Jaguars & Wildlife of Brazil’s Pantanal 2014 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Oct 20, 2014

For years I have been saying a photo shoot in Brazil’s Pantanal was among my Top 10 favorites for wildlife photography in the world. And that was prior to the growing number of human-habituated jaguars dwelling along the banks of the Cuiabá River in Mato Grosso.

These days, with the addition of jaguars, a great shoot has become markedly even better. In a few short years, photographing jaguars in the Pantanal has become the hot ticket in nature photography. Notoriously extremely secretive cats, their recent photographic accessibility is nothing short of amazing!

From the end of July through early September I was lucky enough to spend six weeks photographing jaguars and numerous other species on the three back-to-back two-week trips I led this year. This trip report combines highlights from all three of the tours. I am including three separate “slideshows” within this report to show how amazingly different each of these trips can be from one to another—in the span of a very short time. Of course, each of the three groups photographed a number of jaguars. Everyone came home with a collection of great jaguar shots. But it is all the other species we encounter along the way that are the icing on this spectacular jaguar cake.

Our groups met in the city of Cuiabá where we boarded our air-conditioned bus and headed south along the hot and dusty road towards jaguar country. (Few trips offer an air-conditioned bus—they use an open dust-eating truck instead.) Along the way we stayed at two different eco-lodges (cattle ranches converted to nature tourism) located in substantially different habitats along the Transpantaneira (highway) where we photographed a wealth of birds and a variety of other animals. Both of these lodges have special birds that frequent the many bird feeders around the lodge grounds—one with a number of extremely rare hyacinth macaws and toco toucans, and the other with a variety of striking birds, including black-hooded parakeets, chestnut-eared aracaris (small colorful toucans) and turkey-size chestnut-bellied guans.

Our jaguar photography sessions began once we reached our hotel on the banks of the Cuiabá River. The hotel and vicinity would be a great nature photography destination by itself. Situated between the fast-flowing river and a sluggish oxbow lagoon, the hotel offers wonderful opportunities to photograph giant Victoria water lilies. These lily pads are the world’s largest and can measure almost nine feet across in some locations. Not only are they picturesque, a variety of wildlife associated with the lagoon habitat enhances their graphic “shootability.”

Each morning, before dawn, we met in the dining room for a delicious buffet breakfast. As the sun rose, our small group of eight participants (any more than eight is too many, in my opinion) boarded our three small speedboats and headed out in search of jaguars. Since the hotel is located in the heart of jaguar country, it is possible to find a jaguar within ten minutes of leaving the dock. Sometimes, jaguars are even seen prowling the hotel grounds at night hunting for capybara in the water lily lagoon. But in many cases, we are focused on the first jaguar of the day within the first hour or two.

The jaguars first encountered by our first tour group were a set of twins, a male and a female that had recently been abandoned by their mother so she could mate again. It was a wonderful sighting, a pretty good shoot, and one that was not duplicated during the next six weeks. We did see their mother on several occasions in the following weeks as she mated with different suitors vying for her attention. For the most part, our jaguar photography consisted of shooting big powerful males that spend time on the riverbank in search of jacare caiman and capybaras—their main diet in this riverside habitat. Fearless of water, we saw these big cats swim across the river on numerous occasions. Because this winding river is dotted with many islands, the cats often swim from island to island in search of prey.

Because we were in radio contact of a number of other boats—including local fishermen on the river—we were able to locate accessible jaguars quickly. Our boats have large and powerful engines and travel almost 50 mph on the twisting river—this in itself is an exhilarating experience. I would guess that each group saw ten or more different jaguars during their trip and some of those jaguars were seen multiple times during each tour’s five jaguar-shooting days on the boats.

The river is still pristine. Howler and capuchin monkeys jump from branch to branch, photogenic waterbirds line the riverbank, and thousands of caiman sun themselves in the small backwater tributaries. It is here the big cats can be found. Because of torrential rains just prior to the arrival of our first group, the river was very high—almost at flood stage—but it gradually dropped by eight feet or more by the time the third trip ended. As the water receded, large creamy-white sandbanks were exposed. When these sandbanks dried out and were safe from flooding, large green iguanas came down from the trees to lay their eggs in the warming sand. Some of these eggs, in turn, became food for nocturnal crab-eating foxes and raccoons. The emerging sandbanks were also colonized by terns, plovers and black skimmers—we watched these nesting colonies grow larger and larger as the water receded.

Each of our three groups recorded more than 100 species of birds—and photographed many of them. A special feature for our first two groups was a completely habituated giant anteater that allowed lengthy and extremely close-range photography at one of our lodges. I had never seen anything like this.

All of our groups had the opportunity to photograph a Mato Grosso lancehead (Bothrops mattogrossensis)—a beautiful venomous snake closely related to the infamous fer-de-lance. You’ll see shots of it in all three “slideshows.” We were not tempting fate—the owner of one of our lodges is a herpetologist and he had the snake in captivity for a short time in order to observe, weigh and measure it before its release. We made great snake images and were “reasonably” safe while shooting. I had never photographed such an interesting and beautiful snake in South America (I’ve shot lots of anacondas) and I’m very happy with these images.

For 2015 we are offering five jaguar trips to the Pantanal. Four are currently full, but three spaces are still available on Tour 5. Now is the time to photograph these amazing cats—before the uncertain circumstances of regional politics change or many additional boats are added to the rapidly emerging jaguar tourist industry in the Pantanal.

More images from this trip can be seen at the following links:

• Slideshow 2
• Slideshow 3