At peace with the jaguar

Print edition : May 15, 2015

A jaguar (Panthera onca) in the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

Once heavily hunted as a trophy and for its coat, the jaguar (here, in the forests of the Pantanal) is now a protected species. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

Jaguar tourism in the rivers of the Pantanal is popular. Here, Aditya "Dicky" Singh, above right, with his associate in the Cuiaba river. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Aditya Singh in Ranthambhore, Rajasthan, photographing tigers. Photo: Andy Rouse

A jaguar making a splash in the Cuiaba river in the Pantanal. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

Tourist guides and other local people in the Pantanal see the jaguar as harmless and the "epitome of innocence". Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

At sunset in the wetlands spread over an estimated area of 15,000 square kilometres in Brazil and extending into Bolivia and Paraguay. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

A jaguar cooling off in the Cuiaba. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

A jaguar attacking a caiman in the Cuiaba. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) flying around a Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), said to be the largest rodent in the world, in the Cuiaba at sunset. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

A pair of Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), a large stork common in the Pantanal. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

A male ringed kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata). Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

A female ringed kingfisher, which is more colourful than the male. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

A hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) nesting in a tree hole in the Pantanal. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

The hyacinth macaw is the largest of the macaws and can grow up to one metre in length. Here, roosting on a tree in the Pantanal. Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh

THE Pantanal in Brazil, the largest tropical wetland in the world, is a nature lover’s paradise and home to the largest number of jaguars in Latin America. In fact, the spotted predator with a massive head is now so accommodative of tourists that jaguar tourism is a wild draw in these parts.

The Pantanal covers an area of about 15,000 square kilometres that extends into Bolivia and Paraguay and is filled with lush greenery that is rich in wildlife. The jaguar was once hunted heavily as a trophy and for its charming coat but is now a protected species. Indeed, as a result, in terms of density, too, the Pantanal is way ahead of any of the other habitats of the jaguar.

Boat cruises on the Cuiaba river in the Pantanal in search of the animal start at dawn and go on until sunset. It is not uncommon for a jaguar to spring up from an unexpected corner and surprise tourists in a boat and send them into a frenzy. This is despite the tourist guide’s note of caution at the start: “Be alert. Jaguars are around. Sighting is possible. The cat may play in the water.” Once the tourists settle down, the guide continues in broken English: “See it is beauty. Powerful manifestation of nature’s power. Also see, its paws are so powerful to pierce the skull of any prey, even if it be a sturdy antelope. Its canines have a diabolic look. Its bite is deeper and sharper than that of a tiger or lion.” The jaguar enjoys swimming in the brownish, muddy water of the river and catching big fish and caimans.

When the boat starts, it is the turn of the boat driver to take over the commentary, also in broken English. “Don’t be afraid. It is a harmless creature. In olden days, it was ferocious. But now they are gentle, epitomes of innocence. They usually mind their way, ignoring the boat and the people in it. They are tied to water. A dip in the water gives them more vigour and a different body language. You can see all these things.”

The guide and the boat driver continue with their talk until the tourists, anxious to see a jaguar, sight one swimming near their boat. The big cat swims unmindful of being the centre of attraction and after a while ambles up the river bank into the green cover. It was a happy situation for all concerned: the jaguar, the tourists and the tour operators.

For Aditya “Dicky” Singh, one of the leading tiger experts and conservationists in India, this jaguar sighting experience was most enthralling. For the past three decades, Dicky had time only for the tigers of Ranthambore, Rajasthan, where he lives. Recently, he was able to realise his dream of watching the jaguar and capturing it with his camera with the awesome Amazon in the backdrop.

“I was not at all surprised when I heard the splash. As a reflex action, my camera swung into action,” he said. “That was because I had read with immense pleasure An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, CEO and president of the United States-based conservation group Panthera and a formative authority on the ecology and behaviour of tigers, jaguars and other wild cats. In his celebrated work, Rabinowitz narrates his adventures in tracking the wild cat in Belize (formerly British Honduras, close to Guatemala) from 1980 onwards. He says: ‘Humans who have lived and worked with Jaguars acknowledge the power, fierceness and savagery of the animal and at the same time its non-aggressive nature towards humans.’”

When this writer met Dicky in Ranthambore in March, he narrated his experiences during his visit to the Pantanal eight months earlier. He emphasised that he made the trip inspired by the monumental works of Rabinowitz. “He had such great adventures in a remote country, experiencing heavy odds, having to deal with strangers in a language he did not know,” he said.

The word jaguar is derived from yaguar, a native American word. It means “kill with one leap”. The animal is described as the embodiment of beauty and raw power. Rabinowitz describes in his book interesting anecdotes about the time he spent in the dense rainforests of Latin America tracking the jaguar. He says: “When I was in Belize people thought my jaguar studies were a cover for growing marijuana and shipping it to the U.S. A few thought I was there to dig out Maya artefacts.”

The elusive and charismatic jaguar (Panthera onca) has its habitat in 18 countries in the Americas, including Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela and Argentina. In the U.S., jaguars existed in Arizona a long time ago. In 1922, Aldo Leopold, a forester of Arizona lamented in his 1949 work, A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There, the disappearance of the animal. He says: “We saw neither hide nor hair of him, but his personality pervaded the wilderness.” Leopold goes on to say that “the delta has probably been made safe for cows, and forever dull for adventuring hunters. Freedom from fear has arrived, but a glory has departed from the green lagoons.” Now there is no resident population of jaguars in the U.S.

The jaguar lives in rainforests, swamps, dry woodlands and grasslands. It has great adaptability like the tiger and is of sturdy build but smaller than the tiger. Among the big cats, it is known to have the most robust canines.

