Grrrrr! Big Cat Week is upon us, with Nat Geo Wildpresenting some of the most visually stunning and powerfully resonant stories of nature’s fiercest felines.
Among the big cat experts is Boone Smith, a fourth-generation tracker and houndsman, who will be featured on Monday, Dec. 12 in “Hunt for the Shadow Cat,” which takes the cougar tracker to Belize for his first encounter with jaguars in the wild. Once there, Smith teams up with Dr. Howard Quigley as they embark on a mission to capture, film and attach tracking collars to these elusive predators.
In this exclusive interview, Smith talks about his scariest encounter with a big cat; why it is important to “Cause an Uproar” and support the Big Cat Initiative, a long-term commitment to halt the decline of these iconic animals in the wild rather than in zoos; and the ecological disasters that can befall us if we don’t reverse the disappearance of these endangered species.
Why do you think doing shows that feature the big cats like this is important?
I think shows like this are important for some of the reasons we were down there: We don’t know a lot and we are learning a lot. The big cats are keystone species and that means they are indicators. The big cat population is a pretty good indication if the ecosystem as a whole is functioning proper and right. We are making sure that those cats are in good wild places so they can exist and Mother Nature can do her thing. It is important that people be aware of what is going on in their world. There are some cool, neat things out there. We hope the show gets people excited about what is out there. We are trying to get people to be inspired. For conservation, we need to set land aside, do research and we need people to get involved so we can make sure that these animals continue to exist.
What made you personally decide to go down to Belize and track jaguars when you had been successfully working with cougars in the U.S.?
I think one of the reasons they chose me is because I had a lot of experience capturing cats. Jaguars, like with anything, there are a variety of methods of doing things. I have a lot of experience at things that transfer across. I think mostly the ability to be able to go into a new place, successfully capture something and get a collar on it. For some reason, I have been fortunate enough to have the knack to be able to find cats.
Shows like this are always hard to watch because one of the gorgeous animals always dies. In this case, it was the jaguar – Carlos — that was killed by a poacher just to get his teeth to sell overseas to someone who thinks it will improve his virility, or some such thing. I know it is against the law in Belize to kill a jaguar, but what is being done to enforce that to prevent more jaguars from being killed unnecessarily?
When you go to other countries and you get out in the jungle, you get away from the norms of our society. Obviously, [Carlos' death] is not something that we wanted to have happen while we were there. A good thing that comes out of that is it is a reality. Whether we go to Central America, South America, Africa or Asia, these cats get poached from time to time. In some places, it is the No. 1 problem that they face. One of the things that we hope is because the film is going to go down to Belize and the people there are going to see it, too, it will give them some education about what is going on and make them really proud of what they have there in their homeland with the jaguars. We are hoping there is an educational component that comes out of that, so that they are aware that there is a black market and they should stand up against that and say, “We won’t be involved in that.” If there is no one to sell to, there is no market and there is no need to kill these cat because there is no value to the poachers.
Is that part of what the Big Cat Initiative is about?
I think that is the main point of the Big Cat Initiative, whether it is to “Cause an Uproar,” or for people to become aware of what is going on with the big cats of the world. A lot of the iconic species, like the African lion and tigers are in serious decline. A lot of these species are disappearing. We are in danger of not having them anymore except for maybe in a zoo and that is what we want people to be aware of. We want people to step up and say, “We don’t want this to happen. We want to do something.” It doesn’t mean we are going to change the world by any means, but we do have places left that are available where we can preserve these cats and they can be there for generations — for our kids and our grandkids to enjoy them.
That is what we want to make people aware of: the average Joe can step in and help make a difference in this conservation effort.
While it is great that we have the big cats in a zoo as an outreach program for people to see what they are, if we don’t have them in the wild, it is hard to make a – for lack of a better word – a tame cat, even though they still have those wild instincts, it is hard to re-wild them and put them back into an environment and have them survive. Once they have been in a zoo-type setting, we don’t have much success re-wilding them and getting them back out there. So, if we lose them in the wild areas, we are not going to be very successful at putting them back. We don’t want to be in that situation, we want to be preventative rather than reactive later on. We do have populations that do function naturally in wild places and if we can preserve them and get some buffers on their habitats and corridors then you don’t have to fight that much. The population can take care of itself.
What is the scariest encounter you have ever had with a big cat?
The one that is in the jaguar film when were out setting up the snare after dark. Jaguars were a new cat to me. I had read a lot about them. I had actually handled a few of them before that in some clinics where I was learning how to use drugs and things like that with a vet in cooperation with some zoos. But to be out there in the jungle where it is dark and we were a little later setting snares then we wanted and all of a sudden there is this growl and [my reaction] was this primal instinct. It was like a lightning bolt right through to your toes. The cat wasn’t really threatened. He wasn’t coming to get us or anything like that but your imagination wanders in the dark. For a couple of moments it was really tense there. Other than that, I have been pretty lucky. I have come away with some bumps and bruises, but chalked it up to good luck. We try to be really careful about what we do and use common sense. We have our safety in mind and the animal’s safety.
Have environmentalists figured out how it will impact the world if we lose our cats?
We can actually see some examples of that in places. If we go back and look at historic ranges whether it is African lions or tigers or cougars, and you get into eco systems that no longer have a predator and they used to function with one, we see things where the prey species become overpopulated and because of high population numbers, it is more apt to cause types of erosion and overgrazing. We see the side effects that come down: If an animal overgrazes a hillside and the dirt runs off it into the stream then that could affect the fish and then the bugs come. So there is this chain of events that come down. That is why it is so important to have big cats out there. They kind of balance it out. It gets really tricky for humans to manage that on their own.