Jaguars and Wildlife of Brazil’s Pantanal 2012 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Aug 24, 2012

Travel often has a dream-come-true quality, especially in very remote locations that are exotic, mysterious and potentially very exciting. As our small boats drifted down the Cuiabá River in southwestern Brazil in search of jaguars—one of the world’s most elusive big cats—on our August Jaguars and Wildlife of Brazil’s Pantanal tour, we quickly experienced those dream-like moments when the first jaguar we photographed turned out to be a female and her two half-grown cubs hunting on the riverbank! On a trip where we might have been happy seeing 4 or 5 jaguars in total, we, in fact, saw 18—and had incredible photography opportunities with almost half of them!

Our boats often brought us within amazingly close range of jaguars hunting or lounging in the open along the riverbank. Virtually none of the cats were worried about our presence and usually went about their activities almost as though we didn’t exist!

Though I have led several trips to the Pantanal to photograph birds and other wildlife, and as a company we’ve offered the trip many times more, this was my first trip with a dedicated jaguar component built into it. And boy-oh-boy did it turn out to be a great addition despite my original skepticism about finding photographable jaguars!

We started our photography as we left the city of Cuiabá and headed south down the unpaved Transpantaneira—the so-called “highway” constructed to traverse the world’s largest wetland, developed to bring cattle to market from the Pantanal interior. For years I considered the Transpantaneira among the worst roads in the world. It used to have dozens of treacherous wooden bridges spanning the flooded creeks that crisscross the region in the wet season. On one trip, years ago, our full-size bus broke through one of these rickety bridges and wound up lying on its frame on the rotten bridge deck with its wheels jutting through the broken boards. But these days, thankfully, the road has seen some major improvements and the new bridges are in much better shape. Fixing the road has undoubtedly led to increased jaguar access.

The Pantanal is the Everglades on steroids! Its wealth of diverse wildlife rivals almost any other natural area in the world. When you drive the road and cruise the verdant rivers by boat you will see literally thousands of black caiman (South American alligators) during your trip! There are also thousands of wading birds in impressive concentrations during the dry season (the time of our visit). Viewing this, one can only imagine what Florida and Louisiana wetlands might have been like prior to their modification and “development.”

Photography in the Pantanal is spectacular for birds alone. Lodges along the Transpantaneira are set in wonderful habitats and many of them have extensive bird feeders that attract lots of photo subjects. Among the feeder-frequenting favorites of shooters are toco toucans—the Fruit Loops bird—with their huge yellow bill making them look like a flying banana. Virtually all these ranches have planted palm trees on the grounds, whose fruits attract spectacular and relatively unwary electric-blue hyacinth macaws—the world’s largest parrot—within close range for photography. These raucous birds arrive in pairs or small groups and their screaming calls announce their appearance from a long distance as they fly to the palms at dawn for their breakfast. We easily photographed more than 60 species of birds during our stay.

The Pantanal is a “big glass” shoot. A 500mm lens is ideal for most of the bird photography, but out on the river when we were shooting jaguars, that lens was usually too big and ungainly for the close proximity to the jaguars where we often found ourselves! My ideal lens for this trip was my 100mm-400mm zoom—hand held—which allowed for more flexibility in composition of the images from the boat and quicker response time when shooting action. Tripods were useful on occasion, but as the drifting boat turned and twisted it was relatively difficult to stay fixed on the jaguars when the camera was mounted on a tripod. Occasionally we would find a cat lounging on the riverbank where we could set an anchor and stay fixed in one location. Then a 500mm lens was useful for portraits/headshots. But overall, with the new camera bodies that allow the ISO to be set at levels of 1000 ISO or more, a hand-held camera with a high ISO setting is the best way to go.

From the boats we had numerous photogenic encounters with families of noisy giant otters (the world’s largest) catching piranhas along the vine-tangled riverbank and groups of capybaras (the world’s largest rodent) sunning themselves on open sand bars. Capybaras and the black caiman constitute a large portion of the jaguars’ diet—and they are constantly on the alert to flee into the water if danger is near. Unfortunately for them, jaguars have no disdain for water and will plunge in right after them! It was fantastic to watch that action in close range from our boats!

The jaguars in the Pantanal are the world’s largest (have you spotted a size theme here?) race of jaguars and they seem to be built like small tanks. Short-legged and extremely muscular, their hunting technique (at least in the Pantanal) was overt and forceful as they plunged through the thick vegetation along the riverbank in hope of flushing hidden prey out into the open. Unlike stealthy leopards in Africa or tigers in India, a hunting jaguar will shake the bushes it crashes through the brush. This observation allowed us to place our boats ahead of the cat’s direction in open, photogenic, areas on the riverbank where we could predict its path as it traveled.

This easy jaguar accessibility in the Pantanal is a recent phenomenon and it is hard to predict how long it will last. Because of their easy access, they have become the subject of numerous scientific studies and more and more of them are being darted and radio collared for satellite tracking—unfortunately rendering them virtually “unphotogenic.” So your time to visit the Pantanal should be soon. Even without the jaguars, the Pantanal should be near the top of any wildlife photographer’s bucket list. And now, with accessible jaguars, a photo shoot in the Pantanal is even more exciting and productive!