Editor's Note: A version of this post appeared as a journal entry for Journey of the Jaguar, our scientists' epic journey to secure the ancient path of the jaguar in Latin America. Dr. Rabinowitz and colleagues had this surprising encounter last month in the Brazilian Pantanal.
Sometimes the world hands you a gift, and it should be appreciated for the rare event it is. Today was such a day. We left late in the afternoon on our boat from Jofre Velho as the sun was already sinking in the sky. We were determined to at least catch a glimpse of one of the numerous jaguars that live along this part of the Cuiabá River.
As we came around a bend in the river and saw a cluster of at least six or seven tourist boats near one point on the bank, we knew we had a jaguar sighting. But with the sun setting, the visibility was low, and I saw it walking away just before it dipped out of view. I thought we had lost it when it turned inland on its hunt for capybara, peccaries, or brocket deer.
But tonight it wanted another meal, a different meal — and as quickly as it had disappeared, it reappeared a short distance away, just before diving into the thick vegetation growing along the banks of the river. For some minutes, we could watch the jaguar move without actually seeing it, as the vegetation along the river rustled and shook in the jaguar’s search for caiman lying in hiding. Some of the tourist boats pulled away by now, having had their brief photo op with the beast.
A few others, like us, waited and watched, waited and watched, hoping it would return. We were rewarded with a few more glimpses of head and body swimming, splashing inside the vegetation, before she went quiet and still, perhaps moving in a different direction. Discussing what we had seen among ourselves, dusk starting to settle in heavily, all the other boats disappeared, and we were left with what has become a rarity in this part of the Pantanal during dry season, the high season for tourists: quiet and solitude.
Then, we were given the gift.
It happened like this: Our boatman, Ailton, pointed in the near distance. The jaguar’s head had popped up again; this time, her look seemed more purposeful than before. She came out of the water, sat on the bank, and sniffed the air, eyes scanning the river. Then, she heads down to the water, pauses, looks our way, and goes back to the bank. She comes back down again. “She wants to cross the river,” I say.
But Ailton is more than a step ahead of me. Having watched these great cats for generations as he grew up along this river, he could see in the jaguar’s behavior what I could not. The jaguar had spotted a dead adult caiman, hung up on a log and already partly eaten by piranhas, across the river. Almost at the same time he told us, the smell of decay blew our way. We backed up enough to give the jaguar very comfortable breathing space, and within a minute, she was back down to the water and starting to cross.
The jaguar crossing the river, in and of itself, was something to behold. She swam powerfully across a relatively rapid, wide river filled with piranha and caiman as if she were crossing the street. Then the fun started as we, alone, watched the jaguar search the banks for what she knew was over there. By the time she found the caiman, stuck on a log through heavy bramble and with a steep bank in back of her, two more small boats had joined us to watch.
It was nearly full dark when she bit down on the caiman’s neck and dragged her into the bramble, freeing the smelly but sizeable prey enough to start feeding on the head. Seeing a jaguar eat carrion doesn't happen every day. They have plenty of natural prey — especially in the Pantanal.
We sat there watching as the two other boats left. She knew and we knew she would eventually move that prey under cover to get it away from vultures and other animals that wanted such a meal.
I know the power of the jaguar. I have actually been clawed by one when I got too close to its enclosure in captivity, and a single claw of its massive paw reached through the bars and ripped through my sneaker right down to the bone.
I had no doubt that I would see what we soon saw: this jaguar using all the might of her powerful jaws and stocky, muscular body to pull this perhaps 60-70 pound caiman through the thick, ripping brambles and almost vertically up the bank. It was dark now, making the scene almost surreal, as the last few feet of the white belly that stood out in the night was quickly pulled into the darkness by some seemingly un-seeable force.