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Pantanal - the cat’s whiskers

Highlights of September's Pantanal photo tour in Brazil included giant anteaters, southern tamunduas, and wealth of bird species. However, the highlight for everyone was a jaguar with its young cub - a memorable experience even for a seasoned traveller and wildlife photographer.

I thought it might be a good idea to ring the changes. For the past three days we’d gone upstream from our lodge on the Cuiaba River, just like everyone else. We’d seen jaguars on each outing and some encounters had been good for photographs too. On two occasions we’d actually been the first to find a jaguar, which is particularly satisfying and adds to the thrill. However, the prospect of something new and different was appealing. What if we bucked the trend and went downstream? 

I’d been told about a quiet tributary, off the main river – there was a risk we might see very little, but on the other hand we might get lucky and see something special. I put the plan to the group and explained my thinking. They all agreed. Tomorrow morning we’d go downstream.

The early morning went well, if largely uneventful. We saw masses of birds, including several species not previously seen on the trip and there had been some marvelous photo opportunities, particularly with a pair of jabiru storks and a sunbittern. But nothing really to write home about.

Then the call came. {img_alt}

One other boat had followed us down river and they’d found something. We turned and returned to the main river at speed. It took us only five minutes to get back to the confluence, and then continue further downstream, although it seemed like double that. Would we be too late?

We slowed to approach where the other boat had stopped, then manoeuvred, cut the engine and drifted down on the current to anchor some 25 metres off the riverbank. On a fallen tree trunk overhanging the river lay a beautiful female jaguar. She seemed mildly curious, but not agitated, by our attention. With lenses trained intently, cameras rattled into action. Each time she lifted her head to look our way another volley of frames fired off – rat-a-tat-tat.

Then the real surprise. From behind a modest veil of leaves at the top of the fallen log a second jaguar appeared. But one in miniature. A cub! It cautiously crept down the trunk to greet its mother and seek her reassurance. I guessed it was no more than five months old. There were all manner of gasps, ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ from those watching, between the intense shutter firings, as cameras filled their memory cards at a great rate.

It was clear the cub was a little more wary of being watched than its mother, but it soon settled on the log next to her and the two adoring felines dozed together. They were slightly startled when a fishing boat with a noisy motor quickly passed by along the opposite bank of the wide river, but thankfully this didn’t disturb them.

It was so hard to stop taking photos: with every lift of a head or twitch of an ear, it was easy to be seduced into thinking the pictures would be better than those before. Eventually, I set the camera aside and lifted my binoculars to simply enjoy visually drinking in the spectacle. Time watching any wild feline with its cub is a treasured moment, but a jaguar – a jaguar with a cub – that’s extra special, because so few others have had a similar privilege.{

Other Highlights

While the event above was undoubtedly the standout highlight of the tour, there were numerous other special sightings and fabulous photographic opportunities during the two weeks in the Pantanal.

{img_alt} This might easily be re-named the ‘Mum and Baby’ tour as not only did we see the jaguar with a cub, but also a giant anteater female carrying its offspring and a southern tamandua piggy-backing its infant. On my five previous visits to the Pantanal I’ve seen giant anteaters and southern tamanduas twice each. On this trip we saw no less than five giant anteaters and two tamanduas (not counting the infants) in the northern Pantanal. Three of these encounters proved to be tremendous photo opportunities – close, relaxed, and prolonged sightings in nice light.

One the Paraguay River there were good sightings of jaguars, including a mating pair, although these were late in the morning when the light was harsh and unappealing. However, two close sightings of playful families of giant otters did take place when the light was soft and warm, one early morning, the other late afternoon, and these produced excellent photos.


Around some of the lodges, there are regularly opportunities to get nice photos of animals that have become tolerant and habituated. Many birds in particular provide regular inspiration and on this trip there were good pictures to be had of bare-faced curassow, yellow-billed cardinal, purplish jay, campo flicker and green-banded woodpecker. A real bonus were two yellow anacondas that had taken up residence close to our house boat on the Paraguay River and occasionally they came out of hiding.

Why not join wildlife photographer Nick Garbutt on our next photo trip to Brazil?