Volunteer to Study the Jaguar in Pantanal, Brazil
Hardly had Luis Carlos stopped rubbing the damp denim cloth along the wooden spindle inside the hollowed-out palm stump when our collective hearts leaped.
From downriver, distant yet unmistakable, came a live version of the drawn-out grunt-growl he had skillfully coaxed from the jaguar caller.
So faithful is the sound the instrument makes that the jaguar's response at first seemed merely its echo. But it continued long enough for us, waiting breathlessly in the boat, to be certain we had fooled at least one member of the Pantanal's most exquisite creature clan into believing that we, too, had powerful paws and a glorious spotted pelt.
However, exuberant expressions of joy and excitement were out of the question. The only way to be sure we would have any chance of glimpsing onca-pintada was to continue the charade.
But Luis Carlos had to keep a rein on the impersonation as well since our accompanying jaguar expert, Leandro Silveira, had warned that too-frequent calls without enough of an interval of feline indifference would be more likely to repulse than attract jaguar attention.
So we waited silently, although we did not see or hear further that night from the jaguar we attracted, hearing one was still heavenly manna for aficionados like ourselves who had come to Fazenda Rio Negro in Brazil's Pantanal to assist Silveira with his research. Silveira said it was likely that our cat was either a female with cubs or a young male, both of whom would have been skittish about meeting the male that Luis Carlos had imitated.
Our team of seven, from all over the U.S., had come specifically to study jaguars. But other Earthwatch Institute volunteers regularly descend into the Pantanal's near-primeval wetland wilderness to help scientists research everything from peccaries to amphibians and birds.
In fact, Earthwatch runs more trips to the Fazenda Rio Negro in the Pantanal each year than any of its many global destinations. Little wonder, given that the 210,000-square-kilometer haven of lakes, rivers, and waterways teems with one of the most significant concentrations of tropical wildlife in Latin America. And strangely enough, says Reinaldo Lourival, Pantanal director for Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International, which funds Silveira’s Jaguar Conservation Project, few people have heard of it.
That is likely to change, however, as nature lovers like ourselves spread the word.
The trek to get to Fazenda Rio Negro is the first clue to its exceptional wilderness status. An hour's flight from Sao Paulo, a 2-hour van ride from Campo Grande, and a small private plane finally zooms low over the 100-year-old ranch house, sometimes chasing one of the ostrich-like rheas up the dirt strip runway as it lands.
Exploring the grounds after greeting Silveira, other research leaders Marion and Samuel, and the ranch's delightful staff, it became apparent that it was unnecessary to leave the ranch grounds to see much of the Pantanal's wildlife.
Indeed, in our six days at the fazenda, those of us who were counting logged sightings of over 40 different bird species, most of them within sight of our lodgings. These highlights included the nearly daily, pre-dawn raucous gathering of several super-rare, regal blue hyacinth macaws in a tree in the front yard. Glorious, ebony-headed, red-necked jabiru storks, standing up to six feet tall, regularly visited the shoreline and pond, as did groups of flamingo-like roseate spoonbills. Buff-necked ibis constantly patrolled the grounds with their high-pitched, dissonant version of a quack, and emerald-bellied hummingbirds plied the house garden's flowers for nectar. One of the funnier sights around the fazenda was the occasional rhea doing its best to jump into one of the backyard fruit trees to pluck off a snack.
Anxious to infect us all with his enthusiasm for his research specialty, snakes, Jeff also made sure to capture whatever specimen was in our vicinity. Luckily for us, neither of the two brightly colored sub-adults found (one in the men's bathroom), a hog-nosed false coral snake and a leaf green one whose name I did not retain, were dangerous. A great teacher, Jeff also regularly enlightened us on the characteristics of the many caiman plying the Rio Negro's waters, even catching and hog-tying one to give us a closer look.
Except for counting caiman along the river, our daily data-gathering tasks revolved exclusively around mammals — capybara, river otters, crab-eating foxes, peccaries, feral pigs, tapirs, agouti, coatimundi, howler monkeys, giant anteaters, deer, armadillos, ocelots, pumas and, of course, jaguar. While we saw — and heard — only traces of the region's cats, we saw everything else, including a troop of howler monkeys, complete with babies clinging to their mama's breast and a southern river otter busily spraying the river bank to mark his territory.
An Earthwatch holiday in the Pantanal is not for everyone, particularly not for those who think "Brazilian vacation" translates only as sporting a thong and sipping exotic drinks on a Rio beach.
After all, not everyone would find it funny to be chased up the beach by a 5-foot-long caiman intent upon making a free meal from the giant catfish you just caught. Or would be tempted to dare swim in a river where piranha live. Or would you feel the thrill of a lifetime to hear a jaguar call out to you while you contemplate a dazzlingly star-studded night sky.
But anyone who dreams of experiencing the incredible beauty of a place where nature, rather than man, is still in charge may well shed the same tears of sadness I did at having to reboard the plane for "civilization."
Within the larger aims of the initiative, the Jaguar Conservation Project has three long-term objectives:
To resolve human/jaguar conflicts that lead to jaguar killing
To establish a 300,000-hectare jaguar reserve on private ranch land
To develop a compensation program that can be used in other regions
Relying on Brazilian university students and Earthwatch volunteers, Silveira is also looking at whether it would be possible to establish a corridor linking jaguar populations in Emas and the Pantanal.
For internships on this program, see the Jaguar Conservation Fund. See Earthwatch Institute for more information on other wildlife projects.