Friday, September 04, 2015

Jaguar Jackpot!

Greetings All,
We've attempted to see wild jaguars (Panthera onca) on several previous trips but they have always managed to elude us.  It's difficult to spot an elusive cat that makes the dense rainforest its home.  In recent years jaguars have been discovered to inhabit the giant wetlands in central Brazil called the Pantanal.  They are easily spotted along the rivers during the day often time posing for hours.  So on August 25 we headed to Cuiaba, the gateway to the Northern Pantanal in Brazil.  Here is a map showing you where in the world we are:

Here is a detailed map of the area:

We started with a visit to Chapada Dos Guimarares National Park about an hour's drive northeast from Cuiaba.  Towering waterfalls plunge from ancient cliffs and flow into the Pantanal lowlands.

Veu de Novia Waterfall
The wildlife here is very elusive and not easily observed.  We searched in vain for the Maned Wolf in the early morning hours.  We followed his tracks along the road but he did not reveal himself.  It was time to head to the Northern Pantanal to search for an easier quarry, the jaguar!  We drove back to Cuiaba where we picked up a truck for the drive to Porto Jofre.  The first 110 km to Pocone (where we stopped for lunch) were on a good paved road.  From Pocone the road turned to dirt and is called the Transpantaneira Highway.

One of the 125 bridges on the Transpanteria Highway

The road traverses 145 km through the heart of the northern Pantanal and was built in the 1970's to provide access to the large cattle ranches in the area.  During the dry season from May to October, the wetlands dry out and herds of cattle graze on the lush green grass (not so green toward the end of the dry season).

Cattle Grazing in the Pantanal

It is here that cattle ranchers and Eco-Lodge operators are forced to coexist.  The ranchers view jaguars as a threat to their livelihoods while the lodge owners covet them for drawing tourists here by the thousands to see these magnificent cats.   We arrived in Porto Jofre around 4:00 PM and waited for a motor boat to pick us up and deliver us up the Rio Sao Lourenco to the Jacare Houseboat where we would spend the next four nights.  Colorful Yellow-billed Cardinals, Purplish Jays and Saffron Finches were feeding nearby.

Yellow-billed Cardinals

Enormous Jabiru Storks, Southern Caracaras and Black Vultures were waiting in the wings for castoffs from the local fishermen.  Our boat arrived and we were whisked upriver to the Jacare arriving just as the sun was setting and a huge orange full moon was rising.

Jacare Houseboat

Full Moon Over the Sao Lourenco River
The cooks woke me up the following morning at 4:00 AM but it didn't matter as I was eager to go on our first boat safari to look for jaguars!  We left promptly at 6:00 AM with Tadeu, our guide, and our boat driver.  It was nice having our own boat (the Jacare stays moored while small motor boats go in search for the jaguars).  We encountered many birds along the rivers and other boats searching for jaguars but the cats were nowhere to be found.  Two boats had stopped to photograph something.  "A jaguar?" I hoped.  It was not a jaguar but a family of four Giant River Otters clambering up the steep sandy river bank.  It was a great sighting nonetheless.  Giant River Otters are becoming increasingly rare and to find them so relaxed and unperturbed by our presence was a real treat.  They rolled in the dust, scent-marking their territory before trying to get comfortable for a midday snooze.

Giant River Otters
It was getting hot - real hot as the sun climbed in the sky.  We left the otters and continued up the Three Brothers River, a tributary of the Rio Sao Lourenco and spotted another boat that had stopped close to the river bank.  As we approached we could see a jaguar lying on the top of the bank!  The other boat was too close so we anchored a bit further away to admire this stunning feline.  Through my binoculars I could see he was blind in one eye.  He was totally un-phased by our presence and continued to cat nap.

First Jaguar Sighting

The first boat left and we got the front row viewing position at the proper distance.  The word was out by radio that a jaguar had been spotted and more and more boats began to arrive.  Some people got out on a sandbar on the opposite bank and set up umbrellas to view and photograph the slumbering jaguar.  By now 20 boats had amassed and the "Panthera Paparazzi" was in full force clicking away every time the jaguar moved, yawned or lifted his head.  Of course we were part of the Paparazzi and took our share of photos.  We left "One Eye" to sleep during the heat of the day and returned to the Jacare for lunch.

Part of the "Panthera Paparazzi"
At 2:00 PM we headed out on our second boat safari.  We passed "One Eye" still snoozing while the "Panthera Paparazzi" clicked away.  We passed the otter family and continued upriver at a brisk pace.  Tadeu had a surprise for us.  About 20 minutes further upriver, not one but two jaguars had been spotted!  When we arrived several boats were already positioned including a BBC film crew.  As we jockeyed for a good position, I could see one jaguar lying under a tree and a second lying in a more open area about 30 feet down the bank.  When the second cat got up I could see he was a large male and it became apparent that this was a courting pair!  The male got up and approached the female lying under the tree.