Jaguar tourism

The Pantanal wetlands have opened up the floodgates for jaguar watchers, and cruises are very popular. Once in Brazil, one has to fly to Cuiaba, the capital of Mato Grosso State, where the Pantanal is located. From there, drive about 90 kilometres to the quaint town of Pocone, popular as the gateway to the Pantanal. From Pocone, a gravel road punctuated by numerous wooden bridges takes one through the picturesque, wild countryside. “I felt as though jaguars were peeping through the grass blades moving in the wind,” said Dicky about the drive. The road ends at Poto Jofre on the banks of the Cuiaba, which flows through Pantanal National Park. Jaguar searchers throng the park very early in the morning.

“The gravel road is the straightest and wildest I have experienced anywhere in the world,” said Dicky. The road is dotted with ranches on either side. Indeed, cattle breeding is a lucrative business in Brazil, which boasts the second largest herds in the world, surpassed only by herds in India. Jaguars eye cattle and cattle owners retort with gunshots. Naturally, jaguars get killed. Poachers, too, intrude into the ranches, which are teeming with wildlife.

Many of the ranches have been converted into tourist resorts, and birds, in particular, are a big attraction. Of the more than 100 species of birds, the ringed kingfisher is perhaps the most attractive. The most colourful and captivating bird is arguably the hyacinth macaw, a parrot native to Central America. There is the black-necked stork too. Called jabiru, it has a red band at the base of its long neck and is the tallest flying bird in South America.

But it is the jaguar that is the main draw, and a sighting of a jaguar making a kill is like icing on the cake. Said Dicky: “The boat driver told us before starting the engine, ‘You will be lucky to see a jaguar attack and kill a caiman.’ I was anxious and ready with my camera. A caiman was basking in the sunlight when a jaguar attacked from behind. There were vigorous and shocking bites. The caiman struggled to go free but the sharp canines of the predator ensured that before long the caiman gave up and lay motionless.” The jaguar is generally solitary and nocturnal. Yet, it appears during the daytime too. Until recently, there were hardly any good photographs of the jaguar in the wild. But now jaguars have got used to the boats and have even started posing for the camera, he said. He added that he was lucky to get photographs of 10 jaguars in a week.

Dicky narrated a rare encounter that a seemingly ailing jaguar had with a caiman. The jaguar was on the river bank and had serious wounds, obviously from an encounter with another jaguar, and seemed to be in acute pain. Its protruding rib cage and caved stomach were enough to tell one that it had not eaten for days. Yet, it managed to crawl into the water. The cool water seemed to have a rejuvenating effect on the jaguar and after a while it started swimming. The boat followed it for some distance. Suddenly, it gathered speed and disappeared under the water, and when it surfaced it had a big caiman in its paws. The caiman was struggling, but the jaguar’s grip was firm and its canines had moved deep. Yet, the caiman eventually managed to wriggle out and escaped. The beaten jaguar was gasping for breath and soon retreated into the woods. This was a rare disappointment for the jaguar.

The jaguar is the subject of an active conservation effort that involves a lot of research. In fact, the dedicated research of Rabinowitz was largely responsible for Belize becoming the first country in the world to be declared the official home of the jaguar, in 1984. The pre-eminent wildlife biologist George Schaller, who has made rich contributions to jaguar studies, including the radio collaring of the animal in the Pantanal in 1978, was the one who initiated Rabinowitz into jaguar studies, and he was proud of the fact that Rabinowitz knew Belize better than the natives did.

Time was when jaguar hunters were popular figures in many parts of Latin America. In Argentina, around 2,000 jaguars used to be killed every year. Rabinowitz notes in his book how one such hunter in Belize, Irenyo Chinchia, killed over a hundred animals. He had an instrument that looked like a drum. He played it to make sounds that resembled the deep grunt of the jaguar. It attracted other jaguars, curious to find out who had intruded into their territory. Then the hunter, under cover, killed the jaguar with crude weapons.

Dicky says: “When one enters the Pantanal, tour operators go vociferous. They tell us about the myths and stories of pre-Colombian civilisation that pointed to the relationship between man and jaguar. The Mayas, the Aztecs and the Incas worshipped the jaguar. The tribal people had mystical relations with the wild cat. The Maya civilisation dates back to 2600 B.C. It was prominent by 250 A.D. and left indelible imprints in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.”

Today, owing to habitat destruction and development activities, the jaguar population has dwindled. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), its status is nearly threatened. “Give the jaguar a safe home”, is the message being spread by environmentalists.

For the tiger, there are several sanctuaries in India, one of them being Ranthambore. On March 9, Dicky was in a jeep in Ranthambore when he saw some of his friends moving a little ahead in another jeep. Both jeeps stopped when a tiger and its cub appeared. That is what the conservation message can do: change people’s attitudes towards animals. But for Dicky that drive assumed a greater significance when a friend told him, “See the scientist sitting in the jeep in front. He is the famous jaguar biologist Alan Rabinowitz.” He had come all the way from the U.S. for a glimpse of the tigers in Ranthambore.

Dicky could not believe his eyes. It was his best chance to meet the man he idolised. He tried to talk to Rabinowitz, but by then the jeeps had to move. When he reached home, he tried to contact Rabinowitz, who was staying in a hotel. But Rabinowitz had taken ill and was advised complete rest by the doctor, following which he returned to Delhi. What a disappointment it was, said Dicky. “I stumbled upon him but could not talk to him. Many chapters from his book continue to ring in my ears.”

G. Shaheed is chief of the legal and environment news bureau of Mathrubhumi, Kochi. Aditya “Dicky” Singh is a prominent tiger conservationist, author and wildlife photographer based in Ranthambore.