the pan­tanal

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.

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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.

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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

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