THERE are at least three pertinent facts to consider before flying across the world in search of jaguars. First, their preferred habitat is impenetrable rainforest. Second, they tend to sleep all day and hunt at night. Third, each animal likes to have about 70km of personal space.
These simple ethological realities mean that even in areas such as Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, where jaguars are most abundant, they are never exactly thronging the riverbanks. Our host, Andre von Thuronyi, casually confirms as much when he reveals he didn’t spot his first jaguar until seven years after arriving in Brazil’s central west. I have one day and a bit to achieve the same goal.
Still, it is the tantalising promise of witnessing an American panther in the wild that has lured me to the Pantanal, a 200,000sq km floodplain in the centre of South America, roughly halfway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Bolivia lies just over the border to the southwest. The gateway to the northern Pantanal is Cuiaba, capital of Mato Grosso state, where the sun- baked soil is the colour of new copper. Von Thuronyi bundles us on to a minibus for the three-hour transfer to his 2700ha ranch and the Araras Eco Lodge, where for the past three decades he has championed ecotourism as an alternative to ranching and overdevelopment in this World Heritage-listed wonder.
He breeds Pantaneiro horses, a distinct subspecies with hardy, water-resistant hooves and powerful upper bodies from swimming through swamps. He has been a major force in the preservation of the magnificent hyacinth macaw ( in Portuguese), a gorgeous creature with a royal-blue livery that makes it a favourite target of smugglers. The jaguar is the latest focus of von Thuronyi’s energies. Hence this inaugural itinerary combining two nights at Araras with a voyage along the Paraguay River in search of Panthera onca, the king of the Brazilian jungle.
Once we pass the pastel-coloured town of Pocone, the landscape dissolves into mirrored wetlands. Around dusk we pull to the side of the road to peer into the sunken swamps and, like a Magic Eye image, the scene gradually yields its surprises. Those glossy, steel-blue stones are caimans, endemic alligators that gorge on the teeming fish life. Those tan rocks are capybaras, the world’s largest rodent — with truncated snouts and burly bodies, they look like deformed wombats. It feels like standing in an aviary among so many exotic birds — whistling ducks, herons of all persuasions, snow egrets, flycatchers, gnatcatchers, Patagonian blue storks, emulike rheas and candy-pink roseate spoonbills. About 650 bird species come here to breed; about five million chicks are born in the Pantanal each year. This arcadian scene has been 400 million years in the making, von Thuronyi explains. Whenthe Andes went up, the Pantanal went down and an inland ocean was trapped in the heart of the continent. ‘‘In the next 50 million years, this will become Amazon rainforest,’’ he says, ‘‘if we allow it.’’
The lodge itself is basic but comfortable. Each room has a veranda and hammock, the food is hearty, the drinks are cheap, the welcome is genuine. And the memories from here have the sort of sharp focus and detail that only come with hard-won experiences. Braving carnivorous mosquitoes and tarantulas the size of a giant’s
fist feels utterly worthwhile when you’re lazing on a stone terrace beneath a sky brimming with stars and fireflies light up the night. Or watching the sunset from a lakeside bench as three 1m-long macaws feast on nuts in a neighbouring areca palm, then swoop noisily into the tree above my head, like a storybook suddenly come to life. A soaked capybara sloshes through the swamp as a kingfisher scans the quicksilver water for supper. A caiman chomps down on a freshly caught fish, the crack of its spine echoing across the shallows. A swift toucan darts through the air at about tree height. There is endless life in the Pantanal.
I wake next morning to the chaco chachalaca bird, a plain pheasant with a hideous call that sounds like a generator seizing up and dying. It carries on like this from 4.30am until sunrise, when the apocalyptic roars of the howler monkey, the loudest animal on land, shatter the peace of the plains. The alarm calls are timely, as we must be off early for the six-hour transit to jaguar country. That means three hours by road, covering the 205km to the port city of Caceres, then three hours by boat to reach our base camp on the Paraguay River. We are heading to a remote area where no tour operators have been, so there can be no guarantees. But guide Allan Franco claims the probability of seeing a jaguar is good. ‘‘I have always had sightings there and other guides have, too,’’ he tells us.
