While tiger tourism is still the most popular type of cat viewing, there is another trend that is on the rise: Jaguar spotting. For those who have already watched tigers in their natural habitat – and even for some who have not yet had the pleasure – traveling to see wild jaguars is becoming a must-have experience.
There is a big difference in spotting tigers and jaguars, nonetheless. While tiger tourism features many reliable viewing spots, jaguars are much more elusive. However, this also means that actually spotting one is a great achievement.
At the moment, the most reliable place to spot jaguars is Puerto Jofre on the Cuiabá River in the Pantanal, Brazil. Luckily, the chances are pretty high, as there are 50 to 100 habitual cats. Other places where jaguar spotting is possible include Guyana, Peru and the Brazilian Amazon.
“We’re finding a growing interest in South America‘s National Parks,” explains Catherine Strong of Naturetrek, a company offering wildlife tours around the world. “Jaguars in particular, but also in the wealth of other iconic large mammals that can be seen in the Pantanal. The number of clients booking our dedicated Jaguar watching tour has more than doubled since we first offered the tour in 2009, and bookings to Brazil’s Pantanal has increased six-fold during the same period.”
The area wasn’t always prosperous with jaguars. In fact, at times they were very scarce. It wasn’t until the mid-90′s that ranch owners in the Pantanal decided to try their luck in the tourism business. At this time, they began offering visitors the opportunity to view and photograph these beautiful animals. In effect, these massive pieces of land were offering a sanctuary for the big cats. If this hadn’t happened, jaguar tourism would not be as successful as it is today.
“Back in the 80′s the Pantanal, most of which is not a National Park, consisted of huge cattle ranches. Jaguars were extensively hunted due to them occasionally hunting cows,” explains Allan Blanchard, a conservationist and owner of Wildlife Trails. “If you talk to people from that era they will tell you that, apart from during a hunt, they would not see jaguars for months at a time. Now, it is almost daily.”
While jaguar spotting is usually an exciting and worthwhile experience for tourists, there are concerns in the industry.
“I would like to state as a biologist and conservationist that there is a big question to address now, and that is the impact of this increased number of tourists,” says Blanchard. “Unfortunately, there are always a few ‘bad eggs’ who take their boat or vehicle too close to the wildlife, causing unnecessary stress. Because this wildlife viewing is not happening inside a National Park, it is more difficult to regulate.”
In order to help tourists spot more jaguars, many tour companies are using questionable practices. According to Josh Cohen of Wild Planet Adventures, a nature-travel and ecotourism operation, some of these include collaring jaguars so they can be found by tourists, and using radios so guides can notify each other when the big cats are spotted. These tactics result in myriad boats rushing to the area at once, contributing to the habituation of jaguars. However, there is a silver lining in the situation.
“The area in question is mostly visited by ‘do-it-yourself’ tourists because it is at the end of the Transpanteria Road, which, until recently, was accessible by any tourist willing to rent a vehicle,” explains Cohen. “Vehicle rentals are now restricted, and those willing to eschew the lower cost effectiveness of mass tourism will find jaguar opportunities that may cost more and involve more travel and logistics, but will have less impact on wildlife.”
In 2001, Cohen visited the Pantanal to conduct research on the subject, avoiding the tourist-heavy Transpanteria Road route and the Puerto Jofre area. Instead, he focused on an area several hours west around the Taiama Ecological Station. One reason is the logistics of getting there are more costly than the average budget traveler is willing to invest, making it less dense with tourists. Furthermore, the area is federally protected and not open to the public or tour operators. However, since the reserve sits on an island in the middle of the river, it is possible to circle the reserve in search of the jaguars. What’s more, spotting jaguars in this less touristy area allows for the viewing of more wild behavior in the animals.
“This is extremely important, as the long-term consequence of habituated jaguars is the loss of authentic, wild behavior, which is replaced by more tame, bored behavior that inevitably results in more conflict with humans. Ultimately, mass tourism practices could turn the Pantanal into a version of the San Diego Wild Animal Park, unless travelers are educated in the value of paying more to preserve, not just wildlife, but to assure authentic wild behavior is maintained through limited interaction and sustainable ecotourism practices.”
The bottom line? Whether you choose to take the more off-the-beaten path route or visit the popular Puerto Jofre, make sure you’re booking with a reputable company. While the trend of jaguar tourism is growing, we wouldn’t want it to die out before it’s reached its peak.
[Photo via the US Fish and Wildlife Service]