The narrow metal skiff rocked gently as we shifted in our seats, cameras at the ready. The mid-morning sun, already fierce, beat down unmercifully as guide Fisher Mota de Souza fiddled with his radio and looked out over the Cuiaba River. Finding a jaguar in the Pantanal, a vast expanse of swampland in central western Brazil, takes both an acute understanding of animal behaviour and a healthy dose of patience.
“Let’s head upriver,” de Souza said finally. “Somebody spotted an adult male up there this morning.” He spun the boat and opened up the throttle, prompting the armoured backs of countless caiman to slip beneath the chocolate water’s surface and rufescent tiger heron to shift nervously on riverside branches, adjusting their wings in anticipation of a quick getaway.
Situated south of the Amazon, the lesser-known Pantanal is the world’s largest freshwater wetland. It covers an area roughly half the size of France within the Upper Paraguay River Basin, extending over the border into Paraguay and Bolivia. Home to one of the greatest concentrations of tropical wildlife in the western hemisphere, the region is the best place in South America to see some of the continent’s most iconic birds and beasts. Jaguar, puma, capybara, yacare caiman, jabiru stork, Brazilian tapir, howler monkey, giant otter, hyacinth macaw – the eclectic list of resident species is a zookeeper’s dream.
“It’s the ease with which the fauna of the Pantanal can be viewed that attracts most overseas visitors,” said Alan Godwin, director of South American tour outfit Reef and Rainforest, which offers a range of Pantanal outings including jaguar safaris on the Cuiaba River. “This region is the nearest one can get to an African safari.”
The Pantanal is also the last stronghold of the jaguar, and with an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 animals in the region (compared to less than 50,000 scattered across the Americas), it is home to the highest density of these majestic big cats anywhere in the world. As South America’s largest jaguar, adult males can weigh up to 160kg and drag fully grown caiman from the water with ease. With a spectacular spotted coat, muscular body and jaws powerful enough to crush a human skull, the jaguar is a formidable feline, inspiring ancient cultures such as the Maya who depicted the cat in jewellery and ceramics. But the animal has received little reverence from man since the turn of the 20th Century.
Until recently, many of the region’s 2,500 privately-owned fazendas (ranches) perceived jaguars as cattle killers, and they were often shot on sight by pantaneiros (Pantanal cowboys). Today, thanks to the burgeoning eco-tourism industry providing increasingly important income, many landowners have chosen to support jaguar conservation and many pantaneiros have become tour guides.
With its high density of jaguar prey, including caiman and capybara, the Encontro das Aguas (Meeting of the Waters) State Park contains one of the Pantanal’s highest concentrations of these big cats. Close to the tiny settlement of Porto Jofre, at the confluence of three river systems – the Piquiri, Cuiaba and Tres Irmaos – this site gives access to more than 100km of pristine waterway. The animals here are accustomed to humans so boats can often approach to within four or five metres.
The journey to the park is a time-consuming yet worthwhile affair, involving a flight to Sao Paulo followed by a two-hour internal flight to the steamy city of Cuiabá. From here, it is a dusty 250km drive southwest to Porto Jofre along the Transpantaneira, a raised road of packed orange dirt and 120 rickety wooden bridges that runs 147km deep into the Pantanal.
The SouthWild Jaguar Camp, a floating houseboat moored on the Cuiaba River, is currently the closest visitors can get to the Encontro das Aguas while retaining a modicum of comfort. Operating May through November, the 10 small double rooms feature A/C, private bathrooms and hot water showers.
Each day before sunrise, radio-equipped, six-seater boats with English and Portuguese speaking guides depart from the houseboat, promising sightings of giant otters, kingfishers, howler monkeys, and the main attraction – jaguars. Any jaguar sightings are immediately shared over the radio to maximize viewing opportunities, and it is rare to come away without having seen at least a couple of cats.