Pantanal Day 4: Hunting for Jaguar

      Our morning passed rather leisurely since we weren´t in a rush to get out in the boat at daybreak, so I felt very rested for our day´s journey. Today, instead of coming back to the bigger boat for lunch, we had loaded a grill, our cook, chairs and tables into the smaller boat in preparation for a bbq on the go. The day was warm and the sun was high in the sky as we set off to find the elusive jaguar. Normally jaguars come to the river in the late afternoon to cool down from the heat. They also tend to congregate where there are the largest populations of capybaras, which are their major prey. Vagno and Douglas had already planned out our lengthy journey through the nature reserve in areas 4 and 5, highlighting the most probable jaguar spotting locations. The morning was beautiful and the area we were in was ripe with caiman (we saw over 50 in total), but we saw few capybara.

Marshland in Areas 4 and 5.  Hill near Bolivia in the background
Marshland in Areas 4 and 5. Hill near Bolivia in the background
Lots of water hyacinth
Lots of water hyacinth
Jon and the men stop for a bathroom break in jaguar country
Jon and the men stop for a bathroom break in jaguar country
Caiman hanging out in jaguar territory.
Caiman hanging out in jaguar territory.
Caiman by the tree
Caiman by the tree

There were also, unfortunately, no large, spotted cats in sight. The most exciting wildlife of the morning was a family of howler monkeys that was climbing around in the trees closest to the river. This meant that Jon was able to get some good pictures of them, which made him very happy.

Howler Monkeys near the boat
Howler Monkeys near the boat
A wattled jacana in areas 4 and 5 walking around with his baby
A wattled jacana in areas 4 and 5 walking around with his baby
Gorgeous scenery near the jaguar area
Gorgeous scenery near the jaguar area
A roseatte spoonbill in flight
A roseatte spoonbill in flight
Roseatte Spoonbills- their pink flamingo color stands out against the wilderness
Roseatte Spoonbills- their pink flamingo color stands out against the wilderness
Iguanas hanging out in the sands
Iguanas hanging out in the sands

By the end of the day we had seen 13 monkeys in total. We also spotted a marsh deer, the first animal on Brazil´s endangered species list back in the 70s. It had some amazing antlers that stood out against the miles of blue water and reedy grass.

Marsh Deer in the distance
Marsh Deer in the distance

For lunch we pulled over to a small clearing underneath some trees on the riverbank. I was a little wary of having our lunch in the wild, because Douglas mentioned that a man had been eaten by a jaguar not too far from where we decided to have our picnic. Grilling fresh steaks and chicken by the riverbank seemed like a pretty good way to lure the cats out of the jungle, if that was our goal. I made sure to place my chair in the inner circle of humans close to the boat, just in case the jaguars decided to share our meaty lunch and we had to make a quick escape. Lunch was delicious- the cook had brought out the choicest Brazilian cut of beef, picanha, and we munched on that until it was gone. The meat washed down nicely with a few Heinekens and after awhile, I was pretty stuffed.

Pulling up our motor boat to have our BBQ lunch
Pulling up our motor boat to have our BBQ lunch
Setting up the grill to lure out the big cats
Setting up the grill to lure out the big cats
Barefaced Eli and Jon trying to enjoy our picnic lunch
Barefaced Eli and Jon trying to enjoy our picnic lunch
Fresh steaks and chicken to bait the jaguars with
Fresh steaks and chicken to bait the jaguars with

I really enjoyed sitting under the trees, which were alive with all kinds of tropical birds. Douglas, the bird expert, began imitating the call of the ferruginous pygmy owl, which brought in several rare species of birds because I guess they feel safer when the enemy is in sight. It turns out that there actually was one of those owls in the vicinity and he got really pissed that there was another owl in his territory. Normally I would probably make fun of a grown man getting into a fight with an owl, but after a few days out in the wilderness I found this pretty amusing. What I did NOT find amusing was the story about how the man was eaten by a jaguar. I had to know more!

