Although the Pantanal wetland is home to an array of exotic wildlife, it is the elegant jaguar that many come to see. Dale r Morris takes to the river in search of the big cat.
On the trail of the elusive jaguar in Brazil’s wildlife-rich wetlands.
Upon hearing that a jaguar had been sighted upriver, Capello, the pilot of our little speedboat, put us into such a G-force-inducing U-turn that the elderly lady next to me nearly lost her dentures. Coffee was spilt, breakfast bars went flying into the air and my hat got left behind to sink or else become a fashion accessory for one of the numerous caiman alligators populating these fascinating waterways.
“We better move,” shouted Capello over the roar of our 100-horsepower outboard. “We need to get there first.”
And move we did. Our boat reared up like a stallion, Capello whooped like a mad man, and we all held on for dear life.
The elusive jaguar Brazil’s Pantanal is a seasonally flooded inland delta system of some 150,000 square kilometres, and, as such, is the largest tropical wetland in the world. It’s also a World Heritage Site due to its amazing animal and plant life, and is famous for being the only place on earth where an encounter with a jaguar is probable rather than possible. But sometimes it gets crowded. It took about 20 minutes of hairpin bends and turboboost straigts to reach the location where the jaguar had been spotted; but by the time we got there, about 30 other similarly sized tourist boats were already waiting and in position.
Camera lenses, fingers, iPads and mobile phones were all pointed at one particular spot in the undergrowth on the river’s edge, but without a
battering ram, our little boat couldn’t get through the log-jam of vessels.
eventually, engine fumes and the clatter of hulls must have disturbed the animal, for, one by one, the boats departed, leaving us alone with nothing to see.
“Sorry,” lamented Capello. “We’ll get there first next time. I promise!”
I had already been in the Pantanal for eight days, staying at several of the many tourism lodges that one finds along the edges of the Transpantaneira (the only road in the region) but I had not yet seen my cat. Along this bumpy and frequently flooded road, I had seen all manner of other wildlife from the comfort of my car, including giant anteaters, armadillos and tapirs (an animal that looks like a cross between a pig, a donkey and a hippo).
I had also seen uncountable alligators, giant river otters, wading birds and even the coiled-up bulk of a giant anaconda snake, along with hyacinth macaws, monkeys, toucans and coatis (a sort of long-nosed raccoon).
But as for a jaguar? not a whisker had I seen!
And it was approaching the end of my holiday…
life on the river “You will have to drive to the end of the Transpantaneira,” a Brazilian cattle rancher had told me one evening as I drowned my sorrows at the lodge bar with caipirinhas.
He had lifted the brim of his very wide hat, rubbed his moustache thoughtfully and then said to me, “Go to the little piranha fishing village of Porto jofre and then from there, catch a boat deep into the places where no roads can go. It is there that you will find your jaguar.”
And so I took his sage advice, and booked myself onto the luxurious Jacaré houseboat out of Porto jofre. “jaguar Sightings Guaranteed” – or so its leaflet informed me.
The boat itself was very nice indeed, especially when compared to the other semi-dilapidated wrecks I had witnessed floating about near jofre’s little harbour. Upstairs, a chef prepared healthy meals (mostly of fish) from the galley, and a barman whipped up fresh caipirinhas on
tap, while down below, there were airconditioned cabins to keep the humidity and mosquitoes at bay.
We had cruised up and down on this houseboat for several days, anchoring off at various bends in the Cuiaba river, and we had taken little speedboats to explore the various oxbow lakes and snaking channels that dominate this watery world. Alas, no jaguar. But then, as these things tend to do, it all came right on the last evening after the captain announced that a cat had just been seen close to the Jacaré’s position. So, once again, off we sped in Capello’s little speedboat at the velocity of a jet fighter, fingers crossed and cameras at the ready.
Disappointingly upon our arrival at the scene, despite our breakneck hastiness, our little boat was still just part of an excitable crowd of other vessels.
“But I know this cat’s habits,” whispered Capello when I voiced frustration at the lack of any clear views. “just wait. You’ll see.”
So there we waited as, one by one, the other tourist boats peeled away and went home to their floating hotels or riverside lodges.
And that’s when the beautiful cat revealed herself.
Humans on the menu?
We watched for almost an hour as she stalked the river banks and pounced at unsuspecting alligators, and we drifted quietly alongside her, holding our breath each time she spotted potential prey.
She missed them all; the caimans, the herons and the giant guinea pig-like capybaras, but then she looked at us with a cold and contemplative stare that sent shivers down my spine.
“She’s getting hungry,” said Capello, “They have been known to eat people…”
eventually the light faded to such a degree that we could no longer see her, but she could definitely see us. We left before she added us to her menu.
“I promised I’d get you a good sighting,” said Capello with a smile on his face and a caipirinha in his hand. And indeed he had. I left the Pantanal, satisfied that I had had a wonderful wildlife-focused vacation topped off by a beautiful encounter with one of the world’s most elusive and magnificent big cats.
01 Brazil’s elusive big cat beauty 02 Cameras at the ready 03 Armour-plated armadillo 04 Although fearsome in appearance, the caiman is quite harmless
Guinea pig-like capybaras are the world’s largest rodent 06 The aracari: a variant on the toucan theme 07 The enormous wetland from the air
The hyacinth macaw is the largest parrot on earth