I was staring idly out the Jeep window as we bumped along the dusty Transpantaneiro Highway on our way to Porto Jofre, Brazil. Then figures on the side of the road caught my eye.
“Stop, stop! Jaguars!”
My husband and I were in Brazil’s Pantanal region, the world’s largest contiguous wetland and home to Panthera onca, the jaguar, largest cat in the Americas and third largest in the world. The elusive cats, distinguished by squarish black rosettes on a tawny background, were gone by the time our guide stopped and backed up his Jeep, but fresh paw prints testified to their presence.
With an estimated area of 54,000 to 75,000 square miles, the Pantanal is one of the largest jaguar conservation areas, or units, in South America. Believed to be the largest density of jaguars in the world, the region has as many as six per 100 square kilometers.
In Mayan culture, jaguars were associated with the lords of the underworld, warriors and hunters. Myths abound about their power. Some Amazon peoples believe jaguars transform into humans at night.
The jaguar’s range is as impressive as its reputation. Found throughout South and Central America and into Mexico, that range periodically includes the desert of southern Arizona. Jaguars live in the deepest Amazon jungles, at high elevations, and in the pampas and savannas of the Pantanal.
For the jaguar, the Pantanal is significant in many ways, says Howard Quigley, PhD, executive director of jaguar programs for Panthera, one of the world’s leading wild cat conservation organizations. Thanks to a diverse and abundant prey base, which includes peccaries, tapirs, marsh deer and capybaras, the jaguar has thrived there for a long time, in part because of its diverse eating habits.
Jaguars have been known to fish — like tigers and some other cats, they enjoy swimming and playing in water — and they will prey on turtles. Quigley notes that a jaguar was recently documented feeding on a porpoise at Jeanette Kawas National Park in Honduras.
“This has never been recorded before,” he says. “We don’t think the jaguar killed the porpoise, but it washed up on the beach. A jaguar encountered it and dragged it into the forest and fed on it.”
The big cats have also benefited from the presence of humans. The Pantanal is a center for ranching in Latin America, and jaguars have not hesitated to add cattle to their prey base. That causes conflicts with farmers.
In Latin America, cattle ranching is an important part of the culture and economy. When cattle are killed by jaguars — or their fellow big cats, pumas — retaliatory killings are common. In some situations, the mere presence of a jaguar can make the animal a target for removal, even if it hasn’t killed any livestock.
A jaguar can cause a lot of damage, says Pantanal Trackers founder and guide Julinho Monteiro. They can kill a calf a day and eat only the best parts, leaving the rest to rot, and return the next day for another one. But jaguars with a plentiful source of food such as capybaras (large rodents that are common in the Pantanal) never taste cattle, he says.
“Here, they have everything,” he says.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classifies the jaguar as near-threatened. That means that without protection, they could become threatened in as little as a decade, according to Quigley.
“We are with jaguars where we were 100 years ago with tigers,” Quigley says. “We’re now at a turning point.”
Habitat loss from agriculture and mining is the primary threat to the jaguar. Conservationists want not merely to stem loss of habitat, but to make more intelligent and strategic use of land so jaguars and humans can coexist.
Wildcat Tracking Tools
With the use of radio-telemetry tracking collars and nearly 500 camera traps, Panthera is studying how and where jaguars move through human-dominated landscapes, such as large agricultural developments, areas with livestock and oil palm plantations. Use of the collars is controversial. Capture is stressful for the animal, and both Panthera supporters and locals, such as Monteiro, express concern that the practice negatively affects jaguars.
Jaguars are trapped using a spring-loaded foot snare, which is baited and set in a place where no other animals pass. When the animal steps into the loop, it closes around the front paw. The trap is attached to a transmitter that immediately signals the capture, and the animal is usually immobilized within half an hour.
“Once the animal’s down, it’s monitored for respiration and pulse and all of those vital signs while we either change a collar or put a new collar on,” Quigley says. “Then it’s released back in the wild, usually within an hour of capture. Some collars have a release mechanism built in so they drop off on a particular date.”
The chance of injury during collaring is low, but it is there, Quigley says, especially in the hands of people who don’t know how to use the snares. If Quigley doesn’t set the traps himself, they are placed by trappers with extensive experience, he says.
Given the stress that capture involves, is the payback worth it?
Quigley thinks it is. In combination with noninvasive tools, such as camera traps, corridors through which jaguars can pass safely, and genetic studies, radio telemetry provides researchers with a broad view of the animals’ activities.
“What we’re finding is that during the wet season and the dry season they use the landscape in a completely different way,” he says. “We now are able to get information without even touching the animal, and, in combination with radio telemetry, it gives us a picture of jaguars that we are desperate to have.”
New Ways to Monitor Jaguars
New genetic techniques help to identify ways jaguars move across the landscape and are less invasive than radio collars.
Researchers are seeking out jaguar excrement to mine it for information. The relatively new technique involves removing cells from dried feces using a centrifuge. Once the cells are obtained, a further process extracts DNA from the cell.
“From the DNA, we can identify the species and the individual, all the way down to finding the relatedness between individuals,” Quigley says. “This tool gives us another way to know if the corridor is working because we can find related individuals on either side of the corridor, meaning they have used the corridor.”
To find the excrement, Panthera employs a German Shorthaired Pointer named Google, who is specifically trained to identify and find jaguar scat. He increases researchers’ finds by several fold, Quigley says.
