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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

On the tracks of the jaguar - exploring the deepest jungle of the Pantanal

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

Beto, our boatman, now seems visibly nervous. The man for whom the jaguars have become a daily routine has maneuvered our boat as deep as possible into the reeds to give us the best view of the stately jaguar lady. Now he hastily starts the engine, ready to drive out at any time. The jaguar is now almost within jumping distance.....

Searching for jaguars by boat in the extensive river landscape of the Pantanal - good eyesight, luck and patience are required
Camping under mango trees and palms - a green paradise awaits us
Millions of mosquitoes, snakes on the street and frogs in the bathroom - the jungle camp is real
So close to the big cat - the king of the Pantanal doesn't let us disturb him while chilling

What do you have to do to see jaguars in the wild? Above all, have a lot of patience. We have been in the Pantanal for some time (>>> see our last blog) and have already seen so many different animal species, now the king of the Pantanal, the jaguar, is still missing. In the Brazilian Pantanal there is a population of around 4,000 individuals, but spread over 195,000 km² - an area almost half the size of Germany. But still, nowhere else is such a high density of jaguars. So there are also realistic chances of finding at least one of the big cats.

In the late afternoon we arrive in Porto Jofre, the starting point of our Jaguar tour. The campsite is picturesquely situated on the banks of the Rio Sao Lourenço, in the middle of the jungle. We can harvest mangoes and papayas in front of our camper. A few hyacinth macaws cavort in the tree next door. We feel like in paradise. The only thing that doesn't quite go with it are the annoying mosquitoes, which you can hardly keep away from, especially after dark. And the frogs that like to be in the wet. So it happens that one jumps out of the closet. So keep your eyes open before number two :-)

Camping in Porto Jofre under mango trees Pocone Jaguar Tour Pantanal Safari Leopard Brasilien Highlights
Camping in Porto Jofre under mango trees

In Porto Jofre there are a number of providers who offer a similar package for Jaguar tours, but differ significantly in price. Depending on whether the seats in the boat are more comfortable or gimbals (stabilizers) for the cameras are permanently installed, but a lot also depends on the provider and those who earn a share. We opted for a small boat without an English-speaking guide and booked it directly at the campsite opposite the boat ramp. Beto is our boat driver. It starts at 7 a.m. and we race along the Rio Sao Lourenço at full speed. In that way we probably will not see any wild animal. After all, Beto is connected to other boats via radio.

After a few failed attempts, we actually meet a jaguar after just one hour at a tributary. We can hardly believe it. Just 10 m away from us, it's hanging on a branch and enjoying the view. By the way, it's a lady, Patrizia, as we find out later. The jaguars here in the area are recorded by various projects, e.g. the Jaguar Identification Project, and identified based on the spot pattern. It is as individual as our fingerprint.

Porto Jofre Pocone Jaguar Tour Pantanal Safari Leopard Brasilien Highlights
Patrizia takes it easy

A little later - Beto, our boat driver, now seems visibly nervous. The man for whom the jaguars have become a daily routine has maneuvered our boat as deep as possible into the reeds to give us the best view of the stately jaguar lady. Now he hastily starts the engine, ready to drive out at any time. Patrizia is almost within jumping distance, so we flee to be on the safe side. Although jaguar attacks on humans are rare, we play it safe and keep our distance. I think it's a good thing, because I never want to have an Alaskan experience ever again. See our encounter with a grizzly >>>

Porto Jofre Pocone Jaguar Tour Pantanal Safari Leopard Brasilien Highlights Rio Sao Lourenço Rio Paraguay
Dangerously close

After a while, the jaguar lady changes places, stretches a little and then hikes up the next tree. You can hardly see it from there. And the boat ride continues. Two other leopards, brothers, were sighted not far from her. You can always guess the spots because we are of course not the only ones out and about here. On the contrary, around 20 boats are usually present where jaguars can be seen. Some with just one or two people, others with up to 15 people on board. Unfortunately, not all passengers seem to focus on animal observation and photography. You see boats with drunken tourists drinking one beer after the other. The background noise is also corresponding. To be honest, we have zero understanding for such behavior.

