TRACK­ING JAGUARS IN THE BRAZIL­IAN PAN­TANAL

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY PAUL GAINS

The largest trop­i­cal wet­land in the world is par­adise for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers

Astring of Por­tuguese words were sud­denly au­di­ble through the crack­ling ra­dio and Fabri­cio Do­rileo deftly spun the steer­ing wheel, turn­ing the boat a full 180 de­grees.

“Jaguar,” he an­nounced for my ben­e­fit as we changed gears.

The wind felt cold as we raced up the Cuiabá River and I hung onto my base­ball cap for fear of los­ing it. The sun had barely risen. There would be no clouds to pro­tect us from its assault as the mid­day tem­per­a­ture was des­tined to reach 35 C.

This was Au­gust, the dry sea­son, when the Brazil­ian Pan­tanal is ex­posed. At roughly 200,000 square kilo­me­tres, it is the largest trop­i­cal wet­land in the world and home to in­cred­i­ble birds and an­i­mals, in­clud­ing caiman croc­o­diles, mon­keys, hy­acinth macaws and capy­baras, the world’s largest ro­dents.

But, as at­trac­tive as that might seem, I wasn’t pay­ing Do­rileo $2,000 US to take me up and down the wa­ter­ways look­ing for these species. I was after the Pan­tanal’s star at­trac­tion — Pan­thera onca — the jaguar.

No prom­ises had been made. But the north­ern Pan­tanal is as good a place as any in South Amer­ica to see jaguars. I had flown two hours north­west of Rio de Janeiro to Cuiabá and then en­dured a bumpy, five-hour car ride to Porto Jofre, dur­ing which I spot­ted many birds and an­i­mals. My cus­tom­ized tour also cov­ered four nights’ ac­com­mo­da­tion, meals and a pri­vate boat. Now, with luck, I would be re­warded with a photo of my first big cat in the wild.

We turned up a fork in the river and en­tered what Do­rileo called “Três Ir­mãos,” or the Three Broth­ers River. An­other five min­utes passed and we en­tered a nar­row trib­u­tary and he dropped down to a lower gear. Al­ready there were four or five sim­i­lar boats in po­si­tion. The lo­cal guides un­der­stand a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence will help grow eco-tourism in the re­gion and so they co-op­er­ate with one an­other. Ra­dios are vi­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“There. Do you see the jaguar?” Do­rileo asked, point­ing.

Its head and long back were vis­i­ble above the wa­ter as it slowly waded along the shore­line. Glis­ten­ing wet in the hot sun, it emerged onto a patch of white sand, re­veal­ing its mas­sive body to on­look­ers. Only li­ons and tigers are big­ger than these cats, but this adult male was as big as any lion I have seen in cap­tiv­ity, maybe 250 kilo­grams, with short, pow­er­ful legs. The rosettes on its stocky trunk con­tained spots — a unique char­ac­ter­is­tic of the jaguar.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, he sniffed the air. He was on the trail of some­thing, capy­bara or caiman, most likely. Leap­ing into the thick brush along the top of the em­bank­ment, he would briefly disappear but, as branches snapped and bushes shud­dered, we could trace his move­ment.

By now, the five boats had be­come 10. Some car­ried one or two pho­tog­ra­phers with pow­er­ful and very ex­pen­sive tele­photo lenses. Oth­ers had as many as five pas­sen­gers with com­pact cam­eras. The tourists came from places such as Italy, Hol­land and

the United States. Two boats car­ried a pair of Na­tional Geo­graphic pho­tog­ra­phers and a Bri­tish team film­ing a Net­flix doc­u­men­tary.

As the boats idled, the smell of gaso­line fumes was ap­par­ent. Even eco-tourism car­ries a price. The pro­ces­sion fol­lowed the jaguar along its path for hours as the hum of en­gines and click­ing of cam­eras com­peted with the warning calls of ex­otic birds high up in the trees. Caimans ner­vously slipped into the wa­ter as they spot­ted their fear­some ad­ver­sary ap­proach­ing.

For a mo­ment, I felt like we were in­trud­ers, wildlife pa­parazzi, but these jaguars are quite used to see­ing the boats and are not dis­tracted from their task. In­deed, he took no no­tice of us at all.

We rounded a turn and the river nar­rowed again. As the jaguar walked along the sandy shore, our boat was near­est. Only about 15 me­tres sep­a­rated us from this enor­mously dangerous preda­tor. One bite can crush the skull of a caiman and so I felt par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble. Do­rileo smiled and ut­tered words meant to set­tle me, “Don’t worry, I know this jaguar. He’s laid back.” Nev­er­the­less, Do­rileo kindly re­versed the boat, gen­tly col­lid­ing with other boats that were all pressed tightly to­gether.

The shot every­one craves is one of a jaguar at­tack­ing a caiman. Steve Win­ter and Ber­tie Gre­gory of Na­tional Geo­graphic had been here six weeks and were still wait­ing. Half an hour passed then the jaguar sud­denly started run­ning to­ward a marsh and all but dis­ap­peared in the bush. Only his tail was vis­i­ble. It pointed straight up in the air and Do­rileo won­dered if he had a caiman in its jaws.

