The jaguar was barely more than a camouflaged face creeping out of the brush, but the photographers, filmmakers and nature lovers stirred with excitement as we sat in our boats, cameras and binoculars aimed at the spectacular creature.
We all wanted to encounter this most fascinating wild animal of the tropics, the third largest cat in the world. Now here it was, slowly walking toward us. Two little boys, visiting from England, could hardly contain their excitement. On our ride over we had encountered an abundance of wildlife, but spotting our first jaguar was more exhilarating than all the monkeys and macaws put together.
Along with me in the houseboat were a retired friend, a couple with the two boys and some hobby photographers and professional filmmakers from Germany. We had all come to see jaguars. This graceful and powerful animal has captured human imagination for ages. Now, its survival as a special is threatened, partly due to the destruction of its habitat and partly because ranchers — although it is illegal — occasionally kill them when the big cats prey on their cattle.
An estimated 15,000 jaguars are left from Central to South America, and 4,000 to 7,000 of them roam along waterways of the Panatanal, a seasonally flooded savannah in central western Brazil.
Just south of the Amazon basin, interspersed with tropical forests, the Pantanal harbors many of the same animals associated with Latin American rainforests: anacondas, piranhas, toucans, caimans (a small alligator), macaws and, of course, the jaguar. You have to be lucky to spot wildlife close up while traversing the Amazon River, but a one-hour drive through the savannah on the raised Transpantanal Road will offer sightings of thousands of birds, as well as caimans, capybaras, and the occasional tapir and giant anteater.
Even such abundant wildlife may be threatened by overbuilding. Rare and people-shy, jaguars hide from human activity. To see them, you must cross the labyrinth of rivers at the end of the Transpantanal Road.
Quite a few eco-tourist agencies offer jaguar-sighting tours, as a quick Google search for “jaguar safari” will show. We contacted SouthWild, which uses the SouthWild Jaguar Flotel, an air-conditioned, floating hotel with 10 double-occupancy rooms, because it was the only one with a guarantee that we would see a jaguar. The company promises a $1,000 refund if no jaguars appear. We also liked that a biologist remains on the Jaguar Flotel during high season, giving lectures and talking to guests. The all-inclusive expeditions are efficiently organized. Our only responsibility was to get ourselves to Cuiabá, in the very center of Brazil, which we could do by air, although it took several connecting flights.
We began the tour at the SouthWild Pantanal lodge, and from there we drove in trucks even farther from the Transpantanal. A few hours later we checked into our houseboat, smaller than the floating hotel that is used now. The proprietor, Charles Munn, a biologist who has made tropical ecology his life’s work, told us why we were staying on a houseboat rather than a campsite: He had learned on a trip to Africa that none of the big cats on that continent ever entered tents, no matter how flimsy. Although stories of jaguar attacks occasionally circulated around the Pantanal, he was unperturbed until an attack in the same general area we were exploring changed his mind. An enthusiastic raconteur, Munn narrated the documented event in detail, involving two fishermen, the details as gory and sad as you can imagine. Jaguar tracks surrounded the tent, one side had been clawed to shreds and one of the fishermen had been mauled to death. Munn knew the tents had to go.
The houseboat cabins were comfortable enough, albeit cramped, and we understood why the company later switched to the larger boat. The food was good too. The local fish we chose from the menu — including the piranhas we had caught ourselves one afternoon — were always cooked superbly. Even the two little British boys liked the chicken dishes with beans and rice.
What really mattered, though, were our twice-daily expeditions on the rivers in smaller, faster boats outfitted for wildlife watching.
We spotted jaguars four times in two days thanks to the radios on which the boatmen communicated with each other. We motored slowly along the river, sometimes stopping to watch a family of giant otters rolling on a sandy bank or a jabiru stork, bigger than a flamingo, take wing. When a boatman caught sight of a big cat, he radioed the others, and we and the other boats sped there, converging to watch for a jaguar hunting for a meal.
Jaguars have a reputation as nocturnal hunters, but on a particularly sunny morning, nothing was deterring one big cat from searching for prey — not even us across the water, aiming cameras in its direction. We stopped on one side of the river, while the two German filmmakers boldly stepped off their boats in order to mount their tripods on solid ground. We watched, spellbound, as the cat’s luxuriant spotted coat flashed in and out of the brush on the opposite side of the river.
The jaguar came across a pair of capybaras — rodents the size of pigs — lolling on the riverbank, and lunged at them. The capybaras dove into the river. Unsuccessful, the jaguar disappeared into the brush, but the two capybaras continued honking their alarm after the jaguar was quite out of sight.
One experienced boat guide figured out the reason soon enough. Behind us, and no more than 10 feet to the right of the filmmakers, a very large male rested on a raised mound. Our boats were way too close to this large predator, who could have easily lunged at us. We moved away from the shore as soon as the filmmakers rushed back in their boat, but fortunately, it did not care to defend its territory at that moment, perhaps because it could see it was outnumbered.
This encounter reminded us why we had traveled so far to be there. Watching these creatures rest and hunt and live their lives, it was clear that it was their territory. Here, we were not at the top of the food chain. It is a strange sensation for a human to feel so imperiled by another animal.
At sunset, as we motored through the floating plants back to the houseboat, we glimpsed several species of hawks and parrots, kingfishers diving for fish, and rare birds few people ever see in the wild: agami herons, barefaced curassows, roseate spoonbills, macaws and many others. So many caimans sunned themselves on the river’s edge, they almost carpeted the shore. We watched the abundant storks and great white egrets fly in front of our boat, their wide wingspans spectacularly white against the darkening sky.
Had we not seen the jaguars, our trip to the north Pantanal would still have been rich with wildlife. But oh, to have spotted those magnificent predators in the wild! Unforgettable.