While Brazil’s Amazon rain forest may get all the media attention, it is in fact the Pantanal which is South America’s biggest biodiversity star.
Located in the heart of South America, the Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland territory covering around 210,000 sq km which puts it at 20 times the size of the famed Everglades in Florida. Less than 100,000 sq km of this is in Bolivia and Paraguay; the rest is in Brazil, split between the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.
Part national park, part UNESCO World Heritage site, the Pantanal boasts the highest concentration of wildlife on the continent. In fact it is home to around 1,000 bird species, 300 mammals and 9,000 invertebrates, in addition to countless fascinating insects and other species. Some of the very rare and endangered animal species that call the Pantanal home include the Marsh Deer, Giant River Otter, Hyacinth Macaw, Crowned Solitary Eagle, Maned Wolf, Bush Dog, Capybara, South American Tapir, Giant Anteater and Yacare Caiman. For Leica Ambassador Luke Massey and myself though we had gone in search of a rather specific animal: the Jaguar.
This particular trip was Luke’s idea. He had wanted to see a Jaguar since he was a little boy and we’d tried often before, all over Central and South America, in fact we must’ve spent at least a month trudging through jungles and scanning riverbanks in hope of spotting this most elegant of creatures. But all previous attempts had been in vain and we were both hoping that this time would be different.
After an excitedly restless night in Cuiaba we set off bright and early, and watched as the city gave way to cattle ranches and cattle ranches continued to intersperse the areas of forest and wetlands that followed. Although the Pantanal is considered one of the most preserved wetlands in the world, less than 3% is actually under government protection – most of the Pantanal is in fact privately owned. However, co-operation between ecotourism and the landowners in the region (mostly cattle ranchers) has contributed to the sustainable conservation of the environment. We were headed to meet one particular man, Dr Charles Munn, owner of SouthWild, who spearheaded the move to work with the ranchers.
The Pantanal is a wild and remote landscape, which makes access a little tricky, and once we had left the main road the dirt track that followed was bone-jangling. But the astonishing bird life kept our minds occupied; flocks of Greater Rhea, South America’s Ostrich equivalent, strutted across the plains, while rapidly drying ponds were jam packed with fishing parties of birds feasting on the stranded fish – the sheer number of Jabiru Storks, Skimmers, Egrets and Herons was astonishing. A Roseate Spoonbill in its pink breeding plumage perched below a bridge, but the show stealer, was our first Sunbittern, a bird so beautiful that when it spread its wings it looked like the contents of a treasure chest had been emptied over the top of it.
We continued in this manner, pulling over at every populated pond of water, until the road got drier and the going got quicker and before we knew it we had arrived at SouthWild’s lodge Santa Tereza. After a hefty slice of air-light orange cake we were ushered out of the other side of the lodge and down to the river’s edge and onto a boat. Unfortunately our driver’s English was non-existent, like our Portuguese, but we stumbled through on broken Spanish and smiles. First stop was to the Agami Heron…yes you have read that right.
The Agami Heron was rather habituated to the SouthWild boats and he strutted out boldly at the sound of the engine. He was utterly resplendent with shiny green wings, chestnut neck and tummy, wispy pale blue feathers decorating his crown, fore-neck and lower back and that eye-catching white line down the centre of his fore-neck. Apparently in Brazil he is sometimes called soco beija-flor which translates as the ‘hummingbird heron’ thanks to his dazzling coloration pattern. After we’d had our fill of the Agami Heron we continued on our way only to stumble across a rather curios Giant River Otter family who swam right up to the boat to check us out. We returned to a herd of Capybara’s grazing outside the lodge.
The lodge was just our stopover en route to SouthWild’s Flotel in Jaguarland, a destination we had been guaranteed would reveal the creature its name suggested.
As soon as we arrived we hit the river in search. Our first spot was a family of Giant River Otters, who we hung around with for a little while, frolicking in the waters beside the boat, but then our guide got a radio call – a Jaguar had been spotted. As we approached the spot I squinted through my binoculars, and that glossy coat of golden and black glittered back at me from the riverbank. As we got closer her shape took form – a young female laid out in the shade, the sun still callously hot.
Our beautiful Jaguar stretched and then proceeded to walk down to the river for a drink, the camera shutters going a mile a minute, but she just cooly ignored us. When she was done she returned to the top of the bank, but this time a little further behind the tree and out of sight – she had clearly had enough of us odd creatures staring at her. Luckily this brief encounter with this breathtaking animal was not to be the last, but after a few more days exploring the river and enjoying countless sightings there, we then re-located to a site Charles was certain we’d have not only great sightings but completely private ones.
