Face to face with Brazil’s most fearsome feline
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.