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Brazil: On the trail of the jaguar

Fisher’s radio crackles. He motions the boatman to kill the engine and the aluminium skiff drifts into a bed of water hyacinth. Somewhere a caiman barks, as a pair of golden-plumaged jacana pick their way across the vegetation on comically outsized feet

By Daniel Allen
Published 14 May 2019, 14:37 BST, Updated 22 Jul 2021, 13:07 BST

I scratch a mosquito bite and prepare to change lenses.

Our dependable Brazilian guide listens intently to more garbled Portuguese. “Somebody’s spotted a jaguar on the banks of the Cuiaba River,” he announces calmly. “A large male. It’s quite a long way from here. Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen, we need to hustle.”

The boatman spins us round and accelerates rapidly upriver. Our wash fans out over the chocolate waters, as the armoured backs of countless caiman slip silently beneath the surface. I try to contain my excitement – yesterday’s fruitless search proved that big cats in the Pantanal can disappear as quickly as chilled capirinhas on a tropical afternoon.

Bouncing heavily across the Cuiaba’s corrugated flow, we head deeper into the Encontro das Aguas State Park. This is the heart of the northern Pantanal, a United Kingdom–sized wetland that sprawls across southwestern Brazil into Bolivia and Paraguay. Overflowing with flora and fauna, it also happens to be the best place on the planet to see wild jaguar.

Rounding a bend we reach the scout boat driven by another guide. He and Fisher consult. The jaguar was seen earlier by a third boat but has now gone to ground. I curse inwardly, but the ever phlegmatic Fisher is unfazed, instructing the boatman to head slowly upriver. The sun beats down as five sets of eyes switch from bank to bank.

Fisher fixes my forearm in a vice-like grip. “There,” he says fiercely, pointing to a low tree hanging over the water. “Underneath, laying on the ground. He’s a real beauty.” We drop anchor and drift slowly back to a gap in the dense vegetation.

Staring into the gloom I see nothing. Not for the first time I marvel at Fisher’s superhuman eyesight. I swap long lens for binoculars and suddenly I’m looking at my first ever jaguar. In the dappled, under-tree light, a golden spotted flank rises and falls, caressed occasionally by a twitching tail. Heart racing, I struggle to focus my zoom, fully expecting our quarry to bound off into the undergrowth at any second.

I needn’t have worried. A few minutes later our languorous feline extends a paw, raises his massive triangular head toward us, and yawns. His eyes are bright, his incisors miniature yellow daggers. We’re less than five metres from an animal that could crush our skulls like popcorn, but strangely enough there’s no fear.

I put my camera down, captivated by the graceful lines, the latent power, the regal nonchalance. I’ll see more jaguar on this trip, but nothing tops this electrifying first encounter on the banks of the Cuiaba. Fisher gives me a knowing smile. Out here in this wetland wilderness, I realise there’s only one king of the beasts.

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