The Pantanal is a floodplain, the size of England in Eastern Brazil, far south and unconnected to the Amazon Rainforest. For generations, cattle farmers have had their large farms or Fazendas in the area where the wild life existed side by side.
Jaguars, the only threat to the cattle were shot or hounded away by their dogs. Over time, the sub divided farms did not remain viable, and the current thinking is of turning them into wildlife reserves and earning from tourism instead. Someone once famously said, “Jaguars will be worth more than cows someday” and the prophecy has come true.
The international organisation, Panthera has been an even bigger factor in helping wildlife conservation by purchasing two enormous fazendas on both sides of the Cuiaba River in the Northern Pantanal and creating a haven for jaguars that feed on their natural prey as well as cattle, and spend life on the river’s edge, fishing, swimming and lounging in the daytime, living a carefree life, unknown to previous generations of the spotted cat. They have proliferated, and we saw around eleven jaguars in four days of motor-boating the waterways and riding through the gallery forest. Jaguars, impossible to spot at the best of times, were being seen from helicopters and coming in the way of photographing other species. It was pure magic.
SIGHTING DOZENS OF NEW SPECIES
When seen from above, the Pantanal is a succession of forests with winding rivers criss-crossing it. On the ground, we saw most of the wildlife from our motor boat. As this was our first visit to the area, there were dozens of new species to get to know. For birders, this is a pilgrimage spot. Enormous jabiru storks stood still on the sandy banks, bright blue Hyacinth Macaws flapped past overhead, Capuchin monkeys peered from tree tops.
Everything looked like a distant relative from another realm. The capybaras were like smaller wild boars (or larger guinea pigs), the caimans were less lethal crocodiles, and the long-nosed tapirs were hippo like. The bushy-tailed ant eaters were wildly different from the African ones, but performed the same function. In our brief stay, we also encountered the ocelot, brocket deer, foxes, giant otters and even an armadillo. Then there were the jaguars — leopard like at first glance, but far stockier, square headed, with different markings.
Though we did not see a single one up a tree, they love splashing around and swimming in water. We’d spot them by the early light, hunting capybara amidst the dense green water hyacinths, walking along the river’s edge, slinking behind mangrove roots and re appearing a few meters away. They are startlingly beautiful, and we’d spend hours watching and photographing them. Just like other safaris, the boats helped each other with sightings, and if we saw a bunch of boats huddled together around a river bend, we’d know for sure there was a sighting. Once the hubby asked Mateo, our expert boatman, to stop to photograph a heron drying its wings. The boat drifted closer to the edge, and with a sharp intake of breath, I said, “Jaguar!” It was sitting perfectly still a few feet from us, and could have joined us in the boat in a single leap. Fortunately, like cheetahs and wild dogs, jaguars are not known to attack people. If only our tigers and leopards behaved the same way, we would have replicated the coexistence model. My jaguar looked at us for a while, yawned, and in two graceful bounds, was up the embankment and out of sight.
The Pantanal is a long way away, it is steaming hot and humid and insect-friendly. Yet, if you’re curious about a host of species you’ll never see anywhere else, do make it there. A precious equilibrium between ranching and conservation has just been reached, and Porto Joffrey lodge might just have a room or two available before the secret is out.