Article Words : Mike Unwin | 07 November

Brazil's Pantanal: jaguar central

"No location in the Pantanal’s entire 150,000 sq km notches up more big cat sightings," find out where as Mike Unwin explores Brazil's wildlife wonderland

Eduardo unpicked the skull from a knot of grass. It was a caiman – or at least it used to be. Now minus a lower jaw, and most of the teeth in the upper, it had lost that trademark crocodilian grin. Between the empty eye sockets the cranium was crushed like an eggshell.

“Onça,” Eduardo murmured, glancing at the forest behind us as he fingered the shattered bone. Jaguar.

We were standing beside the Cuiabá River in the heart of Brazil’s Pantanal. We already knew this was jaguar country; that’s why we were here. But our first tangible proof brought an undeniable frisson. Only a jaguar could have done that, explained Eduardo.

The cat’s massive jaws – stronger even than a tiger’s – are uniquely adapted for that skull-splitting bite to the brain.

It was a thought to conjure with as the undergrowth rustled in the gathering dusk.

Expectations had been running high since we arrived in the Pantanal five days earlier. This vast wetland is fast gaining a reputation as the place to see jaguars. This is some boast, as the continent’s biggest predator has also traditionally been its most elusive, with sightings far too rare to trouble the average tourist. But stories tell of the big cats here parading for the camera in broad daylight.

Stories, however, can get you only so far. We hadn’t yet laid eyes on our quarry and Eduardo’s well-intentioned drip-feed of anecdotes wasn’t helping. “You see that fence,” he told us. “Just last month I saw a jaguar leap over that carrying a capybara – at three in the afternoon!” We’d got the point.

Not that we doubted him, of course.

Our trusty guide is one man who knows his jaguars. Born in the Pantanal to ranching stock, his father – like many Pantaneiros of his generation – was a jaguar hunter. It’s engrained in the culture, Eduardo explained. Jaguars kill cows. Not often, but enough to have sparked an age-old battle with ranchers across the continent. He recalled, as a child, following breathlessly after the baying dogs and rifle-toting ranchers.

Today the Pantanal is still cowboy country, with private ranchland taking up more than 90% of its area. And two days earlier we had witnessed the impressive spectacle of a cattle drive across the Claro River.

This was no small undertaking: 12 cows had died at the same crossing last year. We crouched behind a fig tree on the bank as the dusty white brahmins massed apprehensively and the cowboys spurred on their horses, corralling the herd for the final push. At a signal from an old-timer in a dugout, a shout went up and the herd thundered into the water, each protesting cow driven on by the ranks behind.

Whoops and whistles filled the air as the beasts surged forward, becoming a living pontoon of heads and horns. We gawped as one wild-eyed heifer, breaking loose, was lassoed and trussed with breathtaking speed – and marvelled at the panache of a young cowgirl, ponytail streaming from baseball cap, who pirouetted on her mount like a rodeo rider. On the far bank the waiting ranchers counted in each cow as it hauled out, exhausted, through the water hyacinth.

But Eduardo knows that these skills and traditions no longer guarantee a living. “The future of the Pantanal is not more cattle,” he stated, simply. “It’s ecotourism.”

Indeed, the family fazenda (farm) in which he grew up is now the Jaguar Ecological Reserve, one of a growing number of tourist lodges. And he typifies a new breed of highly trained, bilingual local guide, deploying all his knowledge and connections to show tourists the very best of the region’s wildlife.

Our tour had started in the town of Poconé, at the northern edge of the Pantanal, where we had picked up Eduardo’s truck and headed south onto the Transpantaneira. This remarkable highway was built in 1976 with the intention of traversing the Pantanal from north to south, but its dusty corrugations never got beyond the Cuiabá River, 148km –
and 120-odd rickety wooden bridges – later. The Pantanal is not the easiest terrain for road building.

For the wildlife enthusiast, however, this road to nowhere is an experience in itself. We had rumbled south past grassland, forest and swamp. Every flash of water was littered with birds: egrets and storks probing the shallows; snail kites and kingfishers poised on fence posts. Each bridge offered a bird’s eye view of the caiman that cruised the shallows, while capybaras – sheep-sized rodents – broke off their browsing to fix us with inscrutable stares.

We spent the night in a succession of roadside pousadas, each located by its kilometre peg. First was Araras Ecolodge at km32, where, on top of the rustic hammocks-and-veranda charm of the traditional fazenda, we found swimming pool and bar. There were even aromatherapy massages for those who, unaccountably, found Pantanal life too stressful.

But we had come for the wildlife – and Araras teemed with the stuff. There seemed little need to venture out when capybara grazed the lawns and caiman lurked in every ditch. And the birds! From the moment we were awoken by the dawn cacophony of chachalacas – the raucous, pheasant-like alarm clocks of the Pantanal – we were bombarded by feathers of every hue. Dazzling hyacinth macaws lurched over the terrace, hummingbirds zipped past our faces, an army of cardinals, cowbirds and kiskadees plundered the breakfast buffet.

