“ We got a sighting.”
The handset crackles, voices exchange messages and those are the magic words from Fabiano, uttered unbelievably coolly, that make us sit up, grasp our cameras a little tighter, all tense and alert.
There is a dramatic change in the mood on our speedboat which was till then ambling along at a gentle speed. The engine roars, we take a sharp turn and then we take off, rapidly accelerating , bouncing off the water, the water spraying us liberally.
We take an exciting, wide, tantalizingly angled turn as the river curves and a couple of such pulsating turns later we know we are close to our destination.
The tell tale sign is always the cluster of boats. And if you can see the occupants on the boat standing up with their cameras pointing instead of sitting casually, then you can be rather certain that it could be a good sighting.
What is it going to be ?
A jaguar sleeping ?
A jaguar on a tree ? Or on the prowl ?
Or will it be that pinnacle of all sightings…a jaguar on a hunt ?
Or the yaguareté.
Early reports, and many still quote these, said the word yaguara means “a beast that kills its prey with one leap”. While this origin sounds definitely more thrilling and appealing, sadly, this has been challenged and might not be the real deal.
The current belief is that yaguareté would have probably meant “the real fierce beast” which would be how the people would have naturally seen it.
Despite the doubts of its provenance, its easy to see why the original meaning made sense.
The jaguar doesn’t rely on speed to kill its prey. It is more the stalk and ambush type of predator. The jaguar slowly walks down the forest paths or the sandy banks, always on the lookout for a possible prey and it usually attacks from cover and from the target’s blind spot.
I am no expert, but I haven’t seen any other cat that is so ON all the time. It seems alert and ready to pounce ALL the time.
But its after the pounce that the jaguar has a style that is uniquely its own among the big cats. Its jaws clamps down on the back of the head of the prey, piercing directly through the bones of the skull between the ears of prey with its canine teeth, piercing the brain. Or it could leap onto the back of its prey and sever the cervical vertebrae.
Yes, I can understand why “a beast that kills its prey with one bound” sounded plausible.
Regardless of the disputes over its etymology, the one indisputable fact was that we were finally in the land of the yaguareté.
And it was raining jaguars.
We had reached the houseboat we were staying in, around lunch time and the plan was to leave by around 2.30 pm on the speed boat for our first boat safari.
We had just about started when the radio crackled, a sound we would get very used to soon, and our boat accelerated, suddenly moving with a far more purposeful air.
And then we rounded a bend and could see the other speed boats. Crowded together.
Lot of other boats ? People standing ? Cameras out ? There HAS to be a jaguar !
We slowed down, all of us eagerly peering into the dense undergrowth for any sign of movement.
Then, emerged our first jaguar.
My first jaguar. Within 30 minutes of the first safari. Staring at us. So close that my lens could not take the entire body in the frame. Phew !
It popped out from behind the bushes, peered at us, looked around and after posing there for enough time for the camera junkies to go berserk, walked up a broken tree trunk that lay propped up, with its end a few meters above the river water.
Licking it’s lips in anticipation ?
Our first jaguar and that too sitting on a tree trunk ! Wow…what a photo op !! Our first sighting within a few minutes of our first safari, looking straight at us and that too, so close that my 600mm couldn’t get the entire body in the frame !!
She, for it was a she, stayed on the broken tree trunk for a while, peering closely around her and after a few sufficiently long minutes, by which time we had taken more pics than we needed, she stood up and vanished into the bushes.
And then we saw it. Or to be more accurate, Fabiano pointed it out to us.
A sole capybara.
There…towards our left, a sole capybara. Closer than the jaguar was to the right. Hunt on ?
Just a little distance away. Totally oblivious of the danger that was approaching it.
Would we actually see a hunt on our very first safari ??
The jaguar couldn’t be seen. But we could see the tall grass move around as the big cat stealthily approached the capybara.
We held our breath.
Would we witness a kill ?
Either the capybara heard some noise or it simply sensed danger but whatever be the reason, it saved its life. It jumped into the water and vanished.
The jaguar emerged a second later looking at its lost meal swimming away.
Eyeing the one that got away
Well, that was quite a start !!
