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Photos and text by Justin Black
Last month, photographer Jeff Foott and I led a small group of six passionate photographers on a photo expedition to Brazil’s Pantanal wetland, where we enjoyed an experience that I would have thought to be a ridiculous fantasy just a few years ago. Back then, I shared the common perception of jaguars as shy, reclusive, and mostly nocturnal animals, extremely wary of human approach and rarely seen even by life-long residents of their native habitat, despite having a wild population of between 50,000 and 100,000 in a range spanning from Arizona to Argentina. What we experienced in the Pantanal turned that notion on its head.
Working from two stable flat-bottomed boats, our group photographed multiple cats each day as they hunted and patrolled their territory along the banks of the rivers, and two members of our party even managed to document a mother jaguar and a yearling daughter that were previously unknown to scientists, earning the right to assign nicknames – “Sally” and “Elli” – to the new cats in the process. In this part of the Pantanal, however, our experience wasn’t unusual. All the cards were stacked in our favor.
The jaguar and their prey occur at maximum biological carrying capacity, the cats aren’t hunted in this particular area, two of their major prey species – caiman and capybaras – are on the riverbanks during the daytime, and sport fishermen have been plying the rivers in motor boats for years. So, there are a lot of cats drawn to the rivers by a lot of prey, they aren’t afraid of humans in boats, and they’re active and visible in good light. Nowhere else are the conditions so good for seeing jaguars, much less spending considerable time with them and photographing them from relatively close range.
The highlight of the expedition was the hunt on August 25th of an eight-foot yacaré caiman by a 290lb., seven-year-old male, nicknamed “Mick Jaguar” by local biologists. An experienced and battle-scarred fellow, Mick’s right eye is partially obstructed by a membrane injury. During another “Mick” sighting a few days earlier, I had noticed that he had oozing puncture wounds on his left front leg – presumably from defensive bites by a caiman or territorial battle with another jaguar.
On the day of the hunt we spotted Mick as he emerged at the far end of a long sandy beach upstream from a channel that connected the main river to a large oxbow pond. Basking in the sun on the banks of the river and swimming in the channel were a number of caiman, a favorite prey of jaguar in the Pantanal, despite the risk represented by their numerous two-inch teeth and powerful jaws. As he walked down the beach, Mick quickly switched to hunting mode, adopting a cat’s low, slow stalk. He would move forward a few steps, eyes locked dead ahead on the prey-rich area around the channel, then lie down and assess the situation for a minute of two before continuing on. He was deliberate and patient – covering the length of the 50-meter beach took him about ten minutes, during which time I had our boat driver position us just below the channel so we would have a better perspective if any action unfolded.
By the time he entered the hyacinth at the water’s edge, we still didn’t know exactly what he was after. He paused and sized up his options. Then, quietly but with purpose, he entered the channel and began swimming toward – unbelievably – the largest caiman on the beach, close to eight feet long and probably over forty years old. The reptile was directly in front of us, probably only 100 feet away, and right out in the open. We couldn’t believe our luck, but all of us in the boat were poised and ready to receive it!
Mick’s profile in the water was very low, with only his eyes, ears, and nose above water… like a crocodile. When we had seen jaguars swim before, their backs typically broke the surface, so it seemed that this was deliberate. He crossed the channel in 24 seconds, moving into position directly behind the caiman in its blind spot. Mick’s feet once again found purchase on the sand and…
…he exploded from the water and onto the caiman’s back, swinging his right paw into its side to hook into it with his claws. His left paw followed immediately thereafter.
As Mick’s momentum carried them both into the water at the river’s edge, he went for a killing bite at the base of the caiman’s skull. His angle was no good, so he pinned the caiman with his body while he turned his head into a better position.
His jaws found their mark, and in one powerfully fluid motion, he lifted the front half of the caiman’s body off the ground, spun it around to his left, and started trotting back toward the channel. The caiman weighed around 150lbs., but Mick appeared to handle it as easily as a big dog with a chew toy.
As the caiman looked back at his attacker, Mick pushed it into the channel broadside, pushing a bow wave ahead of them. Amazingly, this crossing took no longer than the first. Mick walked up the sandy bank, into the tall grassed behind the beach, most likely headed for the cover of the nearby forest. His prize would feed him for days during which time he would guard the carcass, so we realized we wouldn’t see Mick again before we had to head for home. He’s an amazing animal, and we all felt privileged to have be fortunate enough to witness that spectacular display of power, grace, and hunting prowess. After this experience of a lifetime, we had a new appreciation for each jaguar we were fortunate enough to see.
The other denizens of the Pantanal were a joy to observe and photograph as well, of course. Giant otters, toco toucans, capybaras (the world’s largest rodent at up to 90lbs.), tapirs, yacaré caiman, jabiru storks, kingfishers and an array of raptors competed for our time and attention, putting on a great show of their own. Honestly, even without the big cats, the Pantanal is a wonderful place to photograph, especially birds, with species numbering in the hundreds. The fact that added to everything else, we also saw jaguar every day we were on the river, with multiple sightings each day some lasting over an hour, and the discovery of new cats that hadn’t been known before truly made this the trip of a lifetime.
When I returned home, I was very pleased to find that a number of international news agencies and the Huffington Post were interested in my reportage of the event, and even happier that our friend Paul Donahue – a biologist and all-around great guy who had been photographing from our second boat along with Jeff Foott – had his photos picked up by National Geographic’s online news site. While it’s always nice to be published, I hope that the light we and others shed on how special this place is will play a part in its conservation. Visionary Wild is supporting efforts underway to use ecotourism to protect the Pantanal’s biodiversity in an area the size of New Jersey – including the most important jaguar habitat – while enhancing the local economy and reducing the killing of jaguars by ranchers seeking to protect their herds. It is our hope that it can be demonstrated to more of the local communities that the jaguars of the Pantanal, rather than being vermin, represent a valuable resource worthy of protection.
Technical details: Nikon D800E and D7100 cameras, and Nikkor lenses.