Yucatan Dispatch 7 October 16, 2009 from El Eden, México
On my final day in the Yucatan, I walk into the jungle at sunrise to pick up my last camera trap. I’ve been here for a month but haven’t got what I’m looking for—a close-up picture of an ocelot, a puma, or a jaguar. The first two weeks, I spent most of my time wandering aimlessly through thickets, wondering, with the naivete of a South Dakota boy transplanted to the jungle for the first time. I tried to imagine where I would walk if I was a cat, and figure out why my skin was always stinging. Turns out, I was brushing up against a nettleleaf, a green leaved plant that to me looks like every other plant in this jungle. But I didn’t find that out and identify it until I met Juan Castillo, the local botanist. Juan also told me about a trail that he has seen cat tracks on, so I set up a camera trap and left it there for two weeks.
I’m thirty miles west of Cancun on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on assignment to photograph felines. The truth is these wild cats may be goners in the coming years. The city of Cancun was dreamt and “created” by developers in the 1970’s for tourism. Now the demand from tourists is pushing development inland, into the jungle. If the dollar from outsiders is sufficient, housing developments and golf courses will be built, cutting off pathways for cats. These animals retain their genetic viability by using a corridor that spans north to south. Without a connected corridor between the established protected areas, the cats will eventually disappear.
After walking along the leafy trail for twenty minutes in the early dawn light, I find the camera I set here two weeks ago. This camera offers the last hope I have for capturing any photos of the elusive felines I have been pursuing for a month. As I reach for the camera, I notice a paw print in the soil nearby. Scrolling through the pictures, I find that a puma passed within a foot of my camera in broad daylight. I realize I’m kneeling in the exact spot the puma walked, and an instinctual feeling of wildness and fear runs up my spine as I glance around me into the jungle. My closeness to the puma that recently triggered my camera sends me back in time to before the construction of Cancun and its surrounding development. And I can’t help but wonder if this photograph, evidence of the wild animals that still rely on this part of the jungle, might help ensure that someone else will get a similar chill in this jungle 40 years into the future.