It was moments after twilight on a pleasant September night in the Brazilian portion of the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland and a place that rivals tropical rainforests for biodiversity. Insects whizzed by as the safari vehicle bounced down a dirt road, its guides systematically panning the dark rice paddies and intermittent patches of riparian forest with powerful flashlights. We had just seen two ocelots — one bent over an irrigation canal, swishing a paw in the water to stir up an evening snack. We passed a foraging giant anteater and saw a crab-eating raccoon (which had shorter fur than the northern version, but a similar mask), a large striped owl and a pair of crab-eating foxes. A guide excitedly pointed to rustling in some tall grasses. Another guide translated the Portuguese: a rare maned wolf. I think I caught a flash of fur in the grass but blinked, and it was gone.
Impressive as these sightings were, what most people who sign up for this safari hope to see is the jaguar, Panthera onca, the third-largest cat in the world and the biggest in the Western Hemisphere. This was certainly true for the Brazilian tourists on the bench seat next to me, who were adjusting the telephoto lenses on their expensive cameras when the vehicle screeched to a stop. "Jaguar," a guide whispered as he shone his flashlight across a canal. An enormous cat emerged from the shadowy forest. Apparently unbothered by the light, the jaguar padded slowly along the bank, giving a clear view of its beautiful spotted coat. "A big male," our German-born guide, Ulli Braun, whispered. The jaguar flopped on the ground, scanning the horizon like a sphinx. Something seemed to catch his eye in the distance.
And he bounded off.
We were in the Miranda region of the south Pantanal, on a 37,000-acre farm known as Fazenda San Francisco, so named because the Brazilian owner, Hélio Coelho, met his American wife in that California city. Fazenda San Francisco has earned a reputation as one of the world's best places to see wild jaguars, in part because its owners have been on the forefront of practicing land-management policies that help preserve the threatened cats. The money made from ecotourism — a growing business in the Pantanal — supplements the property's revenue.
"Fazenda San Francisco is a good example of how you can have farming, ranching and ecotourism together," Braun told us. In addition to hosting day and night safaris, the fazenda (the Portuguese word for farm) has an education center, dining hall, swimming pool, horse stables, hammocks and guest rooms outfitted with solar water heaters, compact fluorescent light bulbs and robust recycling services.
This fazenda's management policies are environmentally significant because the Pantanal is an important anchor habitat, serving as home to an estimated 15 percent of all jaguars. Although jaguars once ranged freely from northern Argentina through much of Latin America and into the southwestern United States, their numbers have sharply declined. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists jaguars as "near threatened" and estimates there are fewer than 50,000 left.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designated the Pantanal a World Heritage Site, meaning the international community has pledged to help Brazil protect it. Overall, the Pantanal includes some 75,000 square miles — an area larger than Bangladesh, mostly in Brazil but extending into parts of Bolivia and Paraguay — of wetlands, forests and grasslands, much of which floods during the rainy season. The Pantanal is more than 90 percent privately owned, and most of the property is at least partially used for ranching or agriculture, making it a difficult conservation target.
From 2003 to early 2009, Fazenda San Francisco hosted a research project on jaguars, Projeto Gadonça, led by Brazilian biologist Fernando Azevedo, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Idaho. Although Azevedo declined to be interviewed for this story, citing demands of field research elsewhere in the Pantanal, his assistant on the project, biologist Henrique Concone, was on site. Concone explained that Projeto Gadonça researchers used motion cameras, radio telemetry, direct observation and analysis of scat, markings and other signs to measure the behavior of jaguars and their interactions with ranchers.
Concone said the researchers concluded that "the best way to conserve jaguars here is to enhance the management of ranches," because the biggest threat to jaguars are ranchers who fear for the safety of the 8 million cows in the region. Projeto Gadonça's findings suggest that relatively small changes in ranching policy can preserve big predators and improve ranch productivity at the same time.
"We decided to support Project Gadonça to better understand the habits of these cats and to find ways to reduce predation on cattle," Carolina Coelho, the tourism director of Fazenda San Francisco, explained in an e-mail. "The jaguar is a symbol of nature, fierce and feared, and its conservation in this environment is a source of pride for us."
Many South American ranchers assume cattle are a prime target of jaguars; actually, though, jaguars seldom attack them. Instead, according to the scientists' research, jaguars in the Pantanal primarily dine on giant rodents known as capybaras, crocodile known as caimans and marsh deer, though they eat more than 85 species in the area, including those iconic anteaters. In fact, Concone says, jaguars are keystone species that help maintain healthy ecosystems; by preying on sick animals, the cats help reduce diseases that can spread to cattle, including the bacterial diseases leptospirosis, which causes stillborns and can kill calves, and brucellosis, which can cause spontaneous abortions. Studies show disease kills more livestock than jaguars.
