The night has a thousand eyes
Pantanal: Henrique Concone handles cat poo for a living – more specifically, jaguar poo, although he’s not adverse to a bit of puma or ocelot scat (as he prefers to call it). He’s a researcher with the Brazilian Instituto Pro-Carnivores and he’s been based at San Francisco Farm in the southern Pantanal for the past seven years, toilet attendant to America’s biggest cat.
Jaguars are majestic, beautiful creatures. The world’s third biggest cat, they have the most powerful bite of any of them (in proportion to their weight) and kill prey tiger-style with a massive bite to the back of the head that pierces the brain. They are deadly accurate and superbly adapted to their environment, swimming easily in water and climbing trees despite their considerable weight.
Genetically, they are closest to lions and although their current range extends from the south of the USA to the north of Argentina, they were originally North American cats. (Very few remain in the US and in 2008, in the first decision of its kind, the George W Bush administration ended jaguar recovery as a federal goal under the Endangered Species Act, presumably because it conflicted with its Mexico border fence program). Jaguars crossed south when the continents joined across Panama and were responsible for many of the extinctions that took place in South America after the last Ice Age, particularly among the marsupials that were originally far more populous here. This is perhaps what Australia would look like if jaguars and their carnivorous ilk had made it there.
Now, though, jaguars are endangered – classed by CITES as ‘near-threatened’ (threatened with extinction in the near future). Deforestation and human encroachment has reduced their habitat to a few pockets of which the biggest are the Amazon and Pantanal in Brazil, and even there, numbers may be as low as 5 jaguars per 100 km2, although there is no reliable census. The biggest threat to jaguars here in the Pantanal is the cattle ranchers, or rather, the jaguar hunters that many ranchers illegally employ to kill the big cats. Cattle ranching began here 250 years ago and is the most important business in the Pantanal, where cattle are now the most numerous mammals. It turns out that humans are not the only carnivores in the area that enjoy beef, and the ranchers respond to the jaguar threat by shooting the cats. Often this s done by chasing the animal out of the jungle with dogs, surrounding it and then shooting it from close range with a 12 gauge shotgun.
But in a region bubbling with capybara (the world’s largest rodent – and yes, it is a rodent), caiman and deer, just how much of a threat to domestic cattle are jaguars? That’s what Henrique is trying to find out. He’s now analysing nearly 7-years’ worth of jaguar poo from a 150 square kilometre range to determine what the big cats are eating. And it turns out their favourite food is capybara, which is not too surprising because the docile vegetarians hang around the Pantanal in big groups comprising of glossy-coated meat rather like a well-stocked market stall of food. And the other big jag delicacy is carpaccio of caiman, again, this is presumably because you can’t move here for long snappy reptiles.
“We’re still analysing the data, but it looks from our samples that jaguars are responsible for just 0.8% of cattle deaths here – around 24 head per year, which is far lower than many ranchers claim,” he says. “If a farmer has 100 cows and expects 100 calfs but only gets 50, then of the multitude of reasons for this, the easiest to blame and the easiest to resolve is the jaguar. But most of the deaths are due to poor management of the ranch: spontaneous abortion because the cows are not vaccinated, injuries that are not treated, infections and so on.”
Henrique is also looking at data from genuine cattle kills by jaguars to see if there is a pattern that can be avoided, so the jaguar-rancher conflict can be reduced. Again, he says, poor management is an issue. “A well-managed ranch will expect to lose, say, 5 head per 1000 cattle a year and absorb that,” he says. “Poorly managed ranches allow their cattle to roam over a massive 5000 hectare range, where they are a regular presence at a watering hole or an easy catch near forest for a jaguar. It is better to keep cattle contained to smaller 200 hectare plots that are rotated, so that jaguars can’t be certain of finding them in a specific place.” Other recommendations are ensuring that bulls are kept separate so that vulnerable calves are all born together at certain times of the year where they can be protected more easily and maintaining the general health of the animals so that the farmers turn a bigger profit and can afford to absorb the loss of a few cows to jaguars.
Protecting jaguars from extinction is in the farmers’ economic interests, Henrique says, not just because they might earn a few bob from wildlife enthusiast tourists staying on their land, but because when you remove a keystone top predator like the jaguar from an ecosystem, everything else multiplies with unhealthy consequences. “Top predators keep the ecosystem healthy by killing off the sick and weak animals, which keeps disease in check. Near São Paulo, where they have killed off all their jaguars and pumas, there is an explosion of capybara and, two years ago, cattle and people there suffered an outbreak of febre maculosa [Brazilian spotted fever] spread by a tic that is carried by cabybara. In Europe and North America you suffer Lyme disease because you have got rid of your top predator, the wolf.”
I leave Henrique to his lab full of poo and head out into the night to search for America’s biggest cat. The Pantanal, covering nearly 200,000 square kilometres, is the the world’s largest wetland and extraordinarily abundant in wildlife. Unlike in rainforests, you can actually see the animals here, especially during the dry season – now – when less of the vast swampy basin is submerged. We head out in a jeep with a powerful torch that ignites eyeshine in the drainage ditches and rivers, switching on an array of hundreds of red ‘lights’ as the caiman reflect the torchlight like candles floating on the Ganges at Varanasi. There are millions of caiman jostling for space in the water and crowding the banks.
Sissor-tailed night hawks take flight as we approach and a barn owl – same as in Asia, Europe, Africa – turns and stares. We see small deer lying in a rice field and a couple of giant anteaters bumbling past, one of which is carrying two babies on her back – a very rare occurrence. Anteaters are strange creatures. They have no teeth and, with sloths, armadillos and aardvarks, belong to an ancient group of mammals with some bizarre characteristics. Giant anteaters have extremely strong forearms which allow them to break in minutes a termite mound that would take a man several hours. But they have poor hearing, poor eyesight and are very vulnerable to traffic because they respond so slowly. We see a few carcasses on our road into the Pantanal from Campo Grande city and there are less than 5000 left in the wild.
While we are watching a couple of small grey crab-eating foxes play, South America’s largest mammal bumbles past: a tapir, or, as I call it, the horse that thinks it’s a pig. With its funny little trunk twitching in the air, it stumbles around a bit and then crashes out of sight in the bush.
And then, a little further along the road, we spot an ocelot! It’s a beautiful cat, known as the ‘painted leopard’ for its wonderful markings that are similar to those of the clouded leopard. It stalks the bank like a very large domestic cat on the prowl, ears flickering in response to tiny sounds we don’t hear and it’s tail held aloft. Then, just as it pounces, we spot another one. The two chase each other and, with large paws, play-fight in the bushes before slinking away.
Driving on, wide-eyed with pleasure, we spot another ocelot, hunting alone on the river bank. As we stop to watch, he loses his prey and then refinds it by clambering stealthily up a tree. We can’t believe our luck and return to the farm in joyful whispers.
We’re halfway back when we hear a capybara alarm call, a splash and then an unmistakeable growl: jaguar. We stop by a thick clump of bush and wait, peering into the blackness for the owner of the noise. But after several minutes, we hear nothing and reluctantly return.
Next day, we’re up and out on the river in a boat looking for giant otters and finding dozens of crazy birds from toucans to blue macaws. We stop to watch capuchin monkeys and then some rather impolite howler monkeys who, in the interspecies diplomacy equivalent of Iran vs the US, begin throwing their shit at our heads. We move past them in a dignified silence and take up position on the river bank, where Nick does a bit of piranha fishing.
Kingfishers shout above our heads, perhaps in irritation at our stealing their lunch, and vultures conduct curious flybys.
We walk back through the Pantanal swamp, taking our sandals off to cross the water – “careful where you walk because caiman can be a bit of a problem,” our guide warns us. Walking less than a metre’s distance past an array of open-jawed alligators doesn’t feel like the most sensible thing in the world, but, as our guide assured us, “they are well-fed at the moment and won’t be bothered biting you”. Nevertheless, I don’t dawdle and am happy to see a capybara family on the bank, looking like a cross between a wombat and an oversized hamster, but far tastier than me.
We could happily stay there looking for jaguars, but the mosquitoes chase us away and we return to our tent, grateful not to be a capybara as night falls.