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.