National Geographic : 2017 Dec
jaguars 89 general insanity of city life in New York, where nature is mostly rats, roaches, and the put-upon trees of Central Park. Over breakfast, I sat next to one of Maestro Juan’s former apprentices, who had been stationed on a mat next to mine. He told me that during my laugh riot he had blown tobacco smoke my way, afraid I might be “going loco.” I tried to tell him I had never felt saner. Still, I had to wonder how real it all was. Scien- tists tend to dismiss ayahuasca as a hallucinogen and attribute many of the cures of curanderos to placebo effects, or the power of suggestion, the skillful shamanic use of set and setting. Spirits can’t be verified or quantified. It made me quea- sy to recall the young Canadian I’d met who had a cancerous tumor in his leg but had turned down recommended surgery and radiation and was counting on a prescription of plants and insights gleaned from ayahuasca to cure him. By the same token, Maestro Juan’s conviction that nature was teeming with spirits seemed a lot less daft the morning after the ceremony. Not daft at all, in fact. He lived in a world that had not been turned into a machine. Where I might hear the sound of the river as merely water flowing over rock, he heard a chorus of voices, sometimes including the voice of his sister who had drowned in a lake as a little girl only to reappear to him years later in the spirit world as a sirena. Who was to say she wasn’t real? With his med- icine, the maestro had shown everyone in the maloca what he knew of another world. What we wished to believe about the reality of it was up to us. So many people from Europe and North America come to Mayantuyacu and other aya- huasca centers in Peru hoping to find some ap- proximation of a “jaguar spirit” in themselves. (For some reason nobody covets an association with a Pucallpa squirrel.) The broader lesson of ayahuasca for me was that the jaguar’s roar is one voice in an ecological symphony, and that too often we focus myopically on charismatic species—the big cats especially—and forget that a crucial part of what they are is where they live and the thousands of other organisms that live alongside them, ourselves included. Some days later Ruzo told me of a vision that one of Maestro Juan’s apprentices had had during the ceremony. He’d seen a jaguar skeleton, lying on its side by the Boiling River, legs, rib cage, skull, perfectly complete. Maestro Juan and Ruzo had discussed the significance of it at length. Maestro Juan took the skeleton to mean that the jaguar—in any form—can no longer protect the forest around Mayantuyacu. He has no doubt now that it is up to him, to Ruzo, to conserva- tionists everywhere who venerate the jaguar’s power and grace, to keep the forest intact. j As a cub, this male jaguar was smuggled onto a bus in southern Colombia and was headed for the under- ground pet trade when he was rescued by authorities. His mother had been killed by a rancher whose cow she’d attacked. Since the young cat didn’t learn survival skills from his mother, he can never be released into the wild. Today he lives in Cabildo Verde, a nature reserve in Sabana de Torres, Colombia. Chip Brown wrote “Making a Man” for the January 2017 special issue, Gender Revolution. Steve Winter photographed jaguars for this feature in Brazil’s Pantanal region, one of their remaining strongholds.