An unlikely safari in Brazil is helping save the Pantanal’s jaguars

  • A pioneer in wildlife safaris in Brazil, the Onçafari Project combines jaguar sightseeing with conservation of the species and its reintroduction into nature.
  • Thanks to the strategy of getting jaguars habituated to safari vehicles, the Pantanal has become the best place in Brazil to spot the feline; the number of tourists at the project’s host farm has tripled in a decade.
  • The presence of tourists has changed farmers’ mentality, from previously seeing jaguars as a pest to kill, to now even working as Onçafari tour guides.
  • In 2015, Onçafari recorded the world’s first successful case of reintroduction of captive jaguars into nature; the two females have since given birth to five offspring and even four grandcubs.

Watching the largest feline in the Americas in the wild has always been a rare and remarkable experience. In Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest continental floodplain and one of the main jaguar refuges, such encounters have become increasingly frequent. In the municipality of Miranda, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, 95% of the guests of the Caiman Farm, which is open to tourists, have seen at least one jaguar on each visit.

During a reddish sunset in August 2021, I had the opportunity to see my first wild jaguars and understand that this is not just a beautiful ecotourism experience. The sight of the mother jaguar, devouring with her cub a recently slaughtered carcass just 5 meters (16 feet) from our four-wheel-drive vehicle adapted for safaris, was special. Fera (“Furious Beast” in Portuguese), as the jaguar was nicknamed, is part of conservation history, along with her sister, Isa, as part of the world’s first successful case of captive jaguar reintroduction into nature.

The first Brazilian safari

The only member of the big cat genus Panthera not yet listed as threatened with extinction, jaguars (Panthera onca) have a strong ally in their fight for survival in the Pantanal. This is the Onçafari Project, which turned 10 years old in 2021 and has already registered sightings of more than 200 individuals on the Caiman Farm. This is the result of combining the pioneering African safari-like experience of observing animals with a conservation project that conducts scientific studies and reintroduces rehabilitated animals back to the wild.

Since former Formula 1 test driver and conservationist Mario Haberfeld teamed up with farm owner, entrepreneur and environmentalist Roberto Klabin to implement the project at the Caiman Farm to habituate local jaguars to safari vehicles, the territory has become the best place to watch these felines in Brazil. Within a decade, the number of guests has tripled. It’s a win-win for all involved: the tourists get to see the star of the area’s Big Five — a list that also includes tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), yacare caimans (Caiman yacare) and marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus). And the jaguars win as the species gains protection and an increasing number of advocates.

Observation safari at the Caiman Farm. Image by Mario Nélson Cleto.

Worth more alive than dead

In the not-so-distant past, a good jaguar used to be a dead jaguar, as far as the local population was concerned. At the top of the food chain, the species was an enemy to be shot when it entered farms in search of the easiest prey: cattle. Killing jaguars was part of the culture in the Pantanal, home to more than 3.8 million head of cattle in just the Brazilian part of the wetland.

“The development of tourism to watch jaguars has changed that culture,” says Haberfeld, who tried out the best safaris available before developing the Onçafari Project at the Caiman Farm in 2011. “With more farms dedicated to ecotourism, people from the Pantanal have become aware that jaguars bring money and jobs,” he says.

An example of this change in awareness is another Mario — Mario Nélson Cleto, my safari field guide, who comes from a family of jaguar hunters. “My grandfather said he was ashamed of me when I took this job, but now my family understands why I protect jaguars,” he says.

A pioneering reintroduction center

The survival of the jaguar I watched, Fera, and Isa is the result of this new awareness by people from the Pantanal. In June 2014, the two sisters were spotted as cubs up in a tree with their mother, on the banks of the Paraguay River in the municipality of Corumbá. Instead of killing them, frightened villagers called the authorities to remove them. An accident in the sedation process led to the mother jaguar dying. The orphaned cubs were first moved to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (CRAS) in Campo Grande, the Mato Grosso do Sul state capital. In July 2015, their lives would change as they went to the Caiman Farm.

On the farm, Isa and Fera were the first guests of the first center for the reintroduction of big felines in Brazil, measuring 1 hectare (2.5 acres), or the size of a soccer field. In the absence of their mother and under the care of Onçafari and partners such as the National Center for Research and Conservation of Carnivorous Mammals (CENAP/ICMBio), the orphans were “trained” — without any contact with humans — to learn to hunt and kill live prey for food. Eleven months later, in June 2016, when they were just over 2 years old, they were fitted with monitoring collars and given the freedom to live as wild animals.

