We arrive in Cuiabá in the late afternoon and we meet Ailton Lara at the airport. Ailton lived all his life in this area and has become a wildlife specialist. “Tomorrow we have an early start,” he tells us when he drops us off at our hotel. “Don’t forget: long sleeves, a hat and mosquito repellent.”
It’s 6 am when we drive out of town in the direction of the Pantanal, a wetland the size of England. The road is straight and the traffic is almost non-existent. After a two-hour drive we make a stop in a small town called Poconé where Ailton stops the jeep near the marketplace. “Here we will buy food and water for the coming days,” he says when we stroll over the local market.
“One day we will eat beans, rice and meat, the next day it will be meat, rice and beans.” I laugh, but at the look at Ailton’s face, I see he’s not joking. But then again, I never expected this to be a five-star culinary journey.
It’s five in the afternoon when we arrive at the end of the road. “This is it!” Ailton says cheerfully. We look around but all we see is a river in front of us and forest on the sides. “This is what?” I ask, as we get out of the car.
“This is the end of the road, from here on we will take the boat,” Ailton replies. “Over there is the Puma lodge, where we will stay overnight,” he continues, pointing in the direction of the woods. There are several lodges around for birdwatchers, fishermen, nature lovers and people like us, in search of a jaguar. “Let’s prepare our dinner. Today it will be beans, rice and meat,” Ailton says with a big smile.
The next morning at sunrise we’re navigating a small boat upstream in search of a jaguar. From the big river we take a left into a smaller river, then a right into a creek and then a right again where we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. “The first thing we have to do is look for footprints on the river beds,” Ailton says with a low voice, as if he thinks a jaguar will hear us. Just as we decide to call it a day, Ailton suddenly shouts: “There he is!”
We look in the direction Ailton is pointing, but see nothing. “Look there!” Ailton says, while pointing at the skies above the forest. “What are you pointing at?” I ask, “a flying jaguar? The sun has done more damage to your brain than we thought!” I laugh, “there are only birds up there.” Ailton changes the direction of the boat and looks at us like a schoolteacher would.
“The birds you see circling up there are vultures, they feed on the carcasses of dead animals. The Jaguar has made a kill!”
Zigzagging through the labyrinth of rivers and creeks we approach the crime scene. Slowly we scan the coastline, peering into the forest. “After dinner, he probably heads for the river for a drink and some sunbathing,” Ailton says. A joke about beans, rice and meat pops up in my mind. Then there is this shadow moving in the woods. And it disappears again.
We stop the motor and the boat comes to a standstill. We scan the edge of the forest in complete silence, but see nothing. Suddenly there he is, 150 kilos of muscle and teeth staring at us. In amazement we stare back at him. “Wow! This is a very special moment,” I say softly. “It sure is,” Ailton replies, “but shouldn’t you take a picture?”