Jaguars of the Pantanal

Brazil in September / October 2011


Just a few months ago I thought that I probably wouldn't ever get to see a jaguar in the wild. Not unless I was prepared to spend two or three years in a dense tropical rain forest of Central or South America. In January 2011 I first read about a special photo excursion to Brazils Pantanal flood plains. Arranged by professional photographer Octavio Campos Salles form São Paulo. Focusing on finding wild living jaguars.

Even as I signed up to join this outing, I still wasn't sure about whether we were going to see these magnificent cats, let alone getting an opportunity to capture a halfway decent photo. But first things first.

A big male jaguar, resting on the banks of a river:

In order to sort out jet lag and get settled into the area, we travelled to Brazil a couple of days ahead of the actual jaguar excursion. From São Paulo we connected to Cuiabá, capital city of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, where we were met by our driver. Transfer to our first destination was about three hours, as we hit a thunderstorm with intense showers along the Transpantaneira road. The rain stopped shortly after we were welcomed at Araras Pantanal Eco Lodge, where we would spend the first six nights of this trip.

Araras Pantanal Eco Lodge is a fantastic little place. One could actually also call it "The Lazy Birder's Paradise". I never travel without a birding field book of the areas I visit and already when I got my copy of "Birds of Brazil" in the mail, I was absolutely fascinated by the diversity of birdlife the Pantanal alone has to offer. What was even more amazing, though, was that Araras provided an excellent opportunity to spend all afternoon in the shade of a tree, cool beer in hand, and to observe dozens of different species stopping by at the local bird bath. But there is a lot more to be seen there. Araras has three observation towers, one standing 25 metres tall. The lodge provides day and night walking trails, canoe trails, horseback trails and game drives along the farm roads and the Transpantaneira (day and night). Araras offers equally comfortable and fairly priced accommodation, great country style food, very friendly service and dedicated, professional field guides.

Enjoying such activities in small groups, we ventured out on the water by canoe, joined a game drive along the Transpantaneira, a night drive across the farm and a night walk. But I also spent long hours on the observation towers, as this provides a rather unusual and most enjoyable perspective for some very special wildlife sightings.

  • The channel on which canoe excursions are done is calm and quite during the dry season. Lots of opportunities to get up close to birdlife and to the odd caiman. We didn't get to see the otters there, but apparently sightigs are very frequent.
  • As with any game drive, heading out early morning or late afternoon along the main road is all about being in the right spot at the right time. We were lucky to find Neotropical otter and Southern anteater right next to the Transpantaneira. Some great light on Oven birds nests and excellent bird life in general.
  • On the night walks I found it quite easy to get up close to nightjars. The night drive provided a glimpse at Crab-eating foxes and some nocturnal birds.

But as mentioned above, I particularly enjoyed roaming around the lodge and spending time on the observation towers. A main advantage of the towers is the perspective on birds and monkeys the elevation allows. Heading up there at first sunlight, we observed Capuchin monkeys and a large variety of birds feeding on a tree right next to the tower. Instead of battling for a clutter-free, leafy background as one often does when photographing from the ground, the tower perspective provides stunning dark and soft backgrounds. Some photographic results, especially of the capuchines, are of poetic beauty, as I find. No man-made sound, just the voices of the forest. And, as a little bonus for keeping quiet up there: Tapir, Marsh deer and again the Neotropical otter all emerged onto a clearing right below the tower.

Visitor on top of the 25m observation tower at Araras Pantanal Eco Lodge:

The Araras team have been trying to get Hyacinth macaws to breed again on the grounds and from what it looks like, they have suceeded. Well done! In addition to the pair nesting right in front of the lodge (thus, providing numerous birds in flight photo opportunities every day) we have seen several Hyacint macaws from the observation tower.

A Hyacint macaw in low flight, right outside the reception area of Araras Pantanal Eco Lodge:

The Araras Pantanal Eco Lodge will definitely be included in my future travel plans for the area. I can recommend this place to any one.

 

From there we headed further afield towards major jaguar country. I will keep this part a bit shorter, as I won't give a detailed description of where this place is. Reason being that in many aspects it still is very early days. The place is great, a real little paradise, providing neat and tidy lodging, excellent food, great coffee, ice-cold caipirinhas and very friendly service. However, there still is a general lack of organisation to accommodate greater numbers of photographers and visitors at a given time. This needs to be sorted out and perhaps the people in charge will want to take a look at how Botswana's Department of Environment, together with local community councils, farm owners and private sector tourism organisations have been adressing similar challenges.

