September 30, 2011 6:03 pm

Jaguar showroom

Spotting jaguars in the wild isn’t easy, but one Brazilian safari company is so sure of success that its trips come with a guarantee

Jaguars are elusive. The third-largest cat, after the lion and tiger, they were once found across South America and in much of the southern US, but habitat loss and hunting have seen the global population dwindle to an estimated 15,000, concentrated near the Amazon basin.

They do not break cover and chase down prey like packs of lion. Instead jaguars silently stalk and ambush, pouncing out of the jungle from their prey’s blind spot, then dragging the catch to somewhere secluded. All of which makes them hard to spot, and makes it all the more surprising to find a company offering wildlife safaris with “guaranteed” jaguar sightings.

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“Only 2 per cent missed last year and I’m going for 100 per cent success this year,” says Charles Munn, chief executive of SouthWild. If guests fail to see a jaguar, the company will offer another trip free. Whether after one failed mission you would actually want to travel all the way back to central Brazil for another go is a moot point, but it does show his confidence.

Munn’s trips are based in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetland. His methods of jaguar-spotting don’t include the use of any equipment apart from radios and small motor-powered boats. There are no infrared trackers, no lamps to stun the animals, as happens on some night safaris in Africa. As for GPS collaring, Munn not only shuns it but is vociferously against it: he believes the procedure harms jaguars and makes them more timid, thus reducing sightings.

Instead, guests and guides simply keep an eye out for cats as they glide along the waterways by boat. “The river bank is like a jaguar gallery,” says Munn, though he admits that it sounds far-fetched. “In March 2005 when I was first told about jaguars in the Pantanal, I thought it was baloney.”

Brazil map

We fly from Rio to Cuiabá, capital of the state of Mato Grosso, then drive 40 miles along the Transpantaneira highway to SouthWild’s Santa Teresa Lodge. In the morning, we continue by 4x4 to Jofre, a small fishing village on the Cuiabá River. The Transpantaneira cuts a straight line through the Pantanal’s floodplains, with 126 wooden bridges straddling pools of water full of caimans and capybaras (the world’s biggest rodent, it looks like a guinea pig but is the size of a sheep).

The highway makes for outstanding wildlife spotting: the open spaces around it make animals far more visible than in the Amazon, where dense foliage provides cover. Suddenly we pull to a halt and Fisher, one of the guides, jumps out and picks up a three-metre anaconda as though it were a stick on the road. Soon after, we find ourselves enveloped in a sea of cattle. We stop and ask the cowboys how many there are: “A thousand” comes the answer.

We reach Jofre (which seems to be inhabited by more toucans than people) in the late morning and transfer into boats to travel upstream to the floating hotel that is to be our home for the next three nights. It may not be the height of luxury (the equivalent of Africa’s high-end safari lodges simply doesn’t exist in the Pantanal yet), but the cabins are comfortable enough and there’s a large deck with a bar and hammocks, as well as a very good chef.

Pictures of jaguar sightings from that morning are handed around over lunch. We finish our pacu (one of the Pantanal’s tastiest fish) and head off, champing at the bit to get out and see our first cat.

Turning off the Cuiabá and travelling up smaller tributaries, we start to get a sense of the area’s beauty and diversity: savannahs, scrublands, forests, endless ponds, lakes, rivers and islands make up what has been dubbed “South America’s Wild West”.

Pantanal wetlands

The Pantanal wetlands in Brazil

From January to March, much of the Pantanal’s 54,000 square miles are flooded, so there are few people and no towns. From April onwards, the waters recede, leaving an enormously rich feeding ground for wildlife. Many animals come to drink from the ponds and eat the trapped fish.

With birds, monkeys, marsh deer and caimans, there is a lot to look at on these safaris besides cats. Flying fish jump to a soundtrack of birdsong, the rivers overflow with water hyacinths and flocks of white birds swoop around the boats like confetti.

“There are 400 species of birds here,” says Munn, pointing out jabiru storks, herons, red-crested finches, hummingbirds, kingfishers as well as eagles, vultures and black-collared hawks. We also see howler and capuchin monkeys, giant otters and hyacinth macaws. These bright blue birds, the world’s largest parrot, are on the endangered list but are a daily sight in the Pantanal, squawking overhead like gossiping old women. But as the sun sets, and we return for supper, we have yet to get even a glimpse of the star attraction. Munn tells me my growing sense of anxiety is a common symptom of “jaguar fever”.

As day two dawns, the long-awaited cry finally comes: “onça, onça!” A panthera onca, to use its scientific name, has been spotted. Peering into the knotted undergrowth on the high riverbank I make out a huge patterned head attached to a long velvet body.

Elation spreads through the boat, eyes light up, lenses focus and cameras click. Some say humans have a sense of mutual appreciation when seeing a jaguar, a feeling rooted in the fact that we’re both at the top of the food chain. That is, until the “oohs and ahhhs” are disturbed by a fishing boat that revs up to the scene. As the fishermen whoop and point, the glorious creature seeks cover in the undergrowth and disappears from sight.

The fishing boat zooms off, leaving us in glum silence. The comedown after the jaguar high sets in, but then, as if saying goodbye, deep barks come from the bushes as the jaguar slinks away. Reading our resentment, Munn shrugs and explains that the fishermen are to thank for the fact that the area is so good for jaguar-spotting. “Sport-fishing boats have gone up and down these waters for years, so the jaguars have grown accustomed to humans.”

Day three brings a second sighting. Almost an hour of watching one splendid jaguar; at first he sits in a large clearing cleaning himself, before getting up and stalking along the top of the riverbank, stopping to eat grass, and finally swimming downstream and pouncing (unsuccessfully) on a caiman.

Our last morning brings a final sighting. It’s the same jaguar as the day before and, by the size of his belly, he got his claws into a caiman after all. He lies in the shade flicking away flies with his tail, and I sit back and soak up the view of this superior animal. Finally we pull away, our guarantee well and truly fulfilled.

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Details

Gabriel O’Rorke’s trip was arranged by Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) which offers a week’s itinerary at Southwild Pantanal Lodge and Southwild Jaguar Camp (www.southwild.com) from £2,595 per person, including domestic flights from Rio with TAM Brazilian Airlines, guided excursions, transfers and meals.

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