Face to face with Brazil’s most fear­some fe­line

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

Jack McCabe

re­counts a mag­nif­i­cent en­counter with a mighty jaguar in South Amer­ica’s wilds

There’s a crackle on the ra­dio, and with no hes­i­ta­tion our speed­boat driver João throt­tles the 115-horse­power outboard mo­tor into top gear. Dozens of lurk­ing Yacare caiman duck out of the way of our bow as we rocket around the beau­ti­ful beached bends of the Três Ir­mãos river in the Brazil­ian Pan­tanal’s En­con­tro das Águas State Park. My pulse quick­ens. Could this be our chance?

João finds another gear, and the Por­tuguese man be­hind me nearly loses his hat as he read­ies his cam­era’s long zoom like a bazooka, an­tic­i­pat­ing what might be around the next curve. We pass the spot we’d seen a gi­ant river ot­ter on the beach ear­lier and whizz by mas­sive jabiru storks and tiger herons, but now we have a more regal goal: the ul­ti­mate preda­tor of the Amer­i­cas, the largest cat in the Western Hemi­sphere, spot­ted like the leop­ard and larger than the puma: the jaguar.

Jaguars are the third largest of the world’s big cats. Our ex­cite­ment at the prospect of see­ing one is cou­pled with fear; th­ese colos­sal car­ni­vores are ex­pert killers, able to climb trees and leap into rivers on to their prey, which they take by pierc­ing the skull

with their large ca­nine teeth and pow­er­ful bite.

We round another bend and fi­nally come face to face with the fe­line that has drawn us to this re­mote maze of rivers and swamps at the cen­tre of South Amer­ica. For all the flights flown, criss­cross­ing Brazil to con­nect to the far-flung city of Cuiabá, for all the miles driven, bump­ing into the back of sa­fari trucks over rick­ety bridges and down the dusty Transpan­taneira “high­way” to its end, and for all the hours spent speed­ing down rivers, it does not dis­ap­point.

The jaguar is mag­nif­i­cent. It basks in the rays of the set­ting trop­i­cal sun on a patch of sandy earth be­tween the tall grass and the steep drop-off of the river­bank as if pos­ing on a pedestal, in­dif­fer­ent to our pres­ence. The sound of a capy­bara bark­ing gets its at­ten­tion, and it rises from a slum­ber­ous slouch and prowls along the edge of the pre­cip­i­tous bank, sure­footed and grace­ful, shoul­der bones un­du­lat­ing.

It stops to lick a paw and the capy­bara be­comes aware of the pres­ence. The mam­moth ro­dent lets out a few pan­icked barks be­fore belly-flop­ping into the river and pad­dling for its life to­wards the other side. The scene is at once in­cred­i­bly wild and oddly fa­mil­iar; it is the hemi­sphere’s largest fe­line ver­sus the planet’s largest ro­dent – the world’s largest game of cat and mouse is play­ing out be­fore our eyes. It’s Tom and Jerry on steroids in a Brazil­ian swampland, and this time clever “Jerry” es­capes again, or more likely our “Tom” is just not hun­gry enough to pur­sue, and sulks into the tall grass and out of sight.

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