Just this much: In order to get a glimpse of a jaguar in the wild, lasting anything from 2 seconds to maybe three or four minutes, one needs to spend 9 to 10 hours per day on a small boat, covering extensive ground in a considerably large wetland area. Thanks to excellent organisation by Octavio Campos Salles, we had private boats for our group, with two photographers per boat. Weather-wise we put up with everything: From hours on end in the hot sun to massive downpours and thunderstorms.

Octavio and Ian, heading up-river towards the rising sun:

From a photography point of view this can be rather challenging. Typically, there is dense forest and undergrowth right up to the river front. This means that in most places there is very little ambient light. And that's if the sun is out. On an overcast day, one has to be prepared to shoot at ISO 1200 and higher. in order to capture halfway sharp photos from the moving boat. Unfortunately I missed a great opportunity to photograph a jaguar cub of about six months, just because I wasn't ready with ISO and aperture settings when we approached the scene.

Always hold on tight to your camera gear: Our boat guide replacing the propeller after hitting a trunk at speed:

On several occasions we were the first boat at a sighting, but we counted up to five or six boats at other sightings. When this happens, the cat will simply move off and the opportunity is over for everyone. Furthermore, we saw guides who allowed or perhaps even encouraged their guests to step on land at the opposite bank of a place where a jaguar would rest. This in order to pitch a tripod on firm ground. From my own experience I can say that such behaviour is extremely irresponsible in a densly grown-over area as this one. If this carries on, it is simply a matter of time until someone gets hurt or killed. - So not only the guides, but also the guests need to be educated. (In the company of a professional field guide, Jacorine and I have walked up to large carnivores on several occasions. But never ever have we done this in dense bush, as this really would be asking for trouble.)

Mist rising, after a heavy thunderstorm:

But again: This place is stunningly beautiful and has tremendous potential. All it takes now is that a few cards be played right. Like controlling the number of visitors, sorting out boat guides training and informing visitors of what is accepatble behaviour in the presence of a large carnivore. If these issues can be addressed properly, it will be a huge bonus for this part of the Pantanal.

Andre observing the shoreline of a small lagoon:

 

Leaving the jaguar paradise we returned to Cuiabá and caught our flight to Campo Grande, capital city of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, from where we covered the 300km to our next stop by road. A popular holiday destination with Brazilians, the little town of Bonito lies at the heart of the Bodoqena Plateau. The geological relief of this area is carstic and as opposed to the murky waters of the north, the rivers around Bonito are crystal-clear. Some of the huge farms have in recent years taken up eco tourism operations, offering snorkeling and diving trips to the rivers and lagoons. As there is extensive farming done here, large carnivores have been extirpated a long time ago and this may leave more space for smaller species like Crab-eating fox, Ocelot and probably more of the smaller cat species of South America. We didn't see any carnivores, but successfully managed to chase away Giant anteater on three occasions. I was really surprised to see how shy these big and very strong creatures were, when approached on foot. The heart was warm, but the camera was empty, as I had been told before ;-)

This Red-and-green Macaw was rehabilitated and released after people attempted to smuggle it across the border. It is now a common visitor to the breakfast room at Cabanas Hotel, Bonito:

Illegal trade in protected species is still a major threat to Brazil's wildlife.

One of the better kept secrets and photographic highlights Octavio introduced us to is a natural open sink hole, about 100m deep and 300m in diameter. Nesting ground for dozens of Red-and-green Macaws, the place provides excellent opportunities to capture images of these marvellously beautiful birds in flight. Although we weren't exceptionally lucky with "air traffic" over the sink hole, the three days at Bonito were very well spent and I will certainly return to this place. However, I will make sure to bring my underwater photo gear...

Travel information:

Getting there: Air travel via São Paulo to Cuiabá and to Campo Grande.

For people interested in getting a good chance to photograph wild jaguars, I only have one recommendation: Join Octavio Campos Salles on his 2012 tour or arrange an individual excursion with him. And while you're at it, try to include a few days in the Atlantic rain forest, which is what I will be doing on my next visit to Brazil... can't wait.

Link to Octavio's website

 

Patrick Meier, October 2011