When the opportunity to go to Caiman Ecological Refuge in the Pantanal arose, the first thing that came to mind was that this would mean a chance to see a jaguar. This was right at the top of my bucket list, as it would almost complete my bush experience. My reason for coming to the bush was to see leopards and what better way to round this off than by seeing a jaguar, an animal so similar and yet so different to a leopard?
In a naive way, I assumed that in 7 nights we wouldn’t have any problem finding a jaguar. I realised that it would be more difficult than tracking down a leopard at Londolozi but still thought that it wouldn’t be impossible. This was a great reminder of just how lucky we are at Londolozi to be able to view relaxed leopards so regularly and at such close proximity. Over the years, this has enabled us to gather an enormous amount of data which has, in many instances, been pioneering information regarding leopard behaviour. We tend to forget that this has not always been the case.
In the 1970’s, it was incredibly rare to see a leopard at Londolozi. At this time, there was only 1 leopard that was seen regularly and she later became known as the ‘mother’. Many hours were spent by John Varty (JV) and his tracker, Elmon Mhlongo, finding this leopard and spending time with her in order to habituate her to the presence of the game viewers. This was by no means a speedy process and, over the years, as she bore cubs, so they too became relaxed with vehicles. Today we are privileged to view her great granddaughters, the Nottens and Dudley Riverbank females who, themselves, have had many litters, ensuring that this process continues. Being the pioneers of leopard habituation in what has become arguably the best leopard viewing destination in the world, Londolozi would be well suited to using this knowledge to replicate the process with jaguars. This is one of the major links between Caiman Ecological Refuge and Londolozi’s ‘Restoring Eden’ initiative. With their expertise and past experience, Londolozi is assessing the viability of developing a habituation program for the jaguars in the Pantanal.
Soon after arriving at Caiman Ecological Refuge, I realised that my initial assumption was very farfetched as the bush was far thicker than I expected. Just finding a jaguar would be an accomplishment, but if it left the road, following it through the bush would be impossible. My expectations were quickly adjusted and I decided that jaguar tracks would suffice as at least that would be evidence of jaguars being in the area.
The project incorporating the habituation of jaguars is known as the Oncafari project, a play on the taxonomic classification of the jaguar as Panthera onca. The gist of this project is to identify jaguars whose territories don’t extend beyond the boundaries of the 53,000 hectare property, and habituate these animals to game viewing vehicles so that they can be viewed regularly and thus be used to generate income via ecotourism. The thinking behind this is that it would be nonsensical to habituate an animal that crosses out of the conservation area, as a relaxed jaguar is likely to be shot by neighbouring farmers, who still harbour a great deal of animosity towards the jaguar. It would also be a pointless exercise to spend time habituating a jaguar only to have it move off of the property and not be viewed regularly.
While in Caiman, we spent a great deal of time with Bernardo Andrade, one of the researchers working on the Oncafari project, hoping to find fresh sign of one of these cats. During the course of our exploring, there was a particularly thick and beautiful area, with a pan right in the middle of it. I remember thinking at the time that this was the type of area that I had always pictured seeing a jaguar in. Bernardo also loved this area and so we called it Berdardo’s road and pan. While driving home on our third night, we couldn’t believe our luck when, what looked to be a female jaguar, ran across the road about 100 metres in front of us. The jaguars here tend to be nervous, so this was about as good a sighting as we expected. Nevertheless, we tried to intercept her and turned down Bernardo’s road. As we rounded one of the first corners, we were greeted with the sight of an enormous male jaguar strolling nonchalantly away from us down the road. Quickly we turned off the vehicle and watched him from a distance, expecting him to be nervous. Contrary to our expectations, he lay down and slept on the side of the road for about an hour and a half, seemingly unfazed by our presence. His behaviour reminded me of the Camp Pan male leopard at Londolozi and I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The expression on Bernardo’s face said it all and he later recounted how this was his best ever jaguar sighting since starting at Caiman Ecological Refuge early in 2012. We would have been ecstatic with the glimpse we had of the female jaguar, but two jaguars in one night was just phenomenal.
Bernardo identified this jaguar as one named ‘Ghost’ due to the fact that he has been captured on camera traps fairly regularly, but had never been seen by someone on a game drive. I couldn’t believe his size and especially the size of his head. I always knew that jaguars were larger than leopards, but Ghost was about the size of the Tailless Tsalala lioness.
Jaguars are the World’s third largest cat (after tigers and lions), with males weighing up to 158 kilograms. Jaguars are estimated to occupy less than 50% of their original range and are listed as near threatened on the IUCN list and as vulnerable in Brazil. It is estimated that in the Pantanal, a male jaguar’s territory is approximately 6,500 ha (16,250 acres) and a female’s 4,500 ha (11,250 acres). In theory, this would mean that 8 males and 11 females could be found in the 53,000 hectares making up the Caiman Ecological Refuge. Based on the profiles at Londolozi, we have 4 territorial males and 8 territorial females in an area of about 10,200 hectares (25,500 acres). This equates to an average territory size of approximately 2,550 and 1,275 hectares respectively. This is likely due to the fact that there has been a focus on leopard conservation at Londolozi since the late 1960s, while in the Pantanal, this is a relatively new focus. There is also a much higher density of prey species at Londolozi.
Every 20 minutes or so, we would creep a bit closer, trying to see just how comfortable Ghost was with our vehicle. He hardly moved. This was amazing and illustrated to us that the difficulty may be more in locating and following jaguars than the actual habituation process.
After about an hour and a half, Ghost decided to get up and continue his territorial patrol. He stood up, gave us a cursory glance, and then continued down the road with a certain swagger. In a similar manner to a leopard, he scent marked against trees and bushes as he went. After a couple of minutes he disappeared into the darkness of the night, but not before he vocalised, allowing us to hear how remarkably different a jaguar’s call is to a leopard’s.
There was an eerie silence in the vehicle as we all absorbed what had just unfolded before us and watched the Ghost fade into obscurity, uncertain of if and when he would show himself again.
Written and photographed by James Crookes