Babisal Ranch is at the heart of the Norther Jaguar Project’s reserve. The cows are long gone but the original structure is used as a kitchen and two new adobe and stone guest rooms have been added. Burt and I will turn an old water tank into a third guest room. Year round these facilities are used by cowboys and biologists and other visitors. Overflow people stay in tents or hammocks. On this trip Burt and I scored a cabin of our own. The beds are traditional rancho cots made from burlap suspended between two Xs. With a Thermarest pad the bed is pretty comfortable but it moves a lot and the motion made me a little queasy. More Galapagos training I told myself.
Our group consisted of two donors, Mark and Monica, a photographer, Charles, us, and Randy and Turtle, NJP’s staff/guides. After the 12 hours of driving Burt and I headed straight to bed after dinner and didn’t really get a good look at our companions. We were grateful for the warm food and welcome gifts of NJP hats and personal napkins. In the morning we had some more filling and tasty vegan food and then piled in a pickup for a nearby hike.
All seven humans and three dogs rode up the steep mile or so to another defunct ranch. We would hike up the a tight, wet canyon and pass some camera traps and see what some people consider the spiritual heart of the reserve. In fifteen bumpy minutes we reached our starting point. The abandoned ranch buildings were full of wood perfect for our project. It will be fun to deconstruct and reconstruct out in the wilderness. The old wood will look beautiful in a new situation.
Pretty quickly we reached a camera trap. Randy and Turtle removed the data chip and tried to find a camera that could reveal its secrets. There are a few different models of cameras in use at the reserve and they all have their own way of formatting chips. Luckily our third and last try at reading the chip was successful. The chips and batteries are changed out every one to three months. Since this particular trap’s chip had been changed four mountain lions, a few bobcats, and an ocelot had passed by the trap. The ocelot passed just the day before we did. Smiles all around thinking the ocelot was nearby watching us. As Randy says, I haven’t seen a jaguar but I know they’ve seen me. I like that feeling.
Our walk to the canyon wasn’t more than half an hour. We could have gone further but we didn’t feel like swimming and mud crawling so we sat around and enjoyed the scene. I visited the spiders. Snacks and water and getting to know you conversations were had by all. After people were satisfied with the hanging around we had a choice, return home by the trail we had taken in or canyoneer our way down canyon. We chose the adventure route. It was pretty rough going but Randy was a competent guide and very able assistant. Burt and I did fine on our own. We mostly traveled ahead of the group. It took us much longer to reach the truck going down the boulder filled stream bed but it was also more fun. The dogs have a different version. One ran home on the trail. Another was lifted through the worst spot. The third either jumped or fell twenty feet into a pool. She was not happy. Eventually it was just a stream bed and we all dispersed. Burt and Randy went to inventory wood and I wandered downstream alone.
At the truck point we all reunited. Burt and I opted to avoid the truck bed for the downhill jostle and walked back to camp along the stream. It was a tussocky and watery route back. It was noticeable that there were not a lot of birds. When we finally reached camp it was time for lunch and a siesta.
That evening we took a silent sunset walk. We heard an elf owl. Or was it pygmy? I’ve forgotten. Tracks were seen in the creek bed sand. Quail flew up. We thought they were scaled quail but they were Elegant Quail. Similar but not the same. Dinner and bed.
Sunday last Burt and I slipped away from Portal at 5 AM. Mimi. Elvis, and Olive were all at their respective captor’s homes. We’d stayed in Portal to play music for friends getting married. Without the wedding we would have headed to Mexico on Saturday and attended the 10th anniversary of the Northern Jaguar Project reserve celebration in Sahuaripa. Instead we made a mad dash to the border and where we entered the weird Sunday morning amateur hour of la frontera. All the border staff were in their twenties and female and serious about their jobs.
First problem was Burt ad stuffed a tissue over the VIN number on the dash and the the guard couldn’t verify our vehicle registration against the VIN. Except the VIN is also on the door. The youngster didn’t want to look at the door she wanted the tissue covered number plate. I admit it looked kind of odd. I tried to dig out the tissue with a rusty scalpel I’ve been keeping on the dash for just such an occasion. The sun decayed tissue did not budge but produced a lot of dust. While I wheezed and dug, Burt kept trying to get the guard to look at the door. She refused. I decided it was because his grammar was slightly off. She could pretend not to understand him and watch me dig. Exasperated, I politely rephrased Burt’s statement and she suddenly looked at the door, took down the number, and let us pass.
Next we got our 6 month visitor’s visa. This time I had to rouse people from hidden chambers. Nobody crosses at 6 AM on Sunday. Tired eyed youngsters materialized at the windows. Our visa forms filled out we took them across the way to pay the fee. This second window was where we needed to get our TIP, too. Mainland Mexico requires a Temporary Import Permit for all vehicles. Baja does not have this requirement so the step was new for me. Sadly, I accidentally threw away our original 2017 registration in a fit of organizing a month ago. Luckily, Burt discovered it missing so we had a copy the Jefferson County tax assessor had emailed last week. More sadly, the Mexican government’s representative would not accept a copy. I showed her last year’s original. I explained sweetly and repeatedly that I lost the original and the US government gave me the copy. I wondered if an older more hardened representative would have let me pay the TIP. I wondered if speaking Spanish was working against me. I wondered what to do. Burt and I decided if they didn’t want our money we didn’t need a TIP. We shrugged our shoulders and hoped one arm of big brother didn’t talk to the other arm of big brother and we headed on our way in violation of the law. Most luckily, nobody ever stopped us and there were no checkpoints between the border and our destination.
