More than 1,200 rivers converge to feed the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. That’s 42 million acres of aquatic habitat spread across three countries—Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. More than 4,700 plant and animal species reside here, including the world’s largest parrot—the blue-and-yellow hyacinth macaw; the brilliant blue morpho butterfly; the Victoria giant waterlily; and the largest canine in South America—the maned wolf. Also at home, is the biggest of big cats in Central and South America: the jaguar (Panthera onca).

Jaguars are classified globally as Near Threatened, with populations severely fragmented. Total numbers are estimated at 173,000, with Brazil home to around 86,000 individuals. Fortunately, the planet’s largest concentration of jaguars exists in the Pantanal, where there are thought to be 4,000. As the third largest cat in the world (after lions and tigers), you’d think spotting one would be a breeze, but in the Pantanal, jaguars compete for the spotlight with a host of other monstrous marvels. Here, even the most ferocious of predators is dwarfed beneath towering palms and roaring waters.

My best advice