A Male Jaguar Approaches
Their encounter was far from amorous.  The female growled and hissed, chasing the male off.

Courting Jaguars!
"Was she playing hard to get, was she not ready to mate, was this all part of the jaguar courtship?", I wondered.  The male too was trying to figure out the status of the female.  He stopped to sniff the ground to pick up her scent.

The Male Jaguar Sniffs the Ground

He sat up grimacing.  Was her odor that offensive?  Not at all!

Do I Smell that Bad?

The male was displaying the flehmen response.   Male individuals commonly use the flehmen response as an olfactory mechanism for identifying the reproductive state of females based on pheromones in the female's urine.  All this courtship behavior was causing the male to overheat.  He crawled down the bank to cool off in the river.

I Need to Cool Off
He was only 30 feet from the nearest boat!  After his refreshing dip he returned to the bank to resume his pursuit.  This went on for two hours until we had to leave to get back to the Jacare before dark. What an amazing first day of jaguar viewing! 

The next morning we were out by 6:00 AM again.  This time we decided to explore Rio Negrinho, a tributary of the Rio Sao Lourenco about 15 miles downriver.  Although the chances of seeing a jaguar were less, the prospect of having the river to ourselves was appealing.  As we thought we reached the end of the tributary without finding a jaguar but we only encountered 2 other boats.  We did see many beautiful birds, capybara (world's largest rodent) and giant otters along the river.  


As we headed back we met up with another boat from the Jacare.  Near the confluence with the Rio Sai Lourenco, Tadeu miraculously spotted 2 jaguars on the bank under the trees!  They turned out to be cubs about a year and a half old.  They were eating a caiman that they presumably caught.  At our approach one of the cubs dragged the caiman off to a more private location.

Jaguar Cub with a Caiman
We radioed the other boat to let them know that we had found jaguars.  It was nice watching the cubs with only two boats around.  They grew tired of us watching and photographing them and dragged their prize into the forest where we could no longer see them.  By now the other boat had left and we began the journey back to the Jacare on our own.  As we entered the Rio Sao Lourenco, Tadeu spotted a third jaguar in the river!  At first I thought he was joking but there she was - staying cool in the river.

Female Jaguar

We assumed that she was the cubs' mother and that soon they would be leaving her for good.  We returned to the Jacare to find out that no jaguars had been spotted in the "Jaguar Hot Zone" that morning.  We had made the right call to explore a different tributary off the Rio Sao Lourenco!  That afternoon we tried yet a different river, the Piquiri, but for the first time we did not find any jaguars.  The next morning we stayed in the "Jaguar Hot Zone" but still no jaguars were spotted.  This dry period in the Hot Zone was unfortunate for some who only had one day to search for jaguars and had to leave without spotting one.  That afternoon was our 6th and final boat safari.  We were hoping for a grand finale.  We stuck to the "Jaguar Hot Zone" along the Three Brothers River.  We ran across a family of 4 Giant River Otters fishing.  Three family members had each caught a catfish and hauled out on a log to enjoy their meal.

Giant River Otters Eating Catfish
We continued up river when we got the call on the "Jaguar Hotline", a jaguar had been spotted on the Piquiri River!  We raced off to get a view with 3 other boats in fast pursuit.  We arrived 20 minutes later to find a stunning male jaguar sitting in full view on the bank of the river!  

Male Jaguar

We were able to view him for about 5 minutes before he decided to get up and disappear into the forest.  For those just arriving it was a bitter disappointment.  The "Panthera Paparazzi" arrived in full force.  About 14 motor boats plied the bank hoping to get a glimpse of the jaguar.  We decided to leave and return to the Three Brothers River.  It was a pleasure to be in the "Jaguar Hot Zone" by ourselves and to enjoy the other creatures that make this river their home.  We didn't find another jaguar but encountered two troops of Black Howler Monkeys.  Only the males are black with the females and juveniles a blond color.

Male Black Howler Monkey
We returned to the Jacare as the sun was setting.  What a glorious end to an exciting 3 days in the Northern Pantanal.  This time the jaguars had not eluded us.  We hit the Jaguar Jackpot!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc


Avijit Sarkhel said...

Fabulous report thanks for sharing - the Jaguar images are superb and the howler monkey male is a superb photograph. Best wishes

Kenneth V. Gomez, Esq. said...

Marc and Peggy,

Your blog is ripe for a sponsor!

Marc, I saw the size of your telephoto lense!

It's worth repeating, you two are amazing!