You know those nature shows where, say, a jaguar swims across a river and pounces on an eight-foot-long caiman, crushing its skull with massive jaws?
Paul Donahue does, and he’s got pictures to prove it. Paul, a resident of Pacifica, now spends part of the year in Brazil’s Pantanal as an eco tour guide and jaguar researcher. His recent photos from just such a dramatic event have been featured on the National Geographic website.
I recently interviewed Paul on Wavelength and he described the hunt, which took place last August 25: “We’d been to this spot the week before, and we watched the same jaguar stalk the same caiman—and he failed miserably!”
But this time the jaguar, nicknamed “Mick Jaguar” by the person who first photographed him, got what he was after, and so did Paul, who snapped up a series of dramatic photographs (see one above). “These jaguars are the biggest in the world…the reason they have such a strong bite is this is their main prey item. If you’ve ever looked at a crocodilian up close, they have this heavy plating on the back of their neck, and these jaguars have to be able to pierce that.”
So how did a boy from Massachusetts find himself working with jaguars in the Pantanal? Paul says, “I had a babysitter who got me interested in nature at an early age. By junior high school, I was looking at birds very seriously, and a few years later I started working in South America…I’ve been working with the jaguars since 2007. Before that, I was focused mainly on birds. Now I’ve decided that jaguars are a lot more interesting!”
That is not to say that he neglects the feathered species. In fact, since 1975 Paul has traveled to Maine every fall to participate in a “hawk watch.” He says, “It’s a way to monitor raptors, because when they breed, they’re scattered all over the place…so when they funnel through these migration pathways, it’s an opportunity to count them.”
This has given him plenty of chances to snap some amazing photos, although his target can move pretty fast (see peregine falcon in flight, above). “The only reason we have success is they keep coming,” he explained. “So if you don’t get it the first time, you’ll get it the next one or the one after that.”
Unfortunately, this has given him a firsthand view of nature’s decline. Paul says, “When we started doing it, in a good year we’d see about 5,000 hawks, and now if we get to 2,000 we’re doing well.”
But it’s not only the decline of East Coast raptors that worries Paul. Many of the shorebirds common to Pacifica, especially the little snowy plover, are particularly threatened. “They have the unfortunate habit of liking the same kind of sandy beaches that people like. If they picked a different habitat like a rocky shore or some different upland area they’d be doing fine,” Paul says. “Like so many things in nature, plovers are in a downward spiral.”
This year is shaping up to be a very big year for the plovers. Every year the Pacifica Beach Coalition celebrates a special animal as a part of its Earth Day celebration, and this year it features the plover, with Paul helping to spread the word.
In addition, the City of Pacifica has approved special protections for plovers, including symbolic fencing and signage to educate visitors about the threatened birds they share the beach with.
But it may not be enough. “I don’t see how a bird that lives within a few feet of the sea can survive sea level rise over the next 50 to 100 years,” Paul explains. Undaunted, he continues the important work of photographing plovers and teaching the public about these fragile creatures (below).
The work of saving threatened species can be frustrating, but sometimes there are opportunities to make a real impact. For instance, a few years ago Paul helped to save Luna, the ancient redwood tree made famous by Julia Butterfly Hill. Paul had visited Julia six months into her record-breaking tree-sit. A year after her tree-sit ended, an angry logger cut Luna two-thirds of the way through, leaving the tree in danger of toppling.
Paul knew what to do. “I had built canopy walkways in South America and we had experience stabilizing large trees,” he says. “We designed a system of cables. We had a collar at 110 feet, and then ran four cables running out to the hillside.” Those cables have now kept Luna standing for more than a decade.
“No tree like this had ever been cut to that point without falling down, so biologists had no idea what was going to happen,” Paul says, excited that the tree has actually flourished. “There is still new growth coming out every year…the cables are so substantial that it would take one hell of a storm to knock it over!”
But such successes are rare. And unfortunately, the more Paul knows about nature, the more he sees how threatened it is by our impact. He says, “Global warming is probably the biggest problem we’ve caused for ourselves and everybody else that shares the planet with us, and we need to address that first and foremost, whether it’s the jaguars or the hawks, it comes back to that problem more than any other.”
Paul Donahue will keep coming back from the wilds of Brazil, Maine, and, yes, Linda Mar Beach, with photographs that help remind us just how beautiful and fragile nature really is.
See Paul’s interview in its entirety on PCT, or streamed at Wavelength
(A slightly different version of this story originally appeared in the Pacifica Tribune.)