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Cat's Luck

Nowhere else are there so many jaguars as in southwest Brazil. Sometimes you can even get closer to them than you would like.

By Susanne Mittenhuber

The dusty track full of potholes and wooden planks ends at the river. Next to a motorboat Lino Rocha is waiting to take the guests deeper into the swamp. The first contact is difficult. The common language is missing. But it works. Rocha points to some life jackets. "Do you have to wear them?" He shrugs his shoulders. Probably not. The engine starts to roar. The water splashes. We're off to the Pantanal.
It takes only ten minutes to drive through the 230,000-square-kilometre wetlands in southwest Brazil until Rocha suddenly throttles the engine. While his passengers are still wondering in horror whether something has happened, he points to the sandbank on the shore. Thick paws, a massive body, a self-confident walk: this is how a Jaguar steps from the embankment to the shore. Ten metres in front of a couple of bathing capybaras he settles down. There is excitement in the boat. And disillusionment: nobody has his camera at hand.
At the end of the day there will be three jaguars that Lino Rocha finds on the banks of the Rio Cuiabá and its tributaries. Three jaguars! They are shy animals, hard to spot, they always say. So what was that: luck, coincidence?
There is so much prey along the rivers that the animals only have to hunt during the day.
"No, it wasn't luck, and in fact it was nothing special," assures biologist and tour guide André Moratelli. He himself had spotted five jaguars one morning on the Rio Cuiabá, he says. A friend of his even saw nine in one day. "There is no better place in South America to see jaguars."
Two rivers in the Pantanal are considered particularly good starting points for a jaguar safari: the Rio Cuiabá, which is easily accessible via the Transpantaneira, a backwater road that leads straight into the pampas. And the remote Rio Paraguay, which borders the Taiama Ecological Reserve. At the Rio Cuiabá, the jaguars are meanwhile used to motorboats with tourists; they let them come within a few meters. At the Rio Paraguay the animals are more shy.
On behalf of the University of the State of Mato Grosso, André Moratelli observed the jaguars for 20 years. He equipped them with transmitter collars, set up photo traps, read their tracks. He researched how jaguars hunt, how they mate, how they fight their territorial battles. But what André Moratelli still doesn't know, even after such a long time, is how many animals there are here at all. "The Pantanal is about as vast as Britain," he explains. It would take a lot of people and a lot of money to get reliable figures."
On the American continent there are said to be between 15,000 and 25,000 jaguars. Although the animals resemble leopards, they are more comparable to tigers. Males weigh on average around 100 kilos. Originally, jaguars were also common in the south of the USA, but now they are only found in Central and South America. Like tigers, jaguars love water, and they usually do not move too far away from it. Now there are many rivers in the vastness of the Amazon basin, and yet it is difficult to find jaguars in them. Researchers suspect that the animals hunt in the jungle not only at night, but also during the day, in order to track down their widely scattered prey. On the Rio Cuiabá and the Rio Paraguay, however, there are capybaras and caimans in abundance, and the jaguars can lead a less hidden life here. It is enough for them to hunt during the day: The capybaras reliably come to the shore in the morning and in the afternoon, the big cats just have to strike.
The jaguar has nothing to fear from humans here. This was not always the case. Until the eighties jaguars were hunted massively in the Pantanal. As a child André Moratelli only knew dead jaguars. Full of pride, Moratelli tells us that the farmers' children showed pictures of the killed cats of prey at school. "The pictures really made me sick. This posing in front of the animals. I hated it." Of course, there were times when a jaguar also killed a cow. But that was not the real reason for the killing. "A dead jaguar was first and foremost a trophy."
As a child, Moratelli felt pity for animals. Today he is fascinated by their power and efficiency. Unlike other big cats like lion, tiger or leopard, the jaguar does not kill its victim with paw blows or bites on the neck, but with a single bite on the head. Moratelli says that people often find such attacks particularly cruel. But for the prey animal it is a quick death.
This kind of killing may have contributed to the jaguar becoming a symbol of power and strength in many pre-Columbian cultures. One of the most famous figures of the Olmec culture, which originated around 1500 BC in the Mexican highlands, is the jaguar man, a hybrid creature with a human body and a jaguar head. The priests of the Maya also wrapped themselves in jaguar skins and decorated their temples with images of jaguars. Finally, among the Aztecs, the jaguar warriors were an elite unit of the army. They were considered to be particularly brave, but also particularly brutal.
Since more and more farmers in the Pantanal are also living from eco-tourism, jaguars have little to fear even on the lands of the cattle breeders. Nevertheless, there are conflicts, emphasizes André Moratelli. The fishermen on the Rio Paraguay feel threatened by the jaguars. Usually they only fire shots in the air to drive the animals away, says Moratelli. But he has also observed that the fishermen attract the big cats with fish waste and shoot at them.
It's a dangerous game the fishermen get involved in. In recent years there have been three attacks by jaguars on fishermen along the Rio Paraguay. The predators seem to have lost their fear of humans, but not their aggressiveness. The biologists are aware that the feeding is related to attacks.
At the Rio Cuiabá the situation is more relaxed. Here there are practically no more people who live from fishing; the inhabitants have left the river to the fishing tourists. And the participants of the jaguar safaris, who have only been coming to the Rio Cuiabá for a few years.
But also here one should not forget that the jaguar is a predator. As long as you stay in the boat and keep a distance of at least 15 meters to the animals, everything is fine, Moratelli assures. Things get critical on the shore. "Jaguars have preferred places that they will always return to." It is not that difficult to spot them. As cleanliness fanatics, jaguars tolerate neither disturbing leaves nor churning earth in their places. The more spotless and tidy a place near the shore is, the more cautiously one should move there. Lino Rocha decides not to drop his guests off on the idyllic shore for a lunch break. He drives a bit further, where it is less inviting but safe. "He knows what he is doing", says Moratelli.
Travel Arrangements: Aventura do Brasil, a specialist tour operator, has a six-day North Pantanal tour on its programme

Thursday, 22 January 2015, Süddeutsche Zeitung No. 17