In Search of the Elusive Jaguar
Image: Staffan Widstrand / Corbis
ildlife tourism is heavily focussed on large predators. Perhaps like Ernest Hemingway, wildlife tourists want to wrestle these ferocious creatures bare-handed, although most seem to prefer safer vantage points.
If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking “Indian tourists!”, rest assured that this is not only a subcontinental phenomenon. In the Americas, the place of the tiger is occupied by the jaguar (panthera onca), the apex predator, surpassed in size only by lions and tigers. The best and most reliable place to see jaguars is Brazil’s Pantanal.
The Pantanal (from the Portuguese pântano, swamp or marsh) is one of the largest wetland areas in the world, covering up to 195,000 sq km, mostly in Brazil. Largely submerged during the rains, it consists of distinct eco-systems that support a rich array of plant life and wildlife species.
However, the Pantanal is not a pristine wilderness; it includes agricultural properties, primarily raising cattle. Assisted by money from NGOs and donors (expiating the guilt of having destroyed nature in their homelands), many farms now engage in tourism—sometimes their main activity—and support conservation.
Third Time Lucky
On our first visit to South America almost 15 years ago, we found the pristine rainforests of Peru and Ecuador beautiful and frustrating in equal measure. Hallmark mammal and bird species were difficult to spot in the thick and dark forests. We recorded many ‘heards’, not as many ‘seens’. Although the areas we visited were known to be home to jaguars, we never saw any. We got tired of the familiar refrain, “If you had only been here last week…”
Rachel, our guide in Ecuador, advised us that many of the species are more easily and better seen in the wetlands bordering the Amazon basin. We travelled subsequently to Venezuela’s Llanos, the northern equivalent of the Pantanal, and Central American rainforests in Costa Rica. But the jaguar eluded us.
The closest we came to encountering the predator was in Venezuela. At Hato Piñero, we went out before dawn. We didn’t see a jaguar, though we did glimpse the rotund, sizeable rear of a startled tapir retreating into the forest.
On the way back, Otto, our guide, checked the dirt road. There it was—fresh, full-sized jaguar paw prints right on top of our tyre tracks. The cat had walked by after we had driven past. But try as we might, we never found the jaguar.
On our third trip to South
America, we are optimistic. The Pantanal is home to one of the largest jaguar populations—and also 300 mammals, 1,000 species of birds, 480 reptiles, 50 amphibians and 325 varieties of fish.
Carrying the Dead
We plan to spend two weeks in the northern Pantanal in August/September, towards the end of the dry season, to maximise our wildlife-sighting opportunities. But our first target is something rarer than a jaguar.
Serra das Araras, a few hours’ drive from the city of Cuiabá, is billed as an ecological reserve. Though severely degraded by mining and cattle ranching—there are only remnants of the original spectacular plateaus, forests and savannah—the cattle farm is the nesting site of a pair of Harpy Eagles. Named after the Harpies, the winged spirits of Greek mythology that carried the dead to Hades, an adult Harpy Eagle’s wing span is more than two metres. The larger females weigh up to 9 kg, while the males are around 6 kg. Only the Philippines eagle and Steller’s sea eagles are larger.
The Harpy Eagle’s large talons and power allow it to catch and kill large prey, traditionally monkeys and sloths picked up from the upper canopies of tropical lowland rainforests. Threatened by loss of habitat because of logging, agriculture and mining, and also hunted by farmers seeking to preserve livestock, they have been wiped out in many parts of South and Central America.