Guest post written by Cat Expeditions participant: Lisa Antell
On an journey with Cat Expeditions in late July of this year, to the Pantanal of Brazil to see the incredible jaguars and other spectacular wildlife of the world’s largest tropical wetland area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we had a superb experience with our fellow travelers, led by our enthusiastic leaders, Sebastian Kennerknecht and Rachel Tobias.
Sebastian and Rachel are experienced professional trip leaders, conservationists, photographers, and most importantly, avid big (and little!) cat addicts and specialists! The Cat Expeditions trips are always perfectly well-organized and logistically smooth experiences, while also being simply fun and engaging travel experiences. And if you are also a big/little cat aficionado and/or wildlife photographer, then you will be able to fully submerge yourself in extraordinary landscapes and wildlife viewing opportunities, while knowing that all travel details are expertly handled along the way.
We arrived in Cuiabá, Brazil on our first morning of the Jaguar tour, after overnight flights from the US, to be met by Sebastian and Rachel, and escorted onto a classic bush flight to transfer directly into the heart of the northern Pantanal, conveniently landing an hour later at the airstrip immediately adjacent to our lodging at the Hotel Pantanal Norte. What a beautiful flight over the Pantanal with incredible views of the wetlands and surrounding area! We then had a short midday break to get briefed on the daily schedule, have lunch, and get our gear organized for our first boat afternoon on the extensive river system in this northern half of the Pantanal, which is where all of the jaguar and wildlife action and sightings will be happening. We met our local biologist and guide, and our boat pilot, as well, that would be accompanying us for the entire time.
We departed on our group’s afternoon boat, and headed upriver and found our first gorgeous cat! Guaraci was lounging and resting on the high riverbank for the afternoon, and we enjoyed some nice photography time with her. During the entire hot sunny afternoon on the river, we also saw many many birds of all descriptions in this very fertile ecosystem, with wildlife to see in any and every direction that you turned. The Pantanal is an incredible wildlife viewing destination for all safari enthusiasts, and one that I highly recommend, especially to birders. The experience of doing all of the wildlife viewing and photography from the boats on the river is also a unique perspective and very enjoyable. We ended the afternoon of our first day with a fast boat ride back downriver to the simple, but comfortable lodge (Hotel Pantanal Norte, where many of the world’s photographers and film crews stay), a good dinner and early bedtime.
The next morning, we left the boat dock on the river at 5:50am and moved upriver to a jaguar sighting, again finding Guaraci moving and hunting along the riverbank and through the very dense vegetation. After a while viewing and following her, we left that sighting and had a morning coffee and snack and shade break along the river. As we finished and moved down river again, Sebastian heard a sound across the river on the opposite bank and what we saw, and what ensued was a brilliant once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a well-known and experienced female jaguar named Patricia with her two tiny new cubbies, and watching her swim both cubs across the wide, fast-moving waters of the River Cuiabá! The sighting was transfixing, a bit terrifying (for the mama and cubs, and for us watching!), and completely sensational in every way. We watched as Patricia swam one cub across the river in her mouth (and mostly under water!), and deposited the small cub on the opposite riverbank, to be left crying and screeching for his/her mama. In the meantime, the other tiny baby was on the original side of the river, also screeching and crying for her mama to come back to her! Patricia dutifully swam back across the river, and found the second cubbie, led the cub into the water, and then also grabbed the tiny cat in her mouth and swam her across the river (again mostly under water!) to the opposite side. By the end of the incredible and intense sighting, Patricia had successfully and safely escorted both of her babies into the dense vegetation along the riverbank on the opposite side, and then disappeared from view! We found out from the local researchers in the area (Jaguar ID Project and Panthera) that this was the first sighting of these little cubs of Patricia, and we were given the opportunity to help name the cats! A million photos and some videos from the incredible moment witnessed by us, and also another jaguar sighting, finding a young female named Marcela, and our morning boat safari ended back at the lodge for lunch and a rest break during the heat of the day.