When Humans and Cats Collide
Other keys to the jaguar’s survival include developing sustainable hunting practices to conserve the jaguar’s prey species and reaching out to ranchers to institute herd management programs and land use techniques that will protect livestock from the big cats.
One technique is using guard animals, such as donkeys, which have a loud warning call and a powerful kick. Another involves controlling the timing of breeding. When calves are on the ground only during one particular month of the year, it’s easier for cowboys to protect them from predators. Even simple methods like better fencing or motion-sensitive lights can be effective.
Researchers are also experimenting with breeding more combative cattle by introducing bloodlines from indigenous cattle breeds that circle their young and use their horns to ward off threats to calves. The goal is to find out what percentage of genetic contribution from those cattle is necessary in a bloodline to bring about that behavior.
“It’s a very diverse program that’s trying a little bit of everything and trying to base it on science and partnerships both at the community level and at the highest levels of government,” Quigley says. “Our goal is to test the techniques in the same jaguar population to see how each technique performs.”
Tourism and Conservation
In the Pantanal, tourism is an important component of jaguar conservation because it helps the local community, which will then place more value on protecting the animals and habitat. Because jaguars are so secretive, it’s hard to see them, but with camera trapping and the services of an experienced guide, more and more people are seeing not only jaguar signs like paw prints but also the cats themselves.
The Pantanal is one of the few tourist destinations where jaguars can be seen on a consistent basis, especially during the dry season in August and September.
“Going to a place to see a jaguar is usually impossible,” Quigley says. “The Pantanal is now showing us that it is possible, that there are places you can see jaguars on a consistent basis.”
The question now is how to integrate jaguar viewing into the tourism system. Panthera is reaching out to tour operators, guides and outfitters to develop guidelines on such factors as the distance boats should stay from the jaguar, the number of boats allowed on the site and the importance of being quiet while watching the jaguars. Those things are built into the safari industry in Africa, but they haven’t caught on yet in most of Latin America, Quigley says.
A serious concern is the baiting of animals, including jaguars, to draw them to sites where tourists can see them. Quigley and ethical guides such as Monteiro oppose baiting, but they know it goes on.
“It’s the kind of invasive ecotourism that the seasoned tourist has grown to dislike,” Quigley says. “At some point, there have to be restrictions, especially on baiting of jaguars. Sooner or later, someone will get hurt.”
In the quest to spot a jaguar, patience is key. Monteiro, our guide on our recent trip to the Pantanal, does not guarantee jaguar sightings. He refuses to bait the animals, relying instead on his knowledge of their behavior and the environment, and using noninvasive methods such as imitating the jaguar’s roar with a bamboo instrument called an esturrador.
We saw jaguars on two different days running along the river and several times on the road. Spotting them involved choosing a location where there were signs of their presence, such as paw prints or a glimpse of one in the brush on the riverbank, then waiting in the boat until the cats made an appearance. It’s not like going to a zoo.
“When we come here, we have to follow their time, not our time,” Monteiro says.
“It takes a little more time, maybe, to be able to see a jaguar in the right situation, but if you’re willing to commit five days or a week in August or September, especially in a place like the Pantanal, those sightings will happen,” he says.
More South African Wild Cats
South America has an abundance of wild cats. When my husband and I visited the Pantanal, jaguars were our main interest, but we had hopes of seeing some of the area’s other cats, as well. Only one — an ocelot — deigned to show himself and only briefly. We caught a glimpse of him on the bank of the Cuiabá River, camouflaged by foliage as we floated by.
The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is about the size of a Cocker Spaniel and has a small head with large ears. The spots on the neck and sides of the body converge to form stripes. Ocelots are primarily nocturnal and dine on small rodents, fish and black howler monkeys.
The puma (Puma concolor), also known as a mountain lion or cougar, is another resident of the Pantanal. All we saw of this large, tawny cat were paw prints.
Lighter and rangier than the jaguar, the puma is not as common as the jaguar in the Pantanal because it is less able to compete for prey, but it’s sometimes seen in dry, open grasslands. The two species live together in a sort of competitive but also symbiotic relationship, according to Howard Quigley, PhD, executive director of jaguar programs for Panthera, one of the world’s leading wild cat conservation organizations. Both cats are quick and stealthy, but they tend to favor different types of prey.
The Pantanal is home to several other wild cats, including:
The margay (Leopardus wiedii), characterized by a long tail and large spots that resemble rosettes on its sides.
The oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), a spotted feline about the size of a house cat.
The Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi), which has small spots on a gray or brown background, is most often seen in dry woodland areas in the Bolivian or Paraguayan Pantanal.
The Pantanal cat (Leopardus braccatus), a stocky cat with a striped chest and legs.
The jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi), unique for fur that comes in a variety of colors, including chestnut, brown, black and gray. These small, shy cats are difficult to see.
“(The wild cats) really avoid contact with humans,” says Pantanal Trackers founder and guide Julinho Monteiro. “It’s very rare when you get to photograph a jaguar, ocelot or puma.” However, a picture can be a valuable tool in protecting them.
Camera trapping allows Panthera to educate ranchers and farmers about the diversity of felids on their land. When people know that they have an ocelot, a margay or a jaguarundi living on their property, they become more interested in and concerned about protecting habitat.
“It’s one of those things that brings people into the fold when they know exactly what they have out there,” Quigley says. “The cats tend to capture people’s imaginations more than many other species of wildlife.”
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning writer who lives in Lake Forest, Calif., with her husband, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a longhaired Chihuahua mix and a bird who meows.