Rio Sao Lourenço Jaguar Safari Porto Jofre Pantanal Nord Highlights must see Brasilien
Young jaguar going into the water

On the Rio Sao Lourenço, the jaguars are now used to motor boats with tourists; they let them approach within a few meters. The largest cat in South America, which can weigh up to 160 kg, is at the end of the food chain here in the Pantanal and doesn't have to hide. Unless she goes stalking. The jaguar ambushes its prey and bites its head. Its bite force is unsurpassed among cats. Even animals that are larger are potential prey. Capybaras (South American water pigs) or caimans are usually on the menu. However, even animals in the water are not safe from it. The jaguar is an excellent swimmer due to its powerful legs. He also kills giant otters or capybaras that feel safe in the water.

Jaguar Tour Porto Jofre Pantanal Safari Brasilien Highlight Tiere beobachten
The jaguar also feels comfortable in the water

We discover countless other jaguars on our boat tour. At some point we stop counting them. We didn't expect that at all. In trees, on the shore, in the river, alone, in pairs or even three - we are totally thrilled. And all in an area that is quite small. We move within a few minutes boat ride. Of course, that raises questions. Why are there so many jaguars in such a small space, when they are solitary animals (with the exception of mating) with a territory of 80 to 110 km². One might assume that the animals are being fed, but we don't know. However, some locals have "heard of it before" even if they don't do it themselves. The fact is that jaguar tourism is big business. Countless tour providers bring tourists to the Pantanal, whether by bus, river cruise or even small plane. There's a lot of money to be made there. However, only a few earn money, 97% of the income goes to about 3% of the population. Well, that's the way it is. On the other hand, the leopards are of course also protected and preserved through tourism. They may not be hunted in the area around Porto Jofre. Unfortunately, it still happens that the farmers who have their farms along the Transpantaneira shoot jaguars. And this, despite the fact that in the rare case that a cow or other livestock is killed, they receive compensation from the state. The farmers don't make money from tourism - on the contrary, they feel disturbed by the tour operators who share the road. A double-edged sword.

The equation seems so simple at first glance. According to the biologist Fernando Tortato the value of a cow is measured at USD 2,000 while the value of a live jaguar is calculated at USD 108,000 (per year). Wouldn't it make sense to switch to tourism? Unfortunately, the level of education among most farmers is too low and the understanding of the tourism business is simply non-existent. So it will probably remain the case that a few fill their pockets.

Our boat driver Beto definitely does his best for us. We hunt jaguars until just before sunset, with only a short break at lunchtime on a shady riverbank. Speaking of working hard, the boat drivers are sometimes quite aggressive in order to get their customers the best spot for jaguar observation and sometimes ram the neighboring boat. It has happened that a boat overturned and 10 cameras landed in the river. With that kind of equipment almost 100,000 euros sunk in the water. I doubt that it is covered by the boater's liability insurance...

Rio Sao Lourenço Jaguar Safari Porto Jofre Pantanal Brasilien Highlight
Jaguar on a tree on the river bank

However, not only jaguars are in front of our lens, we also see giant otters, countless caimans and cute capybaras on the shore. And finally we even discover capuchin monkeys climbing cheekily on the trees. They play a very important role in the ecosystem, as their food waste ends up in the river and is nutrition for the Dourados, also known as South American salmon tetras. By the way, the monkeys also distribute a lot of seeds. In addition to capuchin monkeys, we also saw the much larger howler monkeys that are native to the Pantanal.

Brüllaffen auf den Bäumen am Rio Sao Lourenço Porto Jofre Pantanal Brasilien Jaguar Safari Highlight Tour
Howler monkeys in the trees on Rio Sao Lourenço

Rio Sao Lourenço Porto Jofre Pantanal Brasilien Jaguar Safari Highlight Tour
Sunset on Rio Sao Lourenço

All in all a great experience. I can now understand that many tourists come back. And we are also considering making another detour from Bolivia next year. Then the rainy season is just over in the Pantanal, a completely different world. And probably no less exciting.

Finally, a few more mishaps. What happens if you...

... accidentally leave the garbage bag outside. The picture says it all :-)

... don't take a flashlight with you on the way to wash the dishes? I actually almost stepped on a caiman at the campsite. However, he was at least as frightened as I was. Even if humans are not potential prey, the bite force of the small alligators is not without it.

... get out of the car on ailing wooden bridges? Micha wanted to point me - walking backwards - to the best or only lane on the bridge. And suddenly, he was gone. I didn't see him again from the driver's cab. Gone. Broken down through the broken slats, mud and caimans underneath him. Luckily not too much happened. Just a few painful abrasions and lots of splinters on the hands. I then removed it in an emergency operation right on the side of the road. Poor boy!

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