The jaguar is a rather well muscled animal. He looks very compact, possibly far more than most of the other big cats. Interestingly, their weight varies hugely across the different places they are found to inhabit.
The jaguar is a very compact and muscled cat. ‘Solid’ is the word that comes to mind.
Fabiano informed us that for a long while it was believed that the jaguars of the Pantanal belonged to a different family since they just seemed to be so much larger than most of the other jaguars around the world. Just to put that difference in numbers, the jaguars found along the Mexican coast were seen to weigh around 50 kgs…the ones in the Pantanal weighed on an average 100 kgs. That is some variance. Almost 2x !
Fabiano told us that this is, in all probability, due to the abundance of large prey that is available in the wetlands. The jaguars definitely have no dearth of prey here.
One question that is regularly asked is what is the difference between a leopard and a jaguar ? And…what about the black panther ?
The jaguar does look a lot like the leopard. Its stockier and sturdier, broader heads and shorter legs. A jaguar’s tail is also shorter than a leopard’s but then these are difficult distinguishing marks. But what is definitely easier to distinguish is the rosettes – the ‘spots’ on both the animals.
The jaguar’s rosettes are larger, fewer in number but more importantly, many rosettes have another black spot in the middle. That should make the whole deal easier 🙂
Fewer rosettes and you can see the spot within the rosette in a few of them
Now…the Black Panther.
At least not as a separate species. What used to be called as Black Panthers are just melanistic cats. Melanism is a condition that means a higher level of black pigmentation.
Over the next few days we often felt that each safari was better than the previous.
We were visiting this area after the monsoons when the water recedes a lot leaving sandy banks everywhere. Caimans bask here under the hot sun. Capybaras are huge in number and are again seen all the time on these banks.
All of which means that the jaguars are on the move, close to and on the banks which naturally increases the chances of a sighting from a boat. The fact that over the last few years with increasing tourism inflow, they are also accustomed to the boats and don’t vanish at the first sight of one, further makes it easier.
And, boy, did we see them !
Jaguar on the banks ? Check
Jaguar in the water ? Check
Jaguar up a tree ? Check
Jaguars deep in the bushes ? Check
Jaguars sleeping ? Check
Jaguars on the prowl ? Check and before you ask, even of one charging.
Jaguars in the famed Golden Light ? Yes, yes, move on…
Jaguars hurt from a fight ? Come on…tougher questions please.
Jaguars meditating ? Of course
Jaguars mating ? Yawn….next please.
Well…technically we didn’t see them mating. But we could hear them. They were behind this rather dense undergrowth and we just couldn’t get a sighting.
But we were there 🙂
One of those few occasions where we saw a jaguar taking it easy
That thrill of that first sight of a jaguar as it appears …priceless !
This one maintained a long and steady patrolling of the banks over a long distance
Occasionally treading water
The tell tale sign that a jaguar might be up a tree 🙂
And there it was… lost in thought
The watchers being watched.
The one thing that struck me was how active they were. When compared to the lions, they really are like the good ole Energizer Bunny. They just don’t tire. We once stayed with a single jaguar for almost three hours. She walked and walked and walked. Always focused and ready. Always.
We gave her company through most of an unforgettable morning
And swam in between.
Jaguars are powerful swimmers. And they love to swim. They cross from one bank to the other really effortlessly
We kept following her from one sandy bank to the other, watching her vanish into the bushes on one side, emerging from the other side and she just went on. Always looking alert. Always alive for any opportunity for a kill.
Have water. Will enter.
I love that arch of the back …such grace !
And, as they step out….sppraayyyyy !!! Always a photogenic moment.
Its here that a tale that Fabiano told us comes to mind. Fabiano was with a NatGeo team ( I think ) and over a period of 3 days, they saw the same jaguar make multiple kills. And not once did it come to actually eat the kill.
“ Its just its nature to kill,” says Fabiano. “ It doesn’t kill only when it has to.”
All in all, what a beautiful creature. There were many occasions that I just kept my camera down and simply watched her move, graceful, alert, stealthy, powerful.
Did I say graceful…
I loved getting that single focused eye in between the two tiny leaves..purely by accident 🙂
And despite those long moments with my camera down, I still ended up with a few thousands of pics of these lovely creatures.