But many ranchers are not aware of the facts of jaguar life. Although jaguars are legally protected in most of their range, the law is difficult to enforce across such vast territory, and there are plenty of hunters all too ready to bag a big cat. When researchers asked 50 ranchers in the northern Pantanal what they thought of jaguars, a mixed picture emerged, according to results published in the October 2005 issue of the conservation journal Oryx. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they could not tolerate jaguars on their land, although nearly three-quarters said they thought jaguars should be protected in general. Some 40 percent admitted that they would be happier if there were no jaguars at all, and 94 percent said they would like help in decreasing jaguar predation on their land. Thirty-eight percent ranked jaguars as a larger source of economic loss than floods, droughts, rustling or disease, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
Still, fortunately for them, jaguars are hard to kill. "They are often injured by hunters, and then wounded animals are much more likely to prey on livestock because they have a hard time catching their native prey," Concone said. Also, jaguars are more likely to try to eat a cow or pig if hunters have shot native prey species for their own tables.
Because the data show that ranches with high productivity and low cattle mortality rarely see jaguar predation, one of the best ways to save wild jaguars is to help ranchers take better care of their domestic animals. One study found that moving a test herd farther from the forest edge, where jaguars prowl, dropped attacks by more than half. Other predation defenses employed in the Pantanal include fences that keep cattle out of riverside forests, dogs trained to protect herds, and water buffaloes, which can be raised in place of or alongside cattle. The large-horned buffaloes are better able to repel jaguars than beef cattle. All these strategies make sense, Carolina Coelho acknowledges, but their success depends on local conditions. Her farm is trying out a small herd of buffalo, but, she noted, "In Brazil, buffaloes are hard to sell, and this is not a solution to be used widely."
Howard Quigley, director of Western Hemisphere programs for the New York-based nonprofit Panthera, pointed to another Pantanal lodge that has successfully blended ecotourism and ranching — Caiman Ecological Refuge, where he had worked on his doctoral thesis about jaguars. Caiman's owners set aside a permanent nature reserve, where cattle can't go, "forming core habitat for conservation," Quigley said in a phone interview.
Some conservation groups have promoted another jaguar-protection strategy: paying ranchers for livestock lost to jaguar predation, a technique long practiced by Defenders of Wildlife with wolves reintroduced to the American West. The results with jaguars have been mixed in South America, though, with ranchers complaining that the payments take too long and biologists worrying that they don't amount to long-term solutions. "There are currently no effective compensation programs for lost cattle," Coelho said. "We think it would be better if the government gave tax breaks to farmers who are jaguar friendly and could prove loss."
The best way to encourage ranchers to live in harmony with jaguars, Quigley argues, is to suggest changes that require little upfront investment. "You can't just come in and tell people how to run their ranch," he cautioned. "You can do what I call 'leaning across the fence' dispersal of information. Say, 'You know, I tried that thing that scientist talked about, and I'm getting better results and have no jaguar predation.'" For example, Panthera supplies ranchers with animal vaccines, which help make herds less attractive to jaguars by keeping them healthy. "There's some level of depredation that a rancher in the Pantanal has to accept," Quigley says. "But we're trying to reduce that to a point where it's insignificant."
A few years ago, Panthera hired a Venezuelan veterinarian, Rafael Hoogesteijn, who has 25 years of experience working with jaguars and ranchers and is setting up a model ranch for Panthera in the north Pantanal. He has also helped the conservation group prepare pamphlets, in multiple languages, that outline jaguar-friendly ranching practices. Panthera distributes the literature to ranchers in hot spots throughout the big cat's range, in hopes of securing a more or less continuous corridor where the cats can roam.
Panthera hopes to convince palm tree and other plantation owners to allow jaguars safe passage through their lands. "Connectivity is important, especially with the threat of climate change," Quigley said. "If we can assure that jaguars can pass through a human-dominated landscape to another park or reserve, that provides an umbrella for biodiversity conservation."
Lessons learned in the Pantanal are applicable to other parts of the jaguar's range, including in the Sonoran Desert in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Ranching is an important part of the Sonoran ecosystem, and, Quigley says, many of the same rules may apply there - especially the need to keep cattle out of the forested areas that jaguars frequent.
At Fazenda San Francisco, Henrique Concone told us about another big male jaguar that guests occasionally glimpse: "Orelha," easily identifiable by the scar on his right ear. (Orelha means ear in Portuguese.) Concone also spoke of rare "black panthers," jaguars with melanism that darkens their glossy coats. They are a major draw for ecotourists.
After the night safari, we sipped the strong Brazilian rum-based drinks called caipirinhas and marveled at each other's photos. The mood was electric. We had seen a jaguar.