“He who kills with one leap.” Such is the translation of the Guarani word for jaguar, the third-largest big cat in the world. This majestic predator’s habitat ranges from South to Central America - and can even sometimes be seen as far north as the U.S. state of Arizona - although the animal itself is very elusive. This may be where we’ve lost your attention, as you’re probably thinking those distinctive rosettes and whiskers make for a cute little cat, but you’ll never get to see one in the wild anyway.
You’ll be pleased to hear that you’re mistaken, as while nothing can ever be guaranteed when it comes to wildlife, there is one region where jaguar sightings occur almost on a daily basis (as long as you are there at the right time). You might see Panthera onca (its scientific name) if you’re lucky in the jungles of Belize or Costa Rica, however their habituation in these parts isn’t too advanced, meaning they are more likely to remain in the denser parts of the jungle where vegetation enhances their camouflage. According to recent research, there is a healthy population in the Amazon, however the size of this area and limited access to most of the rainforest make the jaguar an unlikely encounter (one of those awkward “I see you but you can’t see me” situations).
The place we have in mind lies further south, in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul: the Pantanal This is the name for a vast network of wetlands that lives in the shadows of its bigger and more publicised Amazonian neighbour. 50% larger than the United Kingdom, this is where you stand the greatest chance of spotting this big cat in the wild, and here is why.
Location, Location, Location
Not only your friendly estate agent’s favourite slogan, but also the main reason we can report at least one jaguar sighting a day on the river banks of the Northern Pantanal. The largest wetland in the world, the Pantanal’s biodiversity is so diverse that it could even make Costa Rica look over its shoulder. A jaguar needs three things to thrive: food, water and protection in the form of a safe natural habitat. The Pantanal offers all of the above, and with over 600 bird species, 90 land mammals, 270 fish species and over 1000 types of butterflies and insects, contains an intricate and perfectly balanced food chain, at the top of which sits the jaguar.
During this time, most of the rainwater-filled ponds and lakes have receded, turning the Pantanal into an immense grassland. This forces a majority of the animals to head for the larger waterways such as the Cuiaba, Piquiri or Three Brothers rivers, which in turn ensures an important concentration of jaguars, well aware of the abundance of prey. In the rainy season, 80% of the Pantanal is underwater and the flooding can create swamps as deep as 10 metres. Combined with extreme temperatures and a voracious mosquito population, this doesn’t make exploration ideal during this time (so much so that many lodges shut down).
Jaguars in the area have also received little interest from the local fishermen who have been working on these waters for decades. This means the animal doesn’t feel under threat as your small boat approaches, giving you unbeatable photo opportunities and ample time to admire this elegant creature.
Expertise and Conservation
One detail stood out during a recent trip to the Pantanal undertaken by NWS Tristan, our resident Latin America expert. The jaguar knowledge was abundant everywhere. Indeed, the wildlife knowledge in general was widely impressive, as everyone from transfer drivers to restaurant staff at the lodge were animated with incredible passion for their environment. This made for very educational conversations at every corner!
In the Northern Pantanal, most of the guides have spent their lifetime studying the jaguar and still see themselves as students of the species, keeping track of each sighting through detailed written reports, each one telling the story of every jaguar encounter, as well as its GPS position, behavioural information and so on… All of this in an effort to understand the jaguar better and share this knowledge with you, the traveller.
Conservation is also at the heart of the tourism and wildlife community here in the Pantanal. The main threat to the jaguar population comes from the fact that the Pantanal is a land built by cattle farmers, and many active ranches are still spread all over the area today. As you might expect, cattle and 145kg big cats are far from a match made in heaven, meaning that hundreds of jaguar are shot dead each year by farmers trying to protect their own livelihoods.
In light of this, considerable efforts have been made over the past few years to raise awareness among the Pantaneiro people that the jaguar is more valuable to the local economy alive than dead. It’s a difficult socio-economic and cultural struggle, pioneered by the dedicated team of biologists of the Oncafari Project down in the Southern Pantanal's Caiman Ecological Refuge, but one that is paying dividends, as evidenced by these statistics: In 2012, only 7% of guests staying at the refuge’s lodge reported a jaguar sighting. However, in 2016 this number had climbed to a staggering 75%, and even upwards of 90% if you exclude the less favourable wet season. Our blog takes an in-depth look at the successes of Oncafari. Yara - one of the jaguars living in the Caiman Ecological Refuge - can be seen in the photo below.
Spending time in the Pantanal truly is a unique experience. Made remote by its immensity and home to one of the most mesmerising big cats in the world, not a day spent here comes without its share of amazement. Everything is geared towards seeing the natural highlights that abound and there is a constant energy in the air, as you know that at any time your guide might be pointing out fresh jaguar tracks, and that any ruffle of leaves in the forest can lead to fascinating sightings from large mammals to colourful birds and prehistoric-looking reptiles.
Regarding accommodation, not only are the lodges sure to educate you greatly about life in the Pantanal (many lodges are still operating ranches, giving you an authentic and unfiltered glimpse into Pantaneiro cowboy experience), but they also ensure you are put in the best conditions possible for the best wildlife sightings. Excursions take place at times that make sense, and offer a wide variety of activities to suit every type of traveller (hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, boat safaris and night spotlight safaris, to name a few).
Furthermore, the Pantanal is also one of these places that needs to be earned, which in our mind only adds to its lure. Whether it’s driving on the legendary dirt road that is the Transpantaneira highway, or hiking through primary rainforest at dawn, the exhilarating rewards are worth the effort.
The experience can also be made greater and enhanced. The Pantanal has two main air gateways – Cuiaba and Campo Grande – from where flights can be booked to the mighty Amazon, Iguassu Falls or Brazil’s iconic beaches.