Amongst my top favourites…it walked out of the forest, stepping out right where the sun shone brightly
…and then turned its head, allowing the sunlight to fall bang on the face, a quick recomposition and I got it !
We spent a long time with this jaguar, fairly close to our houseboat, while it gave us tons of unforgettable images. Early morning, the rising sun behind us…Golden Light magic !
Look at that stare !
We didn’t see a hunt though. You really need to be incredibly lucky to witness one. We met this group that had the most fascinating tale.
One boat had taken a turn into one of the narrower and less frequented branches of the main river. While there, their engine stalled and they radioed for help and waited. Soon, another boat joined them to help out.
And while both the boats were stuck in one place as the boatmen got busy with the engines…yes, you guessed it.
A jaguar leapt on a caiman in the water, killed it and tried dragging it up the rather steep slope.
All the action on the other bank. Just about twenty feet from where they were stuck. Talk about a stalled engine being a matter of good fortune !
We passed by that spot a little later and the two boats were still waiting for the jaguar to try to drag the kill up the slope again. We could see the jaguar in the shadows, the dead caiman half submerged in the waters. The light was fading, time was running up and after waiting for a little while we had to make a move.
We didnt see a hunt but we saw one rage filled charge ! A hapless vulture had descended for a morsel from this one’s meal, a dead cow that had washed up over which ownership was claimed. Look at those eyes !
The jaguar has the strongest bite relative to its size. Its jaw muscles are stronger and its jaws are shorter giving it more leverage while biting.
This combination is what makes it possible for a jaguar to jump on a caiman and pierce both its thick hide and break its skull rather easily.
And they are strong otherwise too. They can easily drag a caiman up a bank to have its meal in peace.
And while we didn’t see a hunt and we couldn’t wait to see the jaguar with its kill the previous evening, we did witness a fascinating incident.
We were returning to our house boat after a truly satiating morning full of the most incredible sightings.
And then we saw the usual cluster of boats. To a man, we said, yet another sighting !! We can’t better what we have already seen.
There, just a short distance away, was the jaguar. With a dead caiman clutched in its jaws.
Jaguars love caimans. We missed out witnessing a kill or even a hunt but we saw this jag with a dead caiman figuring out how to take it meal up the slope
What followed was mesmerizing. The banks were really steep and despite its immense strength, the jaguar was unable to drag the caiman up the slope.
Jaguars, like leopards, are extremely strong and can drag a huge caiman up steep slopes, but as you can see from the slope behind this jag…this one was a bit too steep
The jaguar left the caiman in the water and tried different routes up the slope on its own to check which was easy and doable while carrying the dead caiman. It will then decide on one possible route and try it with the caiman. It will fail and try to identify another route.
Over and over again.
When we left, it was still trying to figure it out.
But it didnt give up. For about 45 minutes we watched it try and when we left it was still trying to figure out a way
I can’t end this post without a mention of Manuelo our boatman.
Like any other jeep safari, it is critical to be able to get into the right position. There are strict rules and well laid out etiquette while viewing. We can stand only if there are no boats behind us, for example. We should not be blocking anyone’s views. And when we are slightly late in arriving at a scene the job of getting into the right position becomes that much more challenging.
Sometimes, the channel of water we are on would be really narrow and it is not easy to get into the right position.
This is how I would love to spend my weekend afternoons…but that apart, this was a place which was teeming with other speedboats. We arrived rather late. But still we could get a good position. Amazing !
And, if the jaguar is on the move, then it is important to be able to judge where it is headed and then ensure that we are there ahead of the rest of the crowd. Remember, all the other boats are also manned by other resident experts. You just had to be better than the other good guys to be able to consistently get into the right position. Manuelo was. He was simply superb the way he used to dextrously navigate the boat and squeeze it into exactly the precise spot.
The full credit to all the wonderful pics that we got lies with both Manuelo’s expert handling of our slightly long speed boat and, of course, Fabiano’s huge knowledge of the magnificent creature its habits and the lay of the land ( or should I say, river ? )
Obrigado, to both of you, friends !!
High fives to both, Fabiano and Manuelo 🙂