In Caceres we board a humble, rumbling vessel, Barao de Malgaco, for our floating safari. Normally a knockabout fishing charter laden with beer and what is possibly Brazil’s most extensive collection of stubby holders, the two-storey cruiser is making its first run up the Paraguay River as the newly christened Jaguar Houseboat. Von Thuronyi has enlisted a film crew, local photographers and foreign journalists to record this pioneering journey, so there’s quite a weight of expectation riding on the trip.
In the late afternoon we anchor and board Zodiacs to explore lily-fringed channels, peering into obscure vegetation where jaguars might lurk. At one point our driver, Paulo Luiz Rodriguez Mottav (Paulinho for short), runs the boat on to a sandbank and hops out to explore. He returns nonplussed. ‘‘ There’s usually always jaguars here,’’ he shrugs.
By bedtime, the only cat we have seen amateur video screened during dinner of a jaguar crouched on a sandbank, its body tight as a spring as it eyes a trio of tasty capybaras nearby. After what seems like, and quite possibly is, five minutes of excruciating suspense, one of the rodents makes a break for the river. It is game on and, very shortly thereafter, game over. Jaguars are devastating hunters.
The hellish chorus of the speckled chachalaca stirs us for our dawn departure on what is to be the Day of the Jaguar.
Our destination is the previously off-limits Taiama Island, an ecological sanctuary controlled by the government-run Chico Mendes Institute for Conservation of Biodiversity. Strict conditions attach to our permit; only three boats at a time can enter the conservation zone for maximum 20-minute observations, and visitors must keep 25m away from jaguars. No one can set foot on the island. There are said to be 98 jaguars on Taiama, but it has a 62km shoreline largely smothered in jungle so we must live in hope that a thirsty cat comes to the riverbank to drink at exactly the same time we are passing. It’s expected we will spend about 12 hours, nonstop, on the water.
In the early morning, conditions are still pleasantly cool. There are three of us on board, including Paulinho, and we are leading the convoy so it feels as if we are pioneers of the Pantanal. Zooming through the everglades, at one with nature and a 40hp motor. Beautiful.
Paulinho was raised on this river and navigates the flooded jungle labyrinths with a knowing ease. Periodically, the waterways transform into avian highways of rushing cormorants, corridors of white herons, graceful storks and towering jabirus that look like barely evolved pterodactyls.
At about 11am, Paulinho reckons the temperature is already 38C and as the scorching day drags on we become more listless and dispirited. Von Thuronyi’s boat pulls up alongside ours mid-afternoon. He is more philosophical than frustrated. ‘‘Sometimes you go three or four days before you see one [jaguar],’’ he says.
We cruise into a bay called Formoso (Beautiful) and marvel at massive waterlilies with frilled pink flowers the size of cabbages. This is normally a good place to spot giant otters, but not today. The consensus among our crew is that the water levels are still too high — late rains swamped the plains three weeks ago — so the wildlife has retreated inland to drier areas. We see a few caimans, huge and mean-looking in these parts, but hardly any capybaras. And despite our dedication to the cause, we do not witness a single jaguar. The closest we get is an old set of claw marks scored high and deep into a tree trunk where we stop for lunch, and Paulinho’s startling impersonation of a jaguar call that sounds like he’s choking on a fur ball.
By the end of that epic day it feels like the journey’s purpose has been less about jaguars than experiencing the vast Pantanal delta system, which offers some of the world’s most remarkable wildlife moments. Von Thuronyi reflects on the foiled excursion: ‘‘It’s not so much about how many animals we see but this feeling of primal nature that gives the most outstanding of the Pantanal.’’
And it is true. The experience, and the houseboat engines, leave me vibrating for days.