Our afternoon boat ride, and then subsequent daily morning and afternoons on the boat for the next few days, resulted in our being able to see a total of 10 jaguars during our stay in the northern Pantanal, in 16 different sightings, with only one boat ride without a cat sighting. There was plenty of other wildlife to see, as well: many many birds, giant river otters, cabybaras, an arboreal sleeping porcupine, a bat colony, capuchin monkeys, masses of caimans, huge colonies of snail kites emerging in the morning and returning in the evening skies, howler monkeys, hyacinth macaws, and beautiful ethereal serene scenes along the river, and cats hunting, eating, sleeping, swimming, interacting with each other and posing beautifully along the river. We had an excellent evening presentation by Abbie Martin of the Jaguar ID Project about the conservation status and jaguar research going on in the northern Pantanal, in conjunction with Panthera. It was all sensational and fulfilling and a dream experience from start to finish.
On our last morning in the northern Pantanal before our bush flight transfer to the southern Pantanal and Caiman Lodge, and the waiting Oncafari research team, Sebastian asked me if I wanted to try to find my favorite male jaguar, Juru, whom I had seen in 2018 as a brash young cat, along the river. I had been hoping to find Juru, but we knew that it was a long shot to try to search for him exclusively in a huge river ecosystem where he could be virtually anywhere. Fortunately, we did have a good lead on his last whereabouts, as there had been a sighting of him the previous evening downriver! We headed out at 5:30am on our last morning, and traveled downriver to the last known location of Juru. We searched all over that morning in a beautiful side channel of the river, but did not find Juru. We did spend a fantastic time with a family of river otters at their den site and enjoyed watching the interactions and behaviors of the family of otters. When it was finally time to depart to head back to the lodge and our bush lodge transfer flight, we moved quickly back up river, and no more than 10 minutes along, our guide spied a cat posing on the high riverbank! It was JURU! It just made my day to finally see this big dominant male jaguar again, and find him looking in perfect condition and clearly doing quite well, at the age of 9 years old! We followed him for a short time as he prowled along the riverbank, and slipped into the water as well to hunt for his next meal. When it was absolutely the last possible minute of time left for us to race back upriver to pack up and leave the lodge, we left Juru and returned to the lodge. A very successful and happy last morning in the northern Pantanal!
That same afternoon, we departed from the airstrip at the lodge, and flew on another one hour bush flight south and into the southern Pantanal and Caiman Lodge, our lodging for the next 4 days. We arrived at a private villa (Baizinha) on the huge property, that comfortably housed our entire group, with all the amenities of a private home and staff, and excellent food and hospitality. Caiman Lodge and the Oncafari NGO group are part of an extensive area of mixed land use encompassing the boundary of the southern Pantanal and the Brazilian Cerrado savannah and wetlands, and is mostly being ranched for cattle and domestic livestock. The Oncafari research team is focused on finding ways to help humans and wildlife coexist comfortably in a sustainable way with reduction in persecution of the big cats. The area is a leading positive example of how people can coexist with large predators, but with strict ethical guidelines and rules on how to achieve this harmony. A very good model, but one that requires human willpower, persistence, generous money and funding, and constant ongoing research and training in how to best achieve these goals.
Over the next four days we met our Oncafari biologists/guides, explored the area in classic safari vehicles, saw 5 more jaguars in 7 sightings including a charismatic subadult cat and her mama, many many birds, heard presentations by the Oncafari team about their projects and research and rewilding of cats, saw Crab-Eating foxes, an armadillo, several varieties of deer, peccaries, anteaters (including a baby riding on mama’s back!), a fer-de-lance viper, Greater and Common potoos, performed some telemetry to find collared/research jaguars, had evening grill dinners in the traditional Brazilian manner, and in a rare and very exciting moment, saw a maned wolf foraging for food in the grasslands on the side of the main road on a night drive! What an incredible sighting to cap off an incredible trip! The photographic opportunities were astounding, and the immersive moments in a unique and very special ecosystem were magical in every way.
We flew from Oncafari/Caiman Lodge back on a bush flight to Campo Grande on our final day of the excursion, and then on to Sao Paulo and our evening international flights home.
I can enthusiastically recommend Cat Expeditions, and Sebastian Kennerknecht and Rachel Tobias as naturalists and guides for all of their journeys and travel experiences, as being very careful, ethical tour operators, in addition to fun, charismatic, knowledgeable people. The travel experiences that they create, and the ecosystems and habitats that they explore with you, are vital to protect on our Earth, and anyone interested in Conservation of Wildlife and Land, and Human-Wildlife Coexistence will find no one better to explore the world with!