, one large and one small.

Up until now, this device was used primarily for the purpose of bagging a big spotted cat; this encounter could possibility be the first steps in a transformation of how rural Mexico perceives the natural world.

For our evening meal we ate standard village victuals and truly enjoyed every item served, especially the blue corn tortillas and the gordita cakes. We had watched the blue corn paste processed by hand in an ancient stone metate with a matching mano.

The dough was then patted into a tortilla and placed on the polished lid of a 55-gallon drum with a wood fire nestled in its blackened innards. Most of the villagers there cooked their food on the lid of a drum or on a grill supported by loosely laid bricks.

Even though all the adventurers had been told to bring some type of bedding and sleeping pads, only about half of them did so. This was my first experience in escorting gringos on such a trek, and I didn’t foresee this development.

It was clear that at least some guests would have a tough time without help from our new friends so we explained that some guests had nothing to sleep on. Of course, the villagers put their heads together to find a solution.

Martha and Snickers.
Martha and Snickers.

So we moved to plan B — some homes had extra beds available. Most of our group would enjoy a peaceful and comfortable night ensconced in village beds, while three of us ended up on the ground in a dilapidated structure with twinkling views up to the stars through roof holes.

Now it was time to sit around the campfire and listen to the bramador take a couple of practice runs on his gourd. I was expecting a deep cat-like roar to emanate from the dried vegetable shell, but it sounded much more like a cough than a roar; a low guttural burst of air.

After lubricating his throat with a long pull from a jug of cheap tequila, the next rendition of the cat’s cough sounded much more primal; a timeless echo resounding across the ancient flanks of the Sierra Madre.

Then it was time to take a ride into the forest in search of the elusive cat. Since I had the only large four-wheel-drive vehicle within miles, my truck became the tour bus. Our group numbered 10 people and a dog. In addition, it seemed that the number of locals required to guide this expedition was no less than six.

Fortunately the truck had a lumber rack with a mesh floor in the section over the cab, which was quickly commandeered by two campesinos with a 100,000-candlepower search light. As I plugged their heavy corded device into my cigarette lighter, I was beginning to think our expedition more resembled a redneck buck hunt than a stealthy insertion into jaguar territory.

Those in the back of the truck were standing in the bed, using the upper rails of the rack as necessary handholds. They were armed only with a few cameras, and the steely determination not to get pitched out on our short drive. After one look at the humanity packed into the confines of my truck, along with my suspicion that the roads would be in a high state of disrepair, I knew it would be a notable adventure for all.

A creek in jaguar country.
A creek in jaguar country.

The bramador was sharing the back seat with two women, the half wild dog and his by now somewhat depleted jug of tequila. After some time the road plunged into an old stream bed and then followed the dry water course, which morphed between a faint road to ruts and rocks. In time, conditions deteriorated into four-wheel-drive and low-range crawl as we left the creek bed and headed up a 20% grade.

As the search light panned the huge trees towering around us, dozens of large bromeliads could be seen clinging to outstretched branches of the old-growth cypress. The low hanging vines and occasional branches added a real organic element for those in the open-air section of the conveyance, including Martha.

Knowing her fears, several times I wondered if I should caution her about the potential for various types of slithery reptiles falling from the low hanging canopy. However, I figured if it actually happened, the event would be vastly more entertaining without the forewarning.

We came to a place where the road (the term road here is very generous) became a narrow shelf with a drop on the passenger side and a steep bank on the other.

In the middle of this side hill traverse, the ledge took a turn to the right with a washed out hole close to where one rear tire would track the turn. I made the turn high on the bank and thought the truck was in the clear.

But the back end suddenly dropped. In that split second of uncertainty, the search light wobbled and a collective gasp arose from all passengers, including myself and probably the dog. After a quick application of throttle, the truck popped back up on the ledge; but we were all awake now.

When we reached a point where it was no longer possible to distinguish exactly where to aim our tour bus, I was told to stop “because farther on the road is bad.”

We all climbed out of the truck, some with weaker knees than others, but we were all struck by the absolute stillness, the stark clarity of the night sky and how agreeably dark it was without the search light on.

The bramador wandered a few meters up a hillside and prepared for his one-act show, complete with gourd, and the now nearly empty tequila jug. He imitated the call of both the male and female jaguar with an amazing amount of dignity and aplomb, particularly considering the amount of spirits he had consumed.

I don’t think any of us actually expected the reward of a return call, especially after we had arrived in the area with all the aural subtlety of a steam-powered UFO. However, the bramador continued his show for some time. All the outsiders enjoyed it and were enthusiastic until he declared that even his brilliant efforts were unproductive against our pandemonium.

We returned to the village and wandered off to our predetermined sleeping places. That night, those of us in the dilapidated dwelling were serenaded for two hours by numerous village dogs attempting to drive several stray burros from the bramador’s yard.

Shortly after the cacophony of dogs and burros died off in the distance, 10 or more roosters decided it was dawn. They were only three hours early.

After packing up, we thanked our indigenous hosts for their gracious hospitality and reluctantly headed back to modern Mexico. My time spent visiting this area over the ensuing years has given me a deep admiration for the people who live the hard and lean life experienced by most of the rural communities.These people have very little, but what they do have, they are more than willing to share with trusted strangers.

(We began our ecotours in 2009 and are continuing to bring small groups into this remote area. Two years ago, the Mexican government granted protected reserve status to 17,000 acres held by this small community.)

The writer describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. He can be reached at [email protected].

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