But the wanderer has chosen the wrong direction. In just a few miles he reaches the edge of the forest; beyond lies a coffee plantation. Pushed by instinct and necessity, he keeps moving, staying in the trees along fences and streams. Soon, though, shelter consists only of scattered patches of shrubs and a few trees, where he can find nothing to eat. He's now in a land of cattle ranches, and one night his hunger and the smell of a newborn calf overcome his reluctance to cross open areas. Creeping close before a final rush, he instantly kills the calf with one snap of his powerful jaws.
The next day the rancher finds the remains and the telltale tracks of a jaguar. He calls some of his neighbors and gathers a pack of dogs. The hunters find the young male, but they're armed only with shotguns; anxious, they shoot from too great a distance. The jaguar's massively thick skull protects him from death, but the pellets blind him in one eye and shatter his left foreleg.
Crippled now, unable to find his normal prey in the scrubby forest, let alone stalk and kill it, he's driven by hunger to easier meals. He kills another calf on an adjacent ranch, and then a dog on the outskirts of a nearby town. This time, though, he lingers too long. Attracted by the dog's howls, a group of villagers tree him and, though it takes many blasts, kill him. Jaguars, they say, are nothing but cattle killers, dog killers. They are vermin. They should be shot on sight, anytime, anywhere.
This sad story has been played out thousands of times throughout the jaguar's homeland, stretching from Mexico (and formerly the United States) to Argentina. In recent decades it's happened with even greater frequency, as ranching, farming, and development have eaten up half the big cat's prime habitat, and as humans have decimated its natural prey in many areas of remaining forest.
Alan Rabinowitz envisions a different ending to the story. He imagines that the young jaguar, when he leaves his birthplace, will pass unseen by humans through a near-continuous corridor of sheltering vegetation. Within a couple of days he'll find a small tract of forest harboring enough prey for him to stop and rest a day or two before resuming his trek. Eventually he'll reach a national park or wildlife preserve where he'll find a home, room to roam, plenty of prey, females looking for a mate.