At dawn, a light fog hovers just above the river’s surface, obscuring the forest on both sides. Tough conditions to see jaguars in the Pantanal of Brazil. Patience. As we motor slowly in a small skiff, the fog dances in and out, offering glimpses of tall trees. We hear the flap of large wings as the silhouette of a Cocoi heron flies past the bow. The fog lifts, revealing a glowing orb on the horizon alighting the sky in streaks of orange and yellow—jaguar colors.
Scanning the riverbanks, I’m eager to see the largest cat in the Americas. The indigenous people who live among Panthera onca say that the jaguar only shows himself to you when you are ready to see him. I amready. Aren’t I? Patience. We pass a family of capybaras, the world’s largest living rodents. Caimans hauled out along the river’s edges bask in the morning sun. Both species are prime prey for jaguars and in ample supply here. The Pantanal boasts the highest density of jaguars in the world as well as some of the largest—males can reach almost 9 feet in length and weigh 200 pounds or more. But unlike some other big cats, jaguars aren’t built for speed. What they lack in swiftness, they make up for in stealth and brute force. Our guide, Marcos, tells us that the word “jaguar” comes from the indigenous word yaguar, meaning “he who kills with one leap.” A stalk-and-ambush predator, the jaguar sneaks up on its prey and gets one leap to employ its powerful bite to pierce the skull of its victim. It’s a tough way to make a living, and there are many missed meals.
Jaguars are believed to descend from the clouded leopards of Asia, crossing the Bering Land Bridge in the Arctic several hundred thousand years ago and working their way down into the Americas. Their range once spanned all the way from the northern United States to southern Argentina. They can live in a variety of habitats, including more open deserts, but seem to prefer tropical and subtropical broadleaf forests and swamps. They are excellent swimmers, not what comes to mind when I think of a house cat’s aversion to a bath.
Today, the jaguar’s range extends from the southwestern United States and Mexico in North America, across much of Central America, and south to Paraguay and northern Argentina in South America. While a few individuals have been spotted in Arizona, they have pretty much been extirpated from the United States. The species is listed as “near threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Habitat destruction, the fur trade and persecution have contributed to their decline. A new threat to the species is the traditional Chinese medicine market, where one jaguar incisor tooth can fetch $100, to be ground into a powder.
Motoring on the river, searching for a cat in the world’s largest tropical wetland—an area the size of my home state of Washington—my admiration and respect soars for this animal I’ve never seen. But in my mind, I do see it, and I recite a silent pledge: “Oh mighty jaguar. Show us your beauty. Show us your strength. We mean you no harm. We honor and respect you. We will protect you.”
Marcos motions to the left bank of the river, and the skiff abruptly slows. In a clearing of trees stands the mighty jaguar showing himself to those ready to see him. His tawny fur contrasts beautifully with the green foliage, and his black rosette markings define who he is. But it’s the eyes that transfix me. Amber, piercing, knowing. Pure predator. Something in me stirs. My DNA remembers what it was to be a predator and also to be prey. Fascination and fear—ancient feelings evoked when eye to eye with predators. The cat carries himself like he owns the place, which he does.
He slips into the river and begins swim hunting, looking for breakfast among the floating water hyacinth. His wet fur resembles the patterned skin of a large python as he snakes through the water with ease. He reaches a sand bar and raises his body out of the water, moving with purpose. Sensing something I don’t, he slows his pace and lowers his head, each enormous paw extending forward, one after the other. At the end of the sand bar, he enters the tall grass and vanishes out of sight. But never out of my mind.