Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Jaguars! And Piranhas For Dinner Finally

Photos from left to right:
Toucan; Cayman 1; Cayman 2; Cayman resting on branch;
Cayman caught fish; Giant Otter Caught fish
; Me & Jaguar; Wilson the Beautiful;
Pretty Tame Macaws;
Duda & Her sister; Capibara Mum & Baby

I am back in the Pantanal again, this time meeting with Charlie who runs a successful Jaguar Eco-tourist operation and learn from him how he has combined his expertise with eco-tourism to find solutions in sustainable conservation. He is an American PHD in biology who was a senior scientist with WCS before deciding to put academic research into conservation practice by starting his own eco-tourist operation. He has built eighteen eco lodges in different countries in Latin America and the Jaguar Research Center is one of his latest endeavours.

I have heard of him two years ago when I was here. Subsequently, I heard about him again through other friends in South Africa. He has a somewhat controversial reputation, having turned from a scientist into a business man. However, Charlie mentioned that George Schaller, a well-known conservation scientist did encourage Charlie to try unconventional technics to add value to intact nature.

The trip from London this time did not have any hiccups like two years ago: Stuart was not rejected at the border, and we did not arrive in the wrong airport. We were picked up by Charlie at the familiar Cuiaba airport at noon on Sept 26.

Two years ago in August, I spent a fantastic and unique ten days in the Pantanal with Dr. Peter Crawshaw-a jaguar scientist who has worked over 30 years in the field, and saw my first two jaguars two days before I was due to leave (see my blogs from August 2007). This time, having heard about the amazing jaguar sighting record Charlie's operation provides, I was very looking forward to not only finding out how he does it and also seeing the jaguars closer range.

We spent the 4-hour trip from Cuiaba to his lodge discussing and exchanging ideas and information. After breakfast the next morning at 7am, we set off on the river looking for Jaguars while continuing our discussions. Charlie has asked questions about many of the issues in conservation. For example, what is the difference between feeding wild birds from providing salt blocks to antelopes (which is a common practice in wildlife reserves in South Africa), since the former seems to be considered a faux-pas, while the latter is a common practice. Interestingly, we have come to the same conclusions on many issues, though he has approached them from biology perspectives, while I have viewed them with common sense. One of these conclusions is that planet earth has been significantly altered by humans, in fact destroyed, and the destruction is continuing at a faster speed. Many traditional conservation methods have failed. Not only do we need to think outside the box to help the planet, but we also need to ACT.

Our conversation was interrupted by news of a jaguar sighting. We quietly approached the spot and there were two of them about 2 years of age-probably having just left their mother. One of them has been named by the lodge's guests who first sighted her as Duda. They were lying in an opening-"window" of the dense bush and trees, quietly. It was evident these cats were very relaxed with human presence and might be as interested in their human visitors as we were in them, watching us without moving much. Duda is the slightly more active one of the two, moving behind the trees from time to time but not forgetting about showering some affection to her sister from time to time. They were so beautiful! I felt previledged to be so close to them. The sun was shining from the wrong direction so I battled to get a good photo. Still one can still see how dazzlingly beautiful these magnificant cats are from my poorly shot photos.

Charlie, who started coming out to the Pantanal since late 80s had learned
that local fishermen threw their Piranha catch at the jaguars. I wrote in
my blog two years ago that my host threw his piranha catch back into the river since locals find it to have too little meat to bother cooking it. The jaguars gradually learned that these little humans inside their little boats are not any threat to their lives and become quite accustomed to human presence. This is not dissimiliar to some of the leopards in some South African reserves where similar process took place, albert with more human intervention as I was told. The question is, does this practice actually harm them? And is it worthwhile if fund generated from tourists who spend good amount of money seeing the cats in their natural habitat is helping protecting them?

After the lunch break, we set out at 2.30pm for our afternoon ride on the rivers again. Having done these rivers exhaustively two years ago, I could remember the houses I visited and people I met at some of the locations. I was looking forward to seeing more jaguars though I wasn't that greedy to demand another sighting today. But one hour into our trip, we saw another boat quietly parked close to the Corichon Negro (black river), a tributory to the Cuiaba river. We slowed our engine and saw a jaguar under the trees on the river bank. This turned out to be "Wilson", whose reputation I have heard and he is indeed worthy of all the praise heaped on him by his human admirers.

Apparently Wilson was not seen for about a week, prompting speculations about his wherabouts and his fate, before he was seen again yesterday. He must just have gone wondering about looking for a little diversement with girls!

For next two hours, we watched and waited. Wilson's each move excited us with anticipation. But all Wilson did was a slight shift of position, either by moving a couple of meters to the side, or by switching position between his head and tail. He was feeling too comfortable watching all these humans coming and going to leave his vantage point!

Our luck stopped then and there however, as dark clouds moved in on Sept 28. The temperature dropped and as I learned two years ago, jaguars have no more need to come to the riverside to cool themselves down, therefore reducing the chances of humans seeing them by a large margin. For the next two days we scouted the rivers in cold wind, knowing the chance of jaguar sighting was small but still holding a sliver of hope some miracle may happen.

I was however finally able to get Piranha for dinner (see my blog from Aug 2007 on missed Piranha dinner)!

The experience is however not for the faint hearted. The cost is 800 US dollars per person (1600 USD per couple) per night but there is no running water in the tent, no flush toilet, and only about five minutes worth of water for shower coming out of a plastic bottle each night, not mentioning sitting inside a small boat for hours each day scouting the rivers for a potential jaguar sighting that's not guaranteed. Despite what one hears about the high frequency of jaguar sightings in this area, one thing humans can not control is the weather, which influences jaguar sightings greatly. And it will add another 600 to 1000 USD to the bill if you have Charlie as a guide.

The star attraction is Cida the cook, who, God knows how, manages to produce marvelous meals on the houseboat, where we gather for our three meals a day, and where one could also take a long shower in the public bathroom, shared by both guests (including camping guests) and staff alike. When I asked Cida when she sleeps, she just smiled.

Video from left to right:
Jaguar Yawn; Macaws talking to us;
Giant Otter caught a fish

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