An owl sitting high in the tree
An owl sitting high in the tree

Back in 2008 a fisherman and his 18-year-old son, Alex, were camped along the river. Their job was to catch river eels at night with a big net in order to sell them to the fishermen as bait during the day. The story goes that one day Alex got fed up with his job, not surprisingly, and left to get drunk on one of the larger fishing boats in the vicinity. When he arrived back to his encampment he passed out in his tent and left his father, Alonso, to catch the eels in the river alone. While Alonso was out with the net he heard his son scream and rushed back to the shore to find two jaguars, one with his son´s head in his mouth. Alonso apparently charged the animals but the other jaguar lunged at him so he fled into the river and took the boat to go get help. When Alonso returned with around 15 men they found the jaguars munching on the body. The animals then fled into the forest with Alex and the men chased them, hoping to recover the body. Eventually they were successful and scared the jaguars off. They hung Alex´s remains in a bag in the tree and by the time that they returned in the morning, they discovered that the cats had gotten into that also. It sounded like a true nightmare! As we pulled up to the gravesite on the river (which looked exactly like the place where we had eaten lunch, mind you) I was thrilled that there were no jaguars in sight. After this story, I´m sure you can guess how excited I was about going out to look for more large, man-eating cats. We pulled over to ask a local fisherman about the jaguar situation and he declared that four had been seen yesterday, in the same grassy area we had visited that morning. As we travelled across the water I decided to take a nap in the boat, because it was really hot and I had a belly full of beer and steak. It turns out I´m not such a great wildlife spotter, sleeping on the job and all.

The local fisherman who told us that jaguar had been spotted in the area
The local fisherman who told us that jaguar had been spotted in the area
Alex's gravesite on the riverbank
Alex’s gravesite on the riverbank
Refescent Tiger Heron: One of Jon's favorite birds in the Pantanal
Refescent Tiger Heron: One of Jon’s favorite birds in the Pantanal
The bird takes off shortly before we find the jaguar
The bird takes off shortly before we find the jaguar

About thirty minutes later, at exactly 2:10, I was jolted awake by Jon shouting “Jaguar, Jaguar!”. We quickly stopped the motorboat and turned around. Sure enough: there behind a swath of tree branches was a large cat lying in the shade, sleeping. I´m still not sure how Jon saw the jaguar, because it was almost entirely hidden by his surroundings. Vagno turned off the motor and we silently slipped towards the shore where we had a clear shot of the animal through the branches. At our closest point, we must have been about three meters away from the jaguar, and I was relieved to find he was sound asleep.   Little did I know that this was the closest that Douglas ever gets to a cat, but I guess he and Vagno felt a little safer since he was asleep and did not seem agitated. Jon and Douglas must have taken about 300 pictures each of the jaguar in the span of a few minutes. What I remember most about the cat were the enormous size of his paws and also how cute and peaceful he looked lying there, similar to how Chingy stretches out when he takes a nap. It was clear that there wasn´t going to be a lot that was going to wake this guy up. In fact, the cat only opened its eyes and lifted his head up when Vagno started banging on the side of the boat. I didn´t think this was such a great idea since I knew that jaguars can jump and swim, but it sure did make for some great pictures. We also were able to see how big the animal was when we lifted his head. Douglas estimated him to be around 170 kilos and he seemed like a really jaguar to me. Much bigger than when he was on his side, asleep. I, for one, was happy when he put his head back down and returned to his peaceful slumber. After Jon and Douglas had their fill of the jaguar pictures we went back down the river, all of us hyped up and brimming with excitement. Vagno seemed to take it pretty hard that a tourist had spotted the jaguar and not him, so there were a lot of good-natured jokes about who was really the wildlife expert. I know Jon was pretty happy about his sighting, and I was too, because I had finally seen my jaguar and lived to tell the tale.

Sleeping kitty
Sleeping kitty
The jaguar lifts its head up briefly so we can photograph it
The jaguar lifts its head up briefly so we can photograph it
What a regal creature!
What a regal creature!
The cat licks his lips.  He seems pretty sleepy
The cat licks his lips. He seems pretty sleepy
Yep: back down goes the head
Yep: back down goes the head

I didn´t particularly care what we did the rest of the day as I had just seen what I came to the Pantanal to see, so I simply enjoyed the afternoon of sun and wind on the boat. We had traveled a good distance to find the jaguar and still had two research areas left to peruse before sun set. It made for a long day on the water. Douglas told us that, in all, we traveled over 200 kilometers that day and it certainly felt like it. At one point it felt like we were going around in circles. When we got back to the boat I took a minute to remove myself from the sun´s glare and cool down a bit. We dined on some piranha soup (not my favorite) and pizza and cooled down with a nice caiparinha. It was a great end to our day of jaguar hunting.

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