Theodore Roosevelt discovers something in the Panamanian jungle.
The jaguar on the hill:
Theodore Roosevelt cursed under his breath. The jaguar crouched a fraction of a second before the trigger came to rest. With blinding speed, the big cat disappeared into the bush before the limb broken by the path of the slug hit the ground.
Roosevelt and Rodrigo Vachon walked up the slope until they reached the clearing where the jaguar had been spotted. There was no blood among the fresh tracks leading up the side of the hill.
In the distance, coming from higher up, they heard a throaty growl. Roosevelt had the rifle with the telescopic sight in his hands now. He scanned the dense tree line, waiting for the jaguar to show itself.
It didn’t happen. Another sound came on: a deep bellowing roar building into a screeching howl. Leaves shook as thousands of birds took flight.
The howling died down.
It took a full hour for Roosevelt and Vachon to get to the spot where they figured the sound came from. The guide climbed a tree every ten minutes to get a visual bearing while Roosevelt adjusted the compass heading to accept the change.
A strong odor, more than the musty smell of decaying vegetation, gradually increased with every step. Soon, the stench filled Roosevelt’s nostrils and left a weird taste in the back of his throat. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was. Like an open sewer stuffed with garbage. Roosevelt tied his handkerchief around his nose and mouth and was grateful for having a pair of glasses covering his eyes.
The hunting party followed their noses the rest of the way.
The killing ground:
Up ahead lay a clear forest floor. Stone steps rose from the leveled ground to terminate in a square platform. Roosevelt, a student of archaeology, recognized Mayan architecture. He couldn’t understand why no moss or vines blanketed the structure.
Vachon, standing on the top of the platform, called out. The guide pointed to a fragmented pile.
Roosevelt looked closer. It took a few moments for the true meaning to sink in. The only way he knew for sure is when he saw the skull of a jaguar. Roosevelt turned it over. A hole, about two inches in diameter, had been bored into the top. The skull had the bleached look of fossilized remains but it glistened in the light and was wet to the touch.
Roosevelt’s analytical mind got to work answering questions he asked himself: Could this be the jaguar they trailed? The big cat’s roar; an unknown creature’s howl, and the strange odor led to the site. If so, how did the carcass get cleaned so fast? Only a pack of fierce predators could’ve stripped the jaguar down to the bone. What kind of animal could have done this? A hundred million ants would need a week to do the job.
A full resolution to the queries remained out of reach.
Roosevelt recorded every detail — the initial encounter with the jaguar, weird howls, strange smells, and the grisly scene atop the ruins — in his journal. He took measurements and fitted the figures into the margins of accurate sketches.
The whole time Vachon watched the sun sinking lower in the clearing in the tree canopy. He was getting nervous. The veteran guide wanted to be out of there long before dark.
Roosevelt sensed this. It was a good idea but he wanted to make one final inspection of the scene before leaving.
On the last look around, a single strand of fur was discovered. Roosevelt placed it a glass vial and sealed it.
The shaman speaks:
Roosevelt and Vachon trekked through the deep forest then paddled down the Cricamola River to Chiriquí Lagoon. From here Roosevelt planned to book passage at the port of Punta Robalo
On the day before the ship was scheduled to depart, Vachon asked Roosevelt, “Would you like to visit one of the local tribes? Perhaps they may be able to shed some light on this.”
Roosevelt jumped at the chance to speak with the Ngäbe, an indigenous people living in the region long before Columbus landed in Panama in 1502.
The meeting was held at an outdoor cafe. Roosevelt and Vachon found a table in a secluded corner and waited for their guest to arrive.
Roosevelt went over his notes and drawings twice. He looked at the strand in the vial, longing for a glass slide and a microscope.
The man they waited for showed up.
Vachon mentioned the man was a shaman. Dressed in white trousers and long sleeves, the man looked more like the typical merchant in the square or tradesman on the docks.
Vachon introduced the man as Emilio Marazano. Roosevelt felt a firm, calloused grip when he shook hands. Marazano rolled up his sleeves and revealed a myriad of tattoos intertwining and spiraling from the wrist up.
Vachon and Marazano exchanged some words in the native tongue. When they finished, Vachon turned to Roosevelt and translated: “The jaguars you see on my arms are drawn with the juice of the huito fruit and are changed every day.”
Roosevelt hadn’t asked the man about this. He got the feeling Marazano knew what he was thinking.
“Show him your things,” Vachon prompted Roosevelt.
“Of course.” Roosevelt laid the notebook, sketchpad, and glass vial on the table.
Marazano looked at the drawings and peered at the glass vial under a powerful magnifying glass, all the time listening to Vachon’s explanation. The shaman spoke in the native language then got up and left.
“Well … what did he say, Rodrigo?”
“The shaman says you came upon a cluster of chookabarro.”
“It is believed the chookabarro descended from giant monkeys and iguanas when the earth was young.”
“The old man is crazy.”
“Do you want to hear the rest of what he said?”
“Yes … go on.”
Vachon answered Roosevelt’s earlier inner questions and more: “The chookabarro hunt in groups. They have mastered the use of crude stone tools and they can hurl rock projectiles far and fast and with deadly accuracy.
“Once a large animal is brought down in a shower of sharpened stones, the hides are stripped with smaller stones.
“The pack leaves nothing behind except a pile of broken bones that have been sucked clean of marrow.
“Special stones are used to drill holes in the skull from which the brains are sucked out.”
That was it? Apart from specialized hunting techniques and the savage use of crude tools Roosevelt had no insight into the origin of the chookabarro.
One thing stood out in Roosevelt’s mind: the creatures were dangerous. He felt so strongly about the potential threat when he became president he began construction on the Panama Canal to prevent the chookabarro from migrating into North America.