Fera, a jaguar reintroduced by Onçafari, with her daughter, Turi. Image by Edu Fragoso.

The challenge of habituation

Knowing Fera’s trajectory makes my safari more exciting when we explore part of the Caiman Farm’s 53,000 hectares (131,000 acres). The observation takes place in silence, without sudden movements by passengers, so as not to scare the animals. “The habituation work consists of getting the jaguars used to the vehicles but not to human beings,” says biologist Fábio Paschoal, who works as a guide at Caiman. He says the long process of getting jaguars used to cars shouldn’t be confused with domestication, since the big cats have to be able to protect themselves when humans pose a threat. “We want her attitude to be neutral when the car approaches.”

One of the highlights in practicing ecotourism with scientists is following the guides’ stories and work. Mario Nélson, the son and grandson of hunters, proudly tells us about the safari training he received at Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa. “They are a reference in feline habituation and an inspiration for Onçafari,” he says. At one point, Nélson sees the bones of an ox devoured by jaguars and jumps out of the vehicle to pick up the ear tag that identifies the animal. Written down on spreadsheets identifying the felines’ diet, such predation control helps to understand how many domestic animals the jaguars hunt on the property; their diet also includes alligators, peccaries and capybaras, among other prey.

Livestock, ecotourism and conservation

“Livestock is the mainstay of the Pantanal’s economy, and ecotourism has to live in harmony with it,” says Roberto Klabin, an environmentalist and owner of the Caiman Farm, who records the financial losses caused when jaguars kill cattle in his contracts with the farmers to whom he leases land.

A descendant of a family that made its wealth in the cellulose industry, Klabin decided to turn the family farm into an inn 35 years ago. Incorporating the Onçafari base together with former racecar driver Haberfeld, he raised his property to another level in the marriage between ecotourism and species conservation. The business has been so successful that Klabin invested 14 million reais ($2.6 million) this year to renovate the farm and expand its capacity to 18 lodgings.

For guests, even though the farm has become a luxury hotel and hosts other interesting ecological projects such as one that protects the hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), watching jaguars is the highlight of the safaris that take place from Thursday through Sunday at dawn and sunset. The fascination stems from the beauty and magnificence of such a skittish animal and, thanks to Onçafari’s studies, the stories told by the guides pointing out each animal. When the animals happen to be Fera and Isa, as was the case on my safari, the experience also gains a flavor of hope.

Female jaguar Fera being an absolute cat during an Onçafari tour. Image by Edu Fragoso.

From orphans to grandmas

The reintroduction of the orphaned sisters into the Pantanal’s wild proved to be a success not only because they learned to fend for themselves, even in the face of threats such as frequent fires. Thanks to their tracking collars and the camera traps spread out over the area, conservationists have also confirmed that the jaguars have indeed learned to hunt. And, best of all, they have bred — proof of which I witnessed when I spotted Fera with her daughter, Turi. In 2018, both Fera and Isa gave birth to the world’s first cubs from previously captive jaguars.

The virtuous ecological cycle was just beginning. During the pandemic, between 2020 and 2021, Isa and Fera became grandmothers. “This proves the success of our work,” biologist Leonardo Sartorello, Onçafari’s reintroduction coordinator, says proudly. “For science, the result of returning a species from captivity to nature is seen when the animal has a second generation of descendants,” he explains.

The episode that could have ended with the two jaguars trapped in captivity has instead seen the wild population increase by at least nine free jaguars, counting Fera and Isa’s first five cubs and four grandcubs.

With the successful increase in the jaguar population, Onçafari has expanded its operations to other parts of Brazil and begun to replicate the reintroduction experience with maned wolves in the Cerrado grasslands. In the Pantanal, it has begun the complex process of habituating tapirs to safaris and reintroducing pumas (Puma concolor). And, together with investors, it acquired a farm adjacent to Caiman, the Santa Sofia, to create another center for the reintroduction of species, including birds, and expand the Pantanal ecological corridor so that the jaguars keep multiplying.

Female jaguar Gatuna and her two offspring, Hakuna and Matata. Image by Edu Fragoso.

Banner image: A jaguar on the Caiman farm in the Pantanal in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. Image by Edu Fragoso.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Nov. 9, 2021.