Up river from the Flotel is a ranch that Charles is paying not to kill Jaguars. Previously seen as vermin to the local cattle ranchers due to the cat’s penchant for steak, Jaguar’s reputation was at rock bottom with the locals, and eco-tourism couldn’t have come at a better time for the cats. In fact a recent study found that the value of Jaguars to tourism was over 6 million dollars! Far in excess of the cost to ranchers from loss of cattle to the cats which is thought to be just over 100 thousand dollars. Charles suggests that this is an underestimate of the Jaguar’s true vale to the area. “A thousand high-quality jobs have also been created already in Brazil by these Jaguars,” he tells us. His plan for the ranch we are visiting is to turn it into an eco-lodge, but he needed his theory that it was a great spot for Jaguars confirmed, and Luke and I eagerly offered our services.
15km from the river Charles had located a small lake, which he believed would be the perfect animal magnet in the dry months. So we headed straight there on our first afternoon at the ranch. Luke, the boatman and I had a tiny little canoe which we took out into the centre of the lake. There was an astonishing amount of Caiman, some rather large specimens too, and they jostled the boat a few times. We did a lap to the far end, to see the wild Muscovy Ducks and then a loud growl came from the bushes. Luke was pretty sure it had been a Jaguar, but our boatman was certain it was a cow and as it was getting late we decided to head back to camp. As I helped pack up the truck Luke walked back down to the lake to take a panoramic and that’s when he saw them, two Jaguars rolling around on the lake bank 100m down from us. It was a mating pair.
After this incredible encounter we would see the large male of the pair every two days like clockwork. The waterhole also delivered us Roseate Spoonbill, Whistling Ducks, Plumbeous Ibis, lots of Green Ibis and Buff Necked Ibis, a Curassow pair and their one surviving chick, and even a juvenile King Vulture, which Luke managed to find one of the only fresh cow pats to lie down in while photographing the bird. One morning a flock of five Maguari Storks flew in and began picking through the waters treasures with a Great Egret, a Capped Heron and a Jabiru.
That evening a herd of White Lipped Peccary came down to drink, their eyesight so bad that they were completely oblivious to us sat in the centre of the lake. The lake was indeed a magnet to wildlife. But so too was the rest of the ranch. On our way back to camp a Roadside Hawk flew above us using the car to flush him dinner and later we passed another smaller watering hole and spotted two Tapir, a mother and her baby swimming in it. At night we slept in a tent on the river bank, perfectly positioned to catch any passing breeze. In the tree above us was a Hyacinth Macaw roost – but we barely saw them as each morning we would head back to the lake before they were up.
Fortunately ten minutes from the ranch was a fishing lodge where a flock of Hyacinth Macaws had been habituated so we did spend a couple of mornings with them there. The fishing lodge also had a resident Armadillo who had a taste for rice, and while we were photographing it ignored us completely and instead made a beeline for our packed lunches. When she had had her fill she disappeared down a hole. We returned to the water baths to wait for the Macaws who dutifully came down and gave us a lovely show. Then the lodges owner appeared to let us know the Armadillo was back – she was now waiting like a dog at the entrance to the kitchen, and the owner came out with a bowl of rice for her, which explained how she had known to raid our packed lunches.
But the most incredible encounter of our stay happened on our second to last day. During the week we had seen two Giant Anteaters, but both had been skittish and the encounters hadn’t lasted very long. This day however we were ready in the canoe when a Giant Anteater came down to drink. We slowly made our way towards him and then out from behind him appeared our large male Jaguar looking utterly perplexed by the Anteater. The Jaguar snuck up behind the Giant Anteater as it was drinking, crouched low as if about to pounce and then….nothing. We sat with baited breath, certain we were about to witness a kill… and then the Giant Anteater got a whiff of something – his eyesight so bad that he had no idea that that something was sitting directly behind him! Then the Giant Anteater turned and skittered away into the bushes to his right. The Jaguar followed halfheartedly for a few paces. Apparently Giant Anteaters are incredibly aggressive, and perhaps this Jaguar was aware of this hence why he hadn’t done anything, but it really was amazing to watch.
With the Anteater gone the Jaguar went back to his usual routine for an evening session at the lake. He sat and cleaned his paws for a bit, and shortly after he had settled the vultures caught wind of his appearance and begin to arrive – they particularly liked picking through his poo. The Jaguar then got up and had a drink, and as he was drinking his attention was caught by something over our shoulder….. and we turned to see a Tapir! The Tapir came down to drink on the opposite side of the lake and the Jaguar continued to watch, but he didn’t make a move, instead he turned his attention to the vultures. One thing I’d noticed about this particular cat was that he found things that flew fascinating.
Suddenly the Tapir seemed to get a funny feeling and he turned and ran head first into the bushes. Two splendid dinner opportunities and the Jaguar was more interested in the squabbling vultures! Perhaps he had already eaten that day. Nevertheless, to have all of them at the same lake in under two hours – well lets just say Charles had been right!