Mornings are generally difficult for me- if I can manage to pour my milk in my coffee and not directly down the sink (been there, done that) and put my lenses in my eyes rather than skip a step and throw the lenses and the liquid down the sink (been there, done that), I can call it a successful wake up.
On this particular morning on the 12th of October, everything done right, I opened my laptop and was greeted with a picture of four jaguars on a kill. This is an incredibly spectacular event in itself but the context within which it occurred makes it even more special. But before explaining it, I must give you a bit of a background of Pousada Aguape, the little cattle ranch in the heart of the Pantanal where these jaguars were photographed and how I got there.
In 2009 and 2011, I spent a total of eight months in the Peruvian Amazon collecting data for my MSc which was done as Masters by Research at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent. To obtain a Masters by Research, one must spend six months collecting data in the field or in a lab followed by six months of analysis the data and writing up a mini thesis. I collected my data in the form of photographs using camera traps in the thick jungles of the Pacaya Samiria National Park. I also did line transects every day to complement my data set and through this method, I walked over 550 km in the Amazon forest. This gave me the extraordinary opportunity to come across and follow pugmarks left by jaguars, pumas and ocelots. But despite the ridiculous amount of time and energy I spent trying to find these species, I never saw one. And so, when Patrick told me about this little place in the Pantanal where one is guaranteed to see a wild ocelot, I took the first possible plane out to visit this little paradise.
The Pantanal is a seemingly endless stretch of wetland spreading across Brazil into Paraguay and Bolivia. This importance of this immense wetland is comparable to other large areas representing a particular type of ecosystem like the Amazon Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef which comprises an important part of marine life. Although the Pantanal is naturally biologically rich in faunal and floral diversity, its characteristic open landscapes is a result of intensive cattle farming.
I had the opportunity to visit part of the Pantanal last year and have a first-hand experience of the people, their culture, the wildlife they share their lands with and the conservation issues that take on an everyday meaning.
Pousada Aguape is a cattle ranch in the heart of this giant wetland. It is one of the smaller ones in terms of size and has stayed in the same family for over 150 years. What sets them apart from their neighbours is their tolerance and even appreciation for the wildlife with which they share their lands. What first began as extended invitations for family and friends to stay overnight to enjoy the fishing and nature soon turned into a more formal version of ecotourism with tourists visiting specifically for the wildlife. For over thirty years, this family and their employees have been balancing cattle ranching with ecotourism, quite an achievement considering that a study in 2005 showed that 82% of people in the Pantanal consider that the jaguar is a threat to cattle (Zimmermann et al. 2005). This low tolerance for wildlife is easily seen in the farm next door where all wildlife is persecuted, from jaguars and pumas due to cattle depredation to anteaters because they dig holes and when cattle move across the ranch land they may break their legs when accidentally stepping in the holes. Don’t even ask about snakes and large birds!
But such a change in attitude, lifestyle and convictions requires a considerable amount of belief and persistence. Fabiano, a farm hand when the switch to ecotourism was being made, told us about how odd that transition had been; from being ordered to kill everything on the land to letting animals walk by without aiming a gun at them. Today, Fabiano is one of the farms leading guides and with his appreciable knowledge of birdlife and quirky sense of humour, he is a well sought out companion to accompany ecotourists visiting the farm.
As mentioned before, the particularity of this farm is that we can see a wealth of wildlife roaming freely. And knowing that this is not the case on the farm adjoining this one, the number of species one can see is quite astounding.
Seu João a visionary man and between him and his daughter Joanna, they have taken the ecological aspect on the farm to the next level. They promote and participate in several ecological initiatives that include the Hyacinth Macaw recovery programme, the Anteater project and Organic Veal Project among others. Through recent camera trapping initiative, they are gaining knowledge of the presence and movement of jaguars, pumas and ocelot on their farmland. This will be key in mitigating conflict as after all Pousada Aguape is primarily a cattle ranch and as can be seen from the picture with the four jaguars, cows are easy prey.
Living side by side with wildlife
When flying over the Pantanal, I encountered a landscape which I had never seen before. It is a spectacular mosaic comprising of emerald green forest patches, sandy green grasslands and mirrored lakes reflecting the sky. And within this complex, thousands of white dots litter the landscape. These white dots are cows. But don’t be fooled…without the cattle in the Pantanal, the area would be a lush, barely penetrable forest. This open, grassy landscape is only maintained thanks to the relatively intensive grazing of domestic cattle.
I probably experienced the Pantanal in a different way than many other people do. Being a wildlife biologist, one tends to look at wildlife through conservation glasses, whether it is a spotted deer in the Indian jungle, a marmot in the Kyrgyz mountains or an ocelot in the Brazilian wetland. I don’t see just a cattle ranch or just a beautiful ocelot in the wild. Both of these are individually intriguing but cannot be considered separately; both are pieces of a giant puzzle that makes the Pantanal what it is today.
Like everywhere else in the world where humans share their land and livelihood with large predators, there are recurring problems and we have still not come up with viable solutions. A recent study in India showed that in the state of Karnataka, leopards live alongside humans in a significant part of the area and many people are not even aware of their presence. In the Pantanal however, people are most definitely aware when they have a jaguar or puma living on their grounds. Unlike Indian leopards which can thrive on street dogs, jaguars can easily go after cows and other large farm animals. Of course both leopards and jaguars don’t rely entirely on domestic animal and will also go after their normal prey in the wild.
Today, our key challenges are to find solutions whereby cattle ranchers can live alongside big cats like jaguars and pumas but also tolerate the presence of other wild animals. One day, we can perhaps even achieve a greater goal of these populations appreciating and valuing the presence of this wildlife on their lands.