At noon we arrived in Sahuaripa. We ran into Randy, the ranch manager, leaving for lunch. We ate, did some errands, shifted gear from our truck to his and finally, around 2 PM, started the trip into the mountains. It was 100 degrees. Cholo rode up front with the menfolk. I held my own with Farmer in the backseat. Six hours of single track gravel road later we arrived well after dark at the camp called Babisal. Rancho Babisal is the heart of the reserve. Fresh vegan food and our companions greeted us. We ate and went to bed.
I was very surprised to see a jaguar on our trip to Mexico but the proof is indisputable. There it is.
That’s the last fake news for this post. Jaguars live among us in southern Arizona and New Mexico. They are few but they are genetically important. The males in the US have come from just south of the border. They disperse and roam away from the wild lands of Mexico and remain available to spread their DNA when the time arrives. Lucky for them a federal judge just deemed these few individuals worthy of consideration when we (our society) makes land use decisions.
I personally consider these US individuals important whether they get a chance to reproduce or not. Here we have an apex predator the likes of which we hardly compare on a human scale. The claws, the jaws, the speed. My cat Mimi times fifty. Taller than me and so much stronger. So seldom are jaguars seen that we need tight networks of cameras surreptitiously taking photos just to prove their existence. A several hundred pound cat is walking around near major population areas and we can’t see it. Think about it. Habit, camouflage, and rugged terrain make it invisible. In this era of over-exposed everything this mystery gives me joy.
The jaguar species requires vast tracts of land to survive. Aside from room to wander, Jaguars obviously need game to eat and water for fun and nourishment. The land needs to be healthy and full of other animals. Jaguars like to swim. Protecting the jaguar protects everything in the web of life it shares. The Northern Jaguar Project has been working to provide jaguars sufficient habitat for their survival. They have a 40 something square mile reserve of land in Mexico they own that is managed for the jaguar. The NJP buys land but also works directly with surrounding land owners to provide critical breeding habitat for the northernmost population in the Americas. Nearby cattle ranchers are educated on the jaguar needs and habits and given trail cameras to document individual animals on their land. Through an incentive program that includes damage loss reimbursement, rewards for photos, rent for access to trail cameras, and other things the NJP are expanding their influence and the area of acreage available to the jaguars. In the last ten years fifty individual jaguars have been captured on the NJP’s cameras. One camera even caught a pair copulating. Scores of mountain lions, ocelots, and bobcats have also been seen on the project’s network or cameras.
All this land and cameras requires a team of people to manage. Land costs money but so do staff. There is a ranch manager (Randy, bilingual/bicultural Jack-of-all-Trades) and Turtle (US money wrangler) and a team of cowboys and biologists. There are roads to maintain, fences to mend, and cameras to check. In the backcountry there are simple accommodations that staff and donors use when visiting the area.
For several years Burt has been trying to coordinate a trip in to the reserve to provide some needed carpentry. The main camp cabins are 41 miles and a 6 hour drive from town. Seven miles an hour and the drive is bone rattling. This year our schedules all had room for a scoping trip. Turtle, Randy, and some donors were headed in and we were available to join them. Working in the wilderness requires a lot of from a team of people. You have to trust each other and you have to be really good with logistics. We all decided to meet and give the job a looksee and decide if we were willing to commit more time. Could we get along with them and could they get along with us?
After our 5 day scoping trip it all looks good from here. More to come. Enjoy these landscape photos of the protected habitat.
We will soon be out of touch for lengthy stretches of time. Starting Sunday we will be in Mexico for about a week. This jaunt is a scoping trip for some work we might do on the Northern Jaguar Project’s preserve outside of Sahuaripa, Mexico. It’s a very remote place. No phones, no help, nobody for about 20 miles and 6 hours of driving. Yes, 6ish hours to cover 20ish miles. I’ll be able to be more specific after our first time up the wilderness. The trip’s goal is to see if we can build some things for them. Challenges abound. We’ll try and answer logistical questions about food, lumber, hardware, roofing, power. No actual work is planned for this first trip. Olive, Elvis, Mimi, and the gNash will all be left behind.
After the scoping trip we return to Portal and then a few days later we catch a flight to Ecuador. Our first trip to the Galapagos! I have no idea what internet will be like in Ecuador. I expect none in the Galapagos. That’s another two weeks without reporting. I’ll be prepared to fill you in when I get back. Like our European trip, I plan to take handwritten notes. Again the rest of the family and our camper will be left behind.
Presuming all went well on the scoping trip we will then head back to the jaguar preserve in Mexico and work for a few weeks. It’s possible the pets and camper will come to Mexico with us for the second trip. Those decisions depend on what we discover during the first trip.