The Long Way to Monkey River

On the Jaguar's Trail
Jaguar in rainforest
Once bitten, twice shy: the reclusive jaguar (Corel)

I am the kind of person who jumps at the sight of a spider, gets the creepy-crawlies from bugs, and howls at snakes. So to walk into a dark jungle gives me the willies. Three miles in, I ask Vance if he has the willies. He assures me otherwise. I find this odd. On ourdaytime walks through the jungle, there is a constant sense of encroachment, of snakes under the brush, of mosquitoes, of getting lost. At night, the jungle seems comfortable, and relaxing. The birds are asleep, and no mammal dares to make a sound. The shrub layer is biological silence. Everything moves, grows, eats, and kills in quiet.

Blue specks of light catch the sweep of our headlamps, thousands of spider eyes watching from the edge of the trail. And then we find a highway of leaf-cutter ants lugging stuff that's 50 times their weight along a network of trees and branches and logs. Thousands upon thousands of these ants collaborate tirelessly to lay their cargo into a honeycomb structure deep underground. They cultivate the leaves to grow a fungus,which they eat.

The worker ants, out in the field doing the bidding of the queen, are prey to a fly that hatches its eggs on their necks. When hatched, the flies eat through their surrogate host's brain. So in response to this, the leaf-cutter ants have developed a subspecies of soldier ants, smaller than them and capable of riding on their necks. When the flies come to nest, the soldier ants fight them off with highly developed pincers. A perfectlyfunctioning empire in miniature.

We return to our tents without spotting our principal quarry, the jaguar. But we already knew that seeing a jaguar is next to impossible. A shy and elusive animal, the few remaining cats have been so hunted by man that they have learned to avoid humans.

For the next few days, we decide to hike the rest of the trails through the park with the exception of the long, arduous Victoria Peak hike, a three-day trek to the top of Belize's second tallest mountain (3,670 feet).

The trails in the Cockscomb Basin are the most organized and best maintained in Belize. None of them are physically strenuous to anything but the eye, and they're packed with wildlife like parrots, mluk-mluks, tanagers, and giant ocellated turkeys.

On one trail, a group of ocellated turkeys—the sole domesticated farm animal of the Mayans—are babbling wildly enough for a troop of kinkajou, a type of rainforest raccoon, to miss my approach. When they finally do see me, they flee in noisy disarray, which quite literally sends the turkeys into an uproar. One of the kinkajou jumps on a branch that cracks and breaks. The branch falls down a cliff and crashes into a swamp. The kinkajou jumps to the next tree. By now the turkeys have slipped through the canopy and put a whole mess of tanagers and mluk-mluks into an uproar. That's the way it is in this jungle: a crescendo of hair-trigger noise and interaction.

The jungle looks green from above the canopies, but the jungle is not green. The jungle is shadows of green—yellowish and black, gray and brown and blue. It is dark and wet, but most of all it's tangled and intricate, like the human mind. Like life, the jungle can seem complex and dark—you know, insurance, gossip, marital affairs, back-talk—but its foundation is simple. The basic pulse of life. Getting there is a labyrinthine process, but that's what makes it interesting.

Published: 16 May 2003 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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