Day 2 – Onçafari Conservation Project
5am alarm, double espresso and mosquito spray at the ready, the Onçafari Land Rover pulls up with expert tracker Mario and wildlife biologist Bea at the entrance, ready to take me on the much-anticipated jaguar conservation tour. Onçafari has dedicated ten years to the protection and conservation of jaguars through ecotourism and the monitoring and rehabilitation of jaguars, so I knew a day out with this specialist team was going to be something truly special.
Using a tracking antenna to listen to signatures from the jaguar’s collars, a system that Onçafari uses to collect data like territory migration, Bea gets a faint beep in a south-westerly direction, guiding Mario through thick grasslands and vegetation. Seeing these experts track a jaguar in real time using specialist technology is an exhilarating experience. We didn’t manage to spot the jaguar because this one hadn’t been habituated. Once a jaguar is spotted, Onçafari’s habituation protocol is to switch the vehicle’s engine off whilst coughing, before slowly moving closer. This process allows a safari vehicle to get closer to the jaguars than ever before. Once they are familiar with the sounds of the vehicle and the people in them, they almost completely ignore you as you admire them up-close, in their natural habitat.
Once we get a radio in of a spotted jaguar the Onçafari team are first on sight. Observing the largest jaguar known to the area, Tupã is having tapir for lunch, apparently a rare kill for a jaguar due to its tough, rhino-like skin being unfamiliar compared to their usual prey of capybara and caiman. We spent the day roaming the vast grasslands, catching glimpses of more jaguars, spotting marsh deer, capuchin monkeys swinging on trees and a pair of crab-eating foxes.
In the evening we decided to drive to a nearby spot to watch the sunset but Mario spots a jaguar from afar – I couldn’t see it anywhere but Onçafari trackers are trained to see tiny differences in the landscape to identify all sorts of fauna. As we get closer, I finally see a jaguar cub in the distance but it’s startled by the noise of the vehicle – Oreo hasn’t been habituated. Mario starts the habituation process which was an incredible experience to see first-hand – when the engine started Oreo would go back into a nearby forest for safety. It took patience to wait for the cub to come back to the old carcass he was feeding on (the wind was blowing in our direction too!) and then start the process again to come ever closer to the jaguar. To this day, this is the most memorable day of my travels so far. You just can’t beat the vast diversity of the Pantanal wilderness, with a research team navigating you around the terrain, not to mention the red sunsets as you watch a jaguar in its raw beauty.