No­body spoke. Every­body waited for it to reap­pear. But then his tail van­ished too. The tem­per­a­ture had risen and so all the boats re­treated to the com­fort of shade on the other side of the river. Peo­ple fre­quented the “bush toi­let.” Dur­ing this lull in ac­tion, I no­ticed Win­ter had pulled out a tablet and was now ly­ing down in his boat read­ing. The guides handed out bot­tled wa­ter and talked amongst them­selves. They know the ter­ri­to­ries of the jaguars. They even have names for in­di­vid­ual cats.

Do­rileo grew up on this river and has op­er­ated Pan­tanal Sa­faris for 12 years from his home in Po­coné, three hours up a dirt road that is gen­er­ously called the Trans-

pan­taneira High­way. Like his col­leagues, he spends July to De­cem­ber here earn­ing enough money to sup­port his wife and young daugh­ter through­out the year.

Nearly all the land in the Pan­tanal is pri­vate farm­land and, for a cen­tury, jaguars have been killed to pro­tect the cat­tle. They are now clas­si­fied as a “near threat­ened” species. Do­rileo says when he was a young boy he joined his un­cles in the hunt, but they have since be­come con­ser­va­tion­ists out of re­spect for the an­i­mals and their home. They also know they are on to a good thing.

An hour passed be­fore the ra­dios came alive and we set off again, bounc­ing in the wake cre­ated by the boats ahead. As we rounded an­other bend at top speed, we passed tiger herons, white herons and gi­ant storks known as jabirus, as well as the ubiq­ui­tous caimans. We were not sur­prised to see the flotilla had al­ready as­sem­bled up ahead.

Do­rileo smiled and nod­ded and there, to my amaze­ment, I saw, through a clear­ing in the for­est, a pair of very young jaguar cubs be­ing groomed by their mother. Her tongue bathed the one near­est as they sat look­ing out from be­neath trees.

“It is very rare to see the jaguar cubs,” Do­rileo told me. “The moth­ers hide the cubs from adult male jaguars. Most of the time, we start see­ing the cubs when they are more than four to six months old.”

Hav­ing quite un­in­ten­tion­ally given us a glimpse of her fam­ily, the mother led the young ones out of sight. Every­one re­laxed and there were smiles all around. Win­ter stood up in his boat to stretch.

“Talk about be­gin­ner’s luck,” I said to him. “This is my first day in the Pan­tanal and I see cubs.”

“Ev­ery day is be­gin­ner’s luck here,” he re­sponded with a smile.

For about 25 years, Win­ter has been shoot­ing big cats for Na­tional Geo­graphic and has earned sev­eral ma­jor in­ter­na­tional awards for his wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy. On his first visit to the Pan­tanal, he said, it was Do­rileo’s un­cle who served as his guide.

There would be no more sight­ings that evening so, after 12 hours on the river, we de­parted for our re­spec­tive ac­com­mo­da­tions. My lodg­ing was in Porto Jofre, about 100 kilo­me­tres from the Bo­li­vian bor­der, and of­fered hot show­ers and air con­di­tion­ing.

A pair of hy­acinth macaws, a threat­ened species, has taken up res­i­dence here and watched me from trees over­head as I walked to the din­ing room. Over a buf­fet din­ner, I hatched a plan to meet Do­rileo at the boat at 6:30 a.m. Ac­cord­ingly, it was lights out at 9 p.m.

The next morn­ing, an ana­conda hung from a tree as we made our way back to Three Broth­ers River. A cou­ple of boats had stopped, but we would not be dis­tracted. As we mo­tored along, we spot­ted a jaguar swim­ming across the river ahead of us. With their huge paws, they are ex­cel­lent swim­mers. The boats slowed. We watched the jaguar reach the shore then disappear into the jun­gle.

Fur­ther along, I spot­ted a river ot­ter eat­ing a fish and we headed in its di­rec­tion. As for­tune would have it, a sec­ond ot­ter sur­faced nearby. These an­i­mals or­di­nar­ily look so timid, but they ev­i­dently don’t en­joy shar­ing their food, even with neigh­bours. There fol­lowed a fright­en­ing en­counter as they bared their teeth and snarled, threat­en­ing each other.

Across from where we had seen the large male jaguar the pre­vi­ous day, a cub lay in the shade on the side of a hill. The boats lined the river off­shore wait­ing for ac­tion.

Even­tu­ally, some­one spot­ted move­ment and the cam­eras fired into ac­tion. The mother wan­dered down the hill to­ward the river and the cub fol­lowed. Side by side they crouched, lap­ping up wa­ter. The cub sat down and looked at us for five min­utes be­fore de­cid­ing the shade was prefer­able and it re­turned to its orig­i­nal spot.

Over the next two days, we would see jaguars in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. I don’t re­mem­ber how many be­cause Do­rileo and an­other guide had dis­cour­aged me from count­ing. Rather, they val­ued the op­por­tu­nity to spend a day with a jaguar in its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, to watch and ad­mire these crea­tures and to gather an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the Pan­tanal.

Wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers from all over the world wait for an­other peek at a pair of jaguar cubs.

ABOVE RIGHT: Hy­acinth macaws, a threat­ened species, along the Cuiabá River in the Brazil­ian Pan­tanal. MID­DLE: A ca­puchin mon­key watches a tourist with cu­rios­ity. BOT­TOM: A pair of river ot­ters, also a threat­ened species, ar­gue over a fish one has caught.

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