Photo Galleries: Jaguar on the Rio Cuiaba, Brazil Kevin Zimmer

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If one had to summarize our 2009 Best of Brazil tour in a single word, that word would be “Jaguar”! Jaguar was definitely a primary target as we set out on our first boat trip along the Rio Cuiabá out of Porto Jofre, southern terminus of the famed Transpantaneira (or Trans-Pantanal Highway). But you don’t really find jaguars—they find you. The largest and most mysterious of New World cats picks his spots, and we can only hope to be in the right place at the right time. This time, we were. It was mid-morning when we crossed paths with another boat whose pilot reported seeing a jaguar about 0.5 km downriver. We roared to the spot, only to find nothing. Our boatman turned around and started retracing our path. Even though we had traveled nearly 1 km already, I suggested to Andy that the distance estimate may have been way off, and that we might want to extend our search farther downstream. Andy agreed, and we turned the boat around once again.

The powerful outboard ate up two more bends of the river, and then we heard our boatman urgently say, “No frente, no frente.” And there it was, a big male jaguar, dead-ahead, but he was headed for cover. Before most of our group could get on it, the cat had melted into the tall grass, with only his head sticking out. We cut the engine and backed off with the boat. After studying us for a few minutes, the big cat cautiously emerged from the grass and began strolling down the sandbar toward the river’s edge. He was huge! Bulging at the seams, he looked as if he had fed recently. And now he was at the water, testing it first with both front feet before wading in. It was clear that he was now headed for the other side of what was a pretty wide river. What luck! We inched the boat closer, and soon had pulled to within about 7 m of the cat—close enough to hear his breathing and muffled grunts as he dog-paddled his way steadily against the current. Not a sound came from our boat except for the continuous barrage of camera shutters.

Soon, the jaguar pulled himself from the water, his fur slicked down to look like wet vinyl. Once on the lower bank, he stood, shedding water easily and surveying us without looking concerned. He negotiated the steep dirt bank far too easily and lay down in the shade to dry off. After a short while he became restless and moved along the top of the bank some distance. His entire body language changed when he spotted a caiman basking at the surface of the shallow, nearshore waters below. The jaguar crept to the bank edge and eyed the caiman intently, every muscle in his body practically screaming with the promise of explosive impending violence. We backed off and held our collective breath, waiting for the cat to pounce. But the caiman apparently sensed danger too, for it suddenly disappeared, and the cat relaxed. He moved farther now, and back into a tree-fall tangle where it became difficult to see him. The king of the forest had given us all that he would give, and now, finally, we could exhale.

We had spent over 45 minutes in very close proximity to a very large male jaguar. We had watched him walk, swim, rest, and stalk prey. We had looked into his eyes from some 20 feet away, and we had heard him breathing and voicing his muffled displeasure at our presence. It was magical. And now, somehow, we had to reset and turn our focus back to birds.