Things got even better...

A 1km wooden boardwalk led us directly from the lodge, through forest and over swamp, to a viewing tower. We found howler monkeys dozing in the canopy and blue morpho butterflies flashing over the leaf litter, while the tower brought us grazing marsh deer below, wheeling raptors overhead and our first real sense of the Pantanal’s size, its wetland mosaic stretching unbroken to the horizon.

The action didn’t stop at night. Hurdling the huge rococo toads that squatted on our doorstep and ducking the mastiff bats that strafed the terrace, we hopped aboard the truck for an after-dinner drive. Our spotlight revealed crab-eating raccoons rummaging in ditches and brocket deer browsing the forest edge, while the red eyes of innumerable caiman glittered in the swamp.

More eyes further away turned out to be those of an ocelot, retreating from our spotlight as it took its mousing elsewhere. The supple feline form reminded us that we had another, much larger, cat to find. But Eduardo explained that jaguars were rarely seen in these northern reaches.

Better opportunities would come further south.

And so we had continued down the road, moving gradually into wilder terrain, with the fazendas fewer and further between. Still each dusty kilometre brought something new:
a collared hawk swooping up with a dangling snake; a troop of marmosets – squirrel-sized primates – bounding into the bushes to scold our intrusion. At the Jaguar Ecological Reserve Eduardo led us down his forest trails, where we crouched to admire the industry of leaf-cutter ants and craned into the canopy to spy dazzling trogons.

Eduardo’s place also produced our top animal so far: a giant anteater, which came ambling myopically towards us down the Transpantaneira. We just had time to clock the hoover-nozzle snout, pickaxe claws and witch’s broom of a tail, before this bizarre – and surprisingly large – animal realised its mistake and lurched off. We heard the splashing and followed the trail of waving reeds as it retreated into the swamp.

Still no jaguar, but the trail was getting warmer. The last guests here had seen a female with cubs just two days earlier. At a nearby fazenda we sipped sweet tea with Eduardo’s elderly uncle, beneath a framed photo that showed him crouching beside a fallen cat, rifle in hand – thankfully, the uncle had only sedated it for a research team. “Jaguars?” he told us, via Eduardo’s translation. “They’re everywhere.”

Finally we’d reached the end of the road and the great Cuiabá River. This, apparently, was Jaguar Central. No single location in the Pantanal’s entire 150,000-plus sq km notches up more sightings, with the cats often commuting along the highway or lazing by the river in broad daylight.

It was our last shot.

So there I was, standing beside the river holding up a battered caiman skull, like some herpetologist Hamlet, and wondering what tomorrow held. The lights of the nearby Porto Jofre Hotel – our base for the next few days – twinkled through the trees. This upmarket fishing lodge doesn’t have the same rustic charms as our earlier stops. But it’s perched conveniently on the riverbank, and the fishermen here know where the jaguars hang out.
Dawn saw us clambering into Eduardo’s boat and swinging out into the broad expanse of the Cuiabá. The silhouetted treeline, rising mist and drifting islands of water hyacinth all lent an African Queen-style thrill to our progress upriver. Sunrise illuminated the scarlet bills of black skimmers lined up on the sandbars, and the outrageous hooter of a toco toucan flying from bank to bank glowed as though on fire.

After half an hour we hung a right toward the entrance of a narrow tributary. Eduardo cut the outboard and took up a paddle. This was the Negro River, and there was immediately a more secret feel as we slipped between weed-choked banks and beneath a tangled canopy. Senses were on full alert: we jumped at the plop of an Amazon kingfisher and the rustle of an iguana.

There was nothing secret, though, about the next animal to appear. A splash ahead, followed by a grunting and chirruping, announced a giant river otter. The smooth head broke the surface and checked us out – all whiskers, boggle eyes and gleaming canines. Then another appeared. And another. Soon six were cavorting around us in the shallows, at times almost within touching distance then, seconds later, surfacing 50m away.

An impressive show – and a special one

These animals are highly endangered. Pushing 2m in length, they are the largest and most sociable of the world’s otters and a major Pantanal predator. They are also highly entertaining, and we spent 15 minutes watching their sinuous acrobatics around our boat. From time to time one emerged with a struggling fish, gripping it between dexterous front paws and crunching off its head. Then they were gone as suddenly as they appeared.

By ten o’clock the sun had burned away that early morning sense of expectation and I was beginning to feel that we’d missed our quarry. Nonetheless I continued to scan the riverbank religiously. And I got my reward when, like a vision, the three-thousandth dappled patch of shadow resolved suddenly into spots – with paws, ears and a tail.

“Jaguar!” I bellowed. And then again, but in an embarrassed whisper.

“Where? Where?” A frenzy of binoculars, cameras and pointing. But Eduardo was onto it and swung the boat round. Now all our party had the beast in sight as we drifted slowly forward, easing to a stop just 10m away. Clearly there had been no need to panic. The cat was lying in the shade of a thicket, chin on paws. A tail tip twitched and amber eyes bore unnervingly into ours.

First impressions: he was huge. And it was a he; you could tell by the big head. I’ve seen leopards in Africa, but this was different. A male jaguar can top 140kg – that’s lioness size – and this brute couldn’t be far short. There was something thuggish about the massive jaw, thick neck and muscled shoulders: like a leopard on steroids. Even the spots were less subtle: bolder, blacker – as though freshly painted.

Yet he was beautiful. “Wilson,” murmured Eduardo, sotto voce. “Look at the W,” he explained. And there it was: a perfect initial formed by the spots on his forehead. So Eduardo knew this beast. For half an hour we ogled him – and it was clear, from his complete indifference, that we were not the first.

Admittedly, he didn’t do much. Shifted position a couple of times, sniffed at a passing butterfly. But he didn’t need to.

It was awe-inspiring to see a wild animal of such presence – undisputed top cat of a whole continent – and easy to understand why jaguars were warrior gods to the Aztecs
and Mayans.

We left when another boat arrived. The word gets out quickly around here when there’s a good jaguar sighting. Wilson yawned, cavernously: he was going nowhere.
With the pressure off we spent our last three days relaxing around the hotel. The wildlife kept coming, mind you: we met more otters, enjoyed the antics of the local hyacinth macaws and disturbed a pair of tapirs cooling off in the river, who slipped away into the forest on surprisingly delicate legs, like big, maned pigs.

An opportunity for reflection

I realised that the jaguar has now become to the Pantanal what the mountain gorilla is to Rwanda or the tiger to India. Brazil’s tourism industry has hitched its wagon to this flagship species and the wildlife tour companies have followed suit. Pay your money and put in the hours, as we had, and clearly you stand a good chance.

For some this rings alarm bells. Worries about too many boats, illegal baiting and habituated jaguars – the same fears that dog wildlife tourism the world over – have already led to calls for tighter regulation. And this seems sensible. Yet the case for jaguar tourism is surely incontestable if it makes live jaguars more valuable than dead ones. The arguments are familiar enough – tourist revenue not only helps protect cats but also boosts the local economy, provides employment and education, funds projects that reduce wildlife conflict, and so on – but they’re convincing. This magnificent predator has been on the run from humans ever since Columbus. It would be nice to think there’s finally one place where it can take a well-earned breather.

Of course it’s about much more than jaguars. Any canny conservationist knows how the A-lister you put on the brochure serves as an umbrella species for a whole ecosystem. And given the pageant of wildlife I’d seen over the past ten days, ecosystems don’t come much richer than this one.

The Pantanal saved its final treat for our last ride up the Cuiabá: two jaguars (John Prescott would approve), and it looked like a mating pair. We watched in the fading light as the smaller female led her suitor away from the riverbank behind a discreet screen of bushes, from where an outburst of grunting left little doubt about what was going on.
The first of the night’s fishing bats were fluttering around our bow as the two cats reappeared and flopped back down on the bank. They’d just done their bit for the species’ future. And if our species can learn to live with them – as seems to be happening in the Pantanal – perhaps they stand a fighting chance. At any rate, it seemed an encouraging image with which to turn for home.

Jaguar essentials

Size

Biggest cat in the Americas – weighs 50-100kg (max 159kg), with females 10-20% smaller than males. Pantanal race is the largest. Stockier than the similar leopard, with bigger head, shorter tail and larger spots.

Behaviour

Largely solitary. Most active at dawn and dusk. Takes prey up to size of cow. Hunts by stealth, killing with bite to skull, spine or throat. Swims and climbs well. Male marks territory by roaring and scratching trees.

Life cycle

Female sexually mature at two years; male at three to four. Average litter of two cubs. Lives to 15 years in wild.

Range and habitat

Found from Mexico to northern Argentina, and from dense rainforest to grassland (always near water). Once ranged as far north as Grand Canyon but now effectively extinct in US.

Status

Has lost at least 37% of historic range and now classified as Near Threatened by IUCN. Fur trade caused major decline. Greatest threats today are habitat loss and persecution by ranchers.

Top spots

Outside the Pantanal try Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Reserve (Belize), Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (Mexico), Manu National Park (Peru) and Iwokrama Forest (Guyana). Hard to see anywhere.

The author travelled with Wildlife Trails. The tailormade trip started and ended in Cuiabá, and comprised nine nights at four different lodges, including all activities and a bilingual guide. A similar itinerary would cost around £1,900pp, based on two people sharing, excluding flights.