Fortified by a windfall from a silver-mine investment, Kaplan took a step down that path in 2002 by contacting Rabinowitz. The two men bonded over their desire to save big cats, although it was an unlikely mission for both of them. “Alan is allergic to cats,” Kaplan says, “and I’m a vegetarian—funding ranches with 8,000 head of cattle.”
Late one afternoon, I took a boat up the Cuiabá River with Rafael Hoogesteijn, Panthera’s expert on livestock depredation. It was the end of the dry season, the best time of year to see jaguars. Soon, months of rain would swell the Paraguay River and its tributaries, including the Cuiabá. Their waters would rise by up to 15 feet, backing up like a plugged bathtub and inundating 80 percent of the Pantanal flood plain. Only a few areas of high ground would remain above water.
The Pantanal’s immense freshwater wetlands are the world’s largest, covering almost 60,000 square miles, about 20 times the size of the Florida Everglades. Bulldog-size rodents called capybara watched us, motionless, from the shallows. A lone howler monkey lay in a tree, back legs swinging in the breeze. Caiman submerged as we passed. A six-foot anaconda coiled under a tree. Innumerable birds took flight as we floated by: kingfishers, eagles, cotton-candy-colored spoonbills, squawking parrots, stilt-legged water birds. Jabiru storks with nine-foot wingspans glided overhead.
With abundant prey, the cats here grow to be the largest in all of jaguardom. One male collared in 2008 weighed 326 pounds, about three times more than an average Central American jaguar. The Pantanal ecosystem nurtures perhaps the highest density of jaguars anywhere.
Our boatman veered off into a small creek, navigating low, coffee-colored waters choked with water hyacinth. Fish jumped, glinting, in our wake. A stray piranha landed in the boat, flopping at our feet. We rounded an oxbow and startled a tapir that swam wild-eyed for shore, holding its prehensile, elephantine trunk in the air.
On a sandy beach we spied jaguar tracks that led to a fresh kill. The boatman pulled close. A few scraps remained of a six-foot caiman carcass. Hoogesteijn pointed out the cat’s signature, a crushing bite to the skull, so different from the strangling throat-hold used by lions and tigers. This may be the source of the jaguar’s name, derived from the Tupí-Guaraní word yaguareté, meaning “beast that kills its prey with a single bound.”
Jaguars have the most powerful jaws of any cat, strong enough to crack sea turtle shells. Though they prefer large prey, they’ll eat almost anything—deer, capybara, frogs, monkeys, birds, anacondas, livestock. Jaguars rarely kill people, although they have done so, usually when cornered in a hunt.
A few nights later, we witnessed an adult jaguar silently stalking something in the shallows. It dived, and when it surfaced, a four-foot caiman dangled from its mouth. This amazed the biologists—they didn’t know jaguars hunted with such stealth in water. Much remains to be learned about jaguar behavior.
The Pantanal has been the scene of jaguar-cattle conflict ever since cows were introduced by the early 18th century. Many ranches once employed an onçeiro, a jaguar hunter. It was a position of honor, and Joaquim Proença, now Panthera’s ranch manager, was among the best. He thinks he must have killed 100. In the traditional way, he and a posse tracked a jaguar with a pack of pedigreed hounds, following on horseback until the hounds treed or surrounded the cat. “It was more dangerous when the cat was on the ground, but more manly,” says Proença. “You needed a perfect shot.” When he went to work for Panthera, he sold his hounds and stopped hunting. But the locals still tease him. They say he has lost courage—he’s no longer a man.
Ninety-five percent of the Pantanal’s land is privately owned, with some 2,500 ranches running nearly eight million head of cattle. In a survey, 90 percent of ranchers said they considered jaguars part of their heritage, yet fully half also said they wouldn’t tolerate the cats on their property.