We’re barely an hour into our adventure in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands contained mostly to the western edge of Brazil, when our safari guide gets the call from a nearby colleague in the bush: jaguars. Two of them, a mother and a cub. We have five minutes to gather our binoculars and our courage before clambering into the jeep, its three-tiered seats stacked high like a theater on wheels—we don’t want to miss our first sighting of the region’s apex predator.
Truth be told, I’d already had a wildlife fix that day: We had seen capybaras at the entrance to our ecotourism lodge and reserve, Caiman. Just beyond the fence—there to keep jaguars out—a lackadaisical welcoming party of oversized rodents, like guinea pigs the size of Labradors, grazed on grass and barely noted our arrival. (The closest I had ever been to capybaras before was behind a foggy glass at the San Diego Zoo, so I naturally squealed.)
Then there were the pairs of hyacinth macaws—a cousin of a parrot, stunning in their size (more than three feet long, tip of beak to tip of tail) and cobalt-blueness—in the trees above the lodge’s aquamarine pool. These striking birds of paradise often fall victim to an illegal bird trade and destruction of habitat, with an estimated 10,000 “removed from nature” by the 1980s, according to the nonprofit Instituto Arara Azul (Hyacinth Macaw Institute). But Caiman, committed to conservation, has helped to rehabilitate the species by partnering with the institute and creating an ecological refuge—part of the reason I’m here.
My home away from home on this May safari is Casa Caiman, the actual childhood home of reserve owner Roberto Klabin. His family has ranched in the Pantanal since 1952, though they made their wealth in the pulp and paper industry. Klabin, now an entrepreneur and environmentalist, has fond memories of being at this sprawling terra-cotta estancia as far back as age 10. He doesn’t recall seeing a jaguar then, but who would, given how solitary and rare the big cat is. Rewilding efforts started in earnest in 2016, but wildfires and droughts still challenge the region’s biodiversity.
Numbers vary but the International Union for Conservation of Nature puts the total number of jaguars in the tens of thousands, making it a “near-threatened” species. More than half of the jaguars are in Brazil, and for the past 10 years, the nonprofit Onçafari has also partnered with Klabin and his Caiman Ecological Refuge to monitor and rehabilitate the mammals so they can live and breed in the natural habitat. Since 2016, three female jaguars have birthed 15 cubs, including the pair we’re tracking.
When you live in an urban jungle—say, New York City, where the wildlife is verminous and drags pizza slices into the sewers—it can be jarring at first to see so many species of mammal, bird, fish, and reptile hanging about so casually, so close to home. Caiman is within the same time zone as New York, a straight shot south across hemispheres and seasons. It takes about 11 hours and three flights on progressively smaller planes—international jet, domestic carrier, and prop plane—to arrive in the wetlands. By comparison, an African safari for an American could require a day and a half of travel just to get to your welcome cocktail. But here I was, jet-lag free, in a jeep racing along a hard-packed cattle road to find a baby jaguar.
“We don’t usually go this fast,” our guide Raphael shouts, his smile widening with the anticipation of discovery. “Hang onto something!” Hands on heads to hold baseball caps in place, we motor across bridges and through the bush, trying to sneak shaky videos with our cameras as we get our first glimpse of the 1.3 million-acre reserve. The first thing I notice: cows. So many cows. An important part of the Caiman Ecological Refuge is the coexistence of three activities: raising livestock, ecotourism, and conservation. So jowly chalk-white cows live alongside jaguars—the ranch loses about 1.5 to 2 percent of the herd each year, a Mafia-esque price to pay to keep the cat population growing. We know we’re close to those nimble predators (the third-largest in the big cat world after tigers and lions) when we see dozens of cattle frozen in place on the side of the road, heads all swung in the same direction like a crowd of onlookers watching a fight. There, across the path and down to the watering hole, three capybaras squeak bloody murder as two jaguars swim nearby. Are the cats stalking prey? Cooling off in the noon-day sun? Both?
Our guide suggests these two jaguars we’ve been pursuing—the mother and cub, likely four months old—aren’t hunting, since jaguars typically ambush prey rather than doggie-paddle on over for a bite to eat at the capybara buffet. Still, there’s something in the air, an unease that makes us watch with shallow breaths as nature takes its course.
Given my affinity for those cuddly overgrown rodents, I’m relieved I don’t have to watch a jaguar take down a capybara. (I might be the only one in our group who doesn’t openly hope to see the circle of life play out.) The mom and cub slink off into the bush and we follow slowly in the jeep, parallel to the soft padding of their footsteps. Ever curious, the cub keeps poking out its head to look at us, then runs back into clusters of trees. Mom, possibly hungry or maybe just worn out from looking after a toddler all day, flops down in the sun and rolls onto her back. That’s a universal mom signal for: I need a nap. The cub, undeterred, launches itself onto mom’s belly and so begins a tumble and play, with gentle swatting of faces and nuzzling that so closely mimics what parents and young children do, I start to get a little teary. Mother’s Day is tomorrow, after all, and my own children, ages five and three, are probably rough and tumbling 4,400 miles north.
Visitors have a 99 percent chance of spotting a cat on the reserve with Onçafari, our guide Bruno proudly tells us. But they can also see tapirs, toucans, ostrich-like birds called rheas, capuchin monkeys, blue-claw foxes, parakeets, snakes and spiders (shudder). Jabiru storks—the bird of the Pantanal—drink from a pond in the early morning sun. And the region’s near-namesake cayman (a type of alligator) makes its presence known, eyes glowing red at night by the hundreds, like a zombie invasion.
Better still, visitors can take part in conservation drives, like we did with Onçafari and Instituto Arara Azul, actively participating in their efforts and creating a more lasting connection to the destination. I intend to bring my family back to the Pantanal someday; I planted a tree to house future macaws and I need to check on its progress.
Know before you go
- Getting there: Multiple airlines (LATAM, American, Delta, United) fly nonstop New York-JFK to São Paulo. From there, it’s a short domestic flight via Brazilian low-cost carrier Gol to Campo Grande. Caiman runs transfer flights from Campo Grande to the lodge.
- Where to stay: Caiman; book now
- Guides in the field: Onçafari; Instituto Arara Azul