The saga of a jaguar allegedly terrorising a Trinidad village is a masterclass in misinformation

Screenshot of animation by Pothounds courtesy Christopher Guinness, used with permission.

A jaguar that is allegedly venturing out of the wild and attacking people's pets and livestock in Palo Seco, a town in southern Trinidad, is causing havoc — at least on social media. Based on “a viral video about a dog being wounded by the deadly animal,” the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday published the story on June 5. The sources the newspaper cited appeared to rely on conjecture and rumour.

Jaguars are the national animal of Guyana, a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nation on the northern South American mainland and are not considered part of the endemic fauna of Trinidad and Tobago. However, for years they have been smuggled into the country as part of the black market trade in exotic animals, where large sums of money are paid for birds, monkeys and other species.

On May 31, authorities seized at least 33 exotic birds, three caimans and a young jaguar from an abandoned campsite in Diego Martin, in the northwest of the island. All the animals were caged. Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Kazim Hosein, commenting on the discovery, issued a “stern warning that the illegal wildlife trade will not be tolerated”:

We have taken steps to strengthen the Game Warden Unit to protect our wildlife. Our agencies will continue working with other law enforcement arms to ensure that the illegal wildlife trade ends. However, as alluring as the exotic animals might be, I implore citizens to be cautious. These animals might bring diseases and viral infections into the shores, which may have disastrous environmental effects.

As Newsday continued to run the story, social media channels were abuzz with talk of another alleged jaguar sighting in south Trinidad, which the ministry was careful to say it could not confirm. Officials pleaded with the public to refrain from peddling rumours and sharing unsubstantiated reports, which it said “will fuel panic.” Both Minister Hosein and Conservator of Forests Denny Dipchansingh said that the juvenile jaguar that had been found on the campsite was being quarantined at the Emperor Valley Zoo in the capital, Port of Spain.

Journalist Laura Dowrich tweeted:

By June 6, a resident of Palo Seco, Ramesh Ramroop, claimed he had not only spotted a jaguar but had also been attacked by it. The Facebook group Hunters Search and Rescue Team, which says it is based in Guyana, posted images and a “report” of the scratches Ramroop ostensibly sustained, but the update was so poorly worded and the photos of the injuries lacking such credibility that many netizens scoffed at the story. One Facebook user even quipped that Ramroop's “scrapes” more closely resembled “a cougar attack from Double Palm.” Double Palm Inn is a popular short-stay hotel chain in Trinidad.

One Facebook page added:

Meme background via Canva Pro.

Local businesses soon got into the action, with one brand of rum claiming it had “more bite than a jaguar,” and a home décor store owner promoting a sale by pulling out a bolt of animal print fabric and joking that the jaguar was hiding at his establishment.

Facebook user Christa Collymore, amused at the whole fiasco, simply surmised:

Trinidad is D GREATEST place on earth!!!

Dowrich, meanwhile, who just couldn't get over the story, tweeted:

Lovell Francis wryly offered a solution to the online misinformation:

Trinidad and Tobago needs a Commissioner of Bacchanal to limit this thing to one a week because out here we cyah keep up …

As the social media frenzy heightened, users soon began circulating footage of the sedated jaguar that was rescued and sent to the zoo, wrongfully claiming it was the same one allegedly roaming the forests of Palo Seco.

Meanwhile, authorities kept reiterating that any reports of a jaguar attack remain unconfirmed, with another daily, the Trinidad and Tobago Express, wondering whether the “Big Cat” is Trinidad's version of ‘Bigfoot.”

Vallence Rambharat, leader of the local Hunters Search and Rescue Team — not the same group that shared the questionable “Jaguar Strike Human” post — has beseeched hunters to ignore calls to comb the area's forests in search of the animal, emphasising that hunting season is currently closed and hunters should be guided by the nation’s laws and advisories:

Bona fide hunters know they must have a permit to enter the forests and that permits are not issued during the closed season…Our team was included in yesterday’s data collection exercise by the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries. This exercise was professionally planned. The exercise yesterday was not to search for a jaguar but rather a data collection exercise.

The country's Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture has, however, found large paw prints in a forested area and is coordinating with Zoological Society experts to assist with their classification. Trinidad is home to the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), a much smaller, spotted wildcat that resembles the jaguar.

Some brushed off the story as flimsy and implausible, with one Instagram page, Pothounds (a local term for strays and mongrels), posting animation that suggested even dogs, which the jaguar allegedly attacked first, simply couldn't be bothered.

Whether Trinidad's jaguar is real or a figment of the imagination, the creature now has its own Facebook page, where it has done everything from suggesting the area be renamed in its honour, to quarrelling with the neighbourhood doubles vendor for putting too much pepper in its meal.

As at the time of publishing, there had been no capture of the alleged animal.

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