By Alan Rabinowitz, Ph.D.
My first encounter with a jaguar in the Brazilian Pantanal happened at night when I found myself staring into those green, piercing eyes that shone golden when the light from my torch hit them. It was 1981, and Dr. Howard Quigley, now Executive Director of Panthera’s Jaguar Program, and I had left our respective posts to join Dr. George Schaller in this “vast primeval sponge,” where he was conducting the first studies ever done on jaguars.
The Pantanal was the perfect place for me to become initiated into the rigors of fieldwork and begin my own jaguar journey. The place is an assault on your senses: fluttering flashes and competing songs from more than 600 species of birds, the eyes of thousands of caiman bobbing in the waters, and the subtle but unmistakable musky smell of scent sprayed from jaguars wafting from the trees.
Although my career has taken me all over the world to protect big cats, the Pantanal remains one of my most favorite and special places. Today, visitors to the Pantanal can readily see jaguars along the banks of the Cuiabá River. It’s the only place like it in the jaguar’s range.
It wasn’t always this way. Jaguars were heavily persecuted up until the 1970s, when hunting was banned, but even now, they are under constant threat from illegal hunting. Here in the Pantanal, cattle ranching is the heart of the economy. And wherever there are cattle and jaguars in close proximity, there is the potential for conflict. A jaguar kills your cow, you kill the jaguar—you just don’t talk about it: “Shoot, shovel, and shut up,” as they say.
That’s why Panthera purchased the Jofre Velho Ranch in the Northern Pantanal in 2014, imposing strict prohibitions on hunting and establishing a demonstration ranch to both create a jaguar-friendly environment and to show ranchers and farmers how to protect cattle from jaguars—methods that we are deploying elsewhere in the Pantanal. We opened a school at the ranch for the community’s children and their parents. Together with our groundbreaking research, Panthera has helped to cultivate a new culture of protection that has doubled jaguar numbers in the area and helped to spawn a tourism economy built on the jaguar’s presence.
It’s a wonderful success story in a truly unique place, and we will be bringing it to you on this leg of the Journey of the Jaguar. Whenever I travel to the Pantanal, I can’t help but be continually amazed by the sights, sounds, and smells of all I had seen before and yet all that is new and different. Here I am, more than three decades after my first encounter with a wild jaguar, still in the Pantanal, still dodging cow dung, and still caught off guard whenever I see those spots ambushing a capybara or lazing on the riverfront.
I’m looking forward to introducing you to some of the Pantaneiros who are driving the new way of thinking and their children, as well as the scientists who represent the history of this place and its future as a stronghold of the Jaguar Corridor. And, of course, to the jaguars in all their glory. I think you’re going to love it as much as I do.