On the Trail of Onza (Jaguar)

It started on a dimly lit street outside a bar in Sao Paulo’s Vila Madalena neighborhood. I met a friend of a friend named Edu. I got into the habit of asking the people on the ground about what to do in their country rather than lug around a Lonely Planet. While most people recommend Rio or the beaches of the northeast, Edu told me of jaguars. I, of course, knew there were Jaguars in Brazil but I wasn’t quite sure how to find them.

Edu told me that the Pantanal was home to the largest population of jaguars in the world. The world’s third biggest cat used to roam from Argentina to Arizona but the population has steadily declined over the years. There is only an estimated 15,000 left of which 50%-60% are in the Pantanal. The Pantanal is huge, the world largest tropical wetland, spanning an estimated 75,000 square miles. Edu said that most of the cats were in the north near the city of Cuiaba.

Cuiaba is nowhere near Sao Paulo, a 35-hour bus ride to be exact. I was in no rush so I planned to work my way there. I stopped in Foz do Iguacu to see Iguaçu Falls and at that hostel there was signs for Pantanal tours, with pictures of Jaguars on them. It wasn’t outside Cuiaba but near Campo Grande. That isn’t what Edu said, but apparently there are jaguars there too. The guy from the tour company told me they see seven or eight per month. So I booked a three-night package, and if you do the math, that gave me a pretty good chance of seeing one.

Once there I asked the other people at the lodge what they had seen. Tons of animals, no jaguars. The Pantanal is one of the premier places in the world to see wildlife of all varieties and while that was cool, I came for one reason. I asked my guide when the last time he saw a jaguar was, he couldn’t remember. The other guide said he saw one 15 days ago. I had been had by the salesman!

I did meet two people who did see jaguars in the north, near Cuiaba. However, the price difference was staggering. A night at the lodge and a day tour in the south was about $53, in the north it was $261 for the same thing. Not to mention another $35 and 15 hours on the bus. After the three day tour was over, I pressed my luck and stayed two more nights. I had a marvelous time, but no jag.

I thought about cutting bait and heading to Bolivia, my next destination. However, I felt quite empty inside. I couldn’t come all this way and not see one. The Northeast Ohio in me wouldn’t let me quit. But I also couldn’t afford the $700-$1,000 for a tour package in the north. Not knowing what awaited me, I pressed on.

Cuiaba turned out to be one of the most dangerous places on earth with the 16th highest murder rate in the world; higher than anyplace in the U.S. Robberies were commonplace, I met a guy who had been robed eight times. My rough plan was to take a bus to the dusty outpost of Pocone and then try to hitchhike the Transpantaneira “Highway” (a 91-mile dirt road with 147 wooden bridges) to Porto Jofre. Once in Porto Jofre I would try to slide into an already existing tour. However, the temperature was hovering near 111 (44 C) and there was no shade on the road. If I didn’t get picked up and ran out of water, I was dead. I don’t think I could carry enough food and water for a 91-mile hike. Not to mention the Transpantaneira is crawling with predators, of the two, four, eight and zero legged variety. There is no cell service. Everyone in Cuiaba told me to scrub this plan, it was too dangerous. It looked like there would be no jaguar after all.

By chance, I met a co-worker of my host. Sandy, a Brazilian born women of Japanese descent, took it upon herself to make sure my dream came true. She burned up the phone lines, calling every tour company she could think of. It really helped to have a Portuguese speaking local person make the calls instead of some damn gringo. After several days, and cost prohibitive offers, she found a guy would take me out for one day for $350. That is a ton of money for me and there was no guarantee I’d see one. If I didn’t, that was it. Game over. I decided to take one more shot.

We left the lodge dark-and-early at 5 a.m. and made it to Porto Jofre by 7. Once on the river, I was grinning from ear-to-ear. I knew this was my best, and last, chance. The best, and safest, way is to see a jaguar is by boat. Remember, these cats grow up to 250 pounds and kill in an ambush style with one skull crushing bite to the head. You’d never see it coming. Not place to be traipsing around in the woods.

It was hotter than hades and there was no shade on the small aluminum boat. It was a clear and sunny day and the air reeked of sunscreen and bug spray. I was locked in, staring at the bank and every tree. As the hours wore on my SPF 50 and enthusiasm began to fade. Eight o’clock, nine, ten, 11, pessimism began to creep in. I wasn’t going to see one. I wasted 12 days budget for nothing. I was sweating profusely just sitting and the bugs were swarming. I was over it. Defeated, by noon, I closed my eyes all together to catch a cat nap, pun intended.

Around 1:30, I heard the crackle of the radio, the boat leapt to life at full throttle. Whatever was said (in Portuguese) caused our captain to slam on the gas. Soon we saw another small boat anchored near the bank. At first, I didn’t see anything and then, there it was. Two jaguars, a male and a female (it is mating season), lying under a tree. They seemed to be embraced, taking it easy in the shade. We sat there for hours, watching. The cats would occasionally look our way but they couldn’t care less that we were there. Eventually, we left them alone, hopefully to make some more jaguars and retuned to our lodge.

It was a long and difficult odyssey to find a jaguar but when I made eye contact with the big male (over 200 pounds) it was all worth it. I’d do it all over again any day.

In the next year or two I hope to see the other two big cats (lion and tiger) in the wild. It would be quite the trifecta, but the first is always special.

 

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