Jaguars and Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal 2019 Trip Report #2

By Mark Thomas on Dec 16, 2019

The Pantanal encompasses the world's largest tropical wetland area. It is located mostly within the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, but it also extends into Mato Grosso and portions of Bolivia and Paraguay. It covers an area estimated at between 140,000 and 195,000 square kilometers (54,000 and 75,000 square miles).
During the wet season—roughly October through May—frequent rains flood nearly 80% of this giant flood plain as water runs into it from the surrounding elevated areas. But as the waters begin to recede in June, the Jaguar prowling along river bankPantanal offers the unique opportunity for visitors to cruise the permanent rivers by small boat to view this amazing ecosystem and its residents. High on nearly everyone’s list of “things they’d like to see” in the Pantanal are jaguars. There is no other location in the world where one can regularly see this third-largest of all cats. Barely a decade ago, you would be hard-pressed to locate even one of these elusive predators. But time has changed things in the Pantanal. In recent years, the jaguars, as well as the other denizens of these wetlands, like giant river otters, have become accustomed to the small boats cruising up and down the rivers daily—to the point of virtually ignoring our presence. They carry on with their daily activities like hunting, fighting, mating and simply lounging in trees—barely casting a curious glance in our direction. This sets the scene for one of my favorite wildlife spectacles on the planet.
This is one of my favorite trips that I lead and I guided three tours this year.  I spent a total of six weeks in the Pantanal in 2019. Each tour group had almost completely different experiences. ALL of them saw great wildlife action and numerous jaguars. What follows is a single report that combines elements from all three trips.
After first flying into either Brasilia or Sao Paulo Airports, we continued our trip on a domestic flight to Cuiabá, Brazil. From the airport we were transported to our comfortable hotel where we met that evening for a brief talk regarding what we were about to see and do.
A caiman catches a fishAfter breakfast the following morning, we boarded our comfortable, air-conditioned bus and began our journey to the Pantanal. We traveled paved roads for about one hour to the town of Poconé, where we made a quick comfort stop. This town is known as the “Gateway to the Pantanal.” Back on the road, the pavement soon ended, and we were now on a dirt road. We traveled another hour, spotting lots of birds, caiman and capybaras along the way. We came to the entrance gate of the Transpantaneira, the official (and only) road into the Pantanal. We stopped for a few photos then continued on. Almost immediately, we stopped to photograph various wading birds in a roadside waterhole which included great egrets, cocoi herons, rufescent tiger herons, large-billed terns, American wood storks, Jabiru storks and countless jacaré caiman. The Transpantaneira is a dirt road that is 147km long and has more than 120 small bridges to cross on the way to its terminus in Porto Jofre at the Cuiabá River.
Today we traveled a section of that road until about 11 AM when we arrived at our first lodge of the trip. Here, we spent most of our time on small boats where we photographed a variety of birds—many in flight—that come for fish that is tossed out into the large oxbow lake. Among our targets were three different hawks: black-collared, great black and roadside. Another frequent subject was the large cocoi heron related the great blue heron of North America. We also photographed the largest of the five kingfishers found in the Pantanal the ringed kingfisher. Along the shore we had the opportunity to photograph more species of kingfishers—Amazon, green, American pygmy, and green and rufous.
Since photographing birds in flight was a new skill for some, the first afternoon yielded only moderate success. Therefore, after dinner, we got together and discussed the best technique for this type of photography. The next morning, we were at it again and the photos improved. After lunch, we had our third trip in the boats, and everyone was very pleased with the images they had captured. In the trees around the lodge we photographed brown capuchin monkeys and a variety of birds that came to our bird feeders.
Toucan in Brazil's PantanalAfter two nights at our first lodge, we were back in our bus and heading further south along the Transpantaneira. We stopped frequently along the way to photograph birds, caiman and even the occasional marsh deer. Our second lodge is literally at the end of the road along the Cuiabá River. Upon arrival there we settled into our rooms and headed to lunch. At the lodge, a wooden boardwalk spans a large lagoon that is home to several types of birds—striated herons, wattled jacanas, anhingas and southern screamers. Feeding at water’s edge are buff-necked ibis and a cocoi heron. The main attraction of the lagoon is the giant Victoria lily pads. The pads can be nearly one meter across and can easily support the weight of the aquatic birds that fish from them.
On the lodge’s property there are several low palm trees festooned with palm nuts. Every evening, a flock of up to six hyacinth macaws came to feed on these nuts. At the same time, a variety of other birds came to eat fruit that we had set out. These included beautiful toco toucans, tanagers, kiskadees and many more small birds. Our arrival day was our only real chance to photograph these birds during our stay because the next five days found us in our speed boats searching for the jaguars in both morning and afternoon, coming in only for a midday rest break and lunch.
A pair of jaguars in the Cuiaba RiverFive AM is breakfast time at the lodge. By 5:45 AM we were loaded on our three boats and heading upriver to the prime jaguar habitat. On our boats each photographer has their own row of seats, allowing plenty of room for photo gear. It is sometimes quite cool in the morning, so a jacket is often a necessity. The afternoons warm up considerably. Each tour includes ten boat trips for jaguar photography on the river. We found jaguars on EVERY one of the 30 boat trips I took this year! On most trips, we found several big cats.
We saw and photographed a variety of behaviors this season:
  • Jaguars lounging in trees
  • Jaguars swimming
  • Jaguars hunting
  • Jaguars making a kill
  • Jaguars fighting
  • Jaguars mating
  • Jaguar mother with an almost grown cub
  • Jaguars finding dead caiman along the river and carrying them off into the forest
  • And a pair of 3.5 year old jaguar brothers that were very entertaining and photogenic
While jaguars are definitely the main attraction, they are not the only thing we photographed along the river. We also photographed capybara—the world’s largest rodent—and had numerous opportunities to photograph caiman (alligator relatives) with freshly caught fish. Families of giant river otters numbering between 2–10 individuals were regularly seen and photographed as they hunted for fish. There is also a huge number of birds on the river and each trip brought new species and opportunities to photograph them.
Capybara take to the waters on the river's edgeAfter an exhilarating and successful five days “shooting” the jaguars, otters and birds, we boarded our bus and headed back onto the Transpantaneira. But this time we headed north to our third lodge where we spent our last two tour nights. The property around this lodge has several waterholes that contain countless caiman, capybara, marsh deer and birds galore. One of our favorite subjects here is the beautiful capped heron. There are three active jabiru stork nests on this property, and it is possible to photograph them with chicks. The ostrich-like rhea is also found here. This year, we came across one with about 30 chicks in tow—one male chaperones the chicks of several females The lodge’s fruit feeders also attract dozens of species of birds, including toco toucans and chestnut-eared aracaris.
After two days at our third lodge, we boarded our bus and returned to Cuiabá where we had our final group lunch before heading to the airport for our flights home.  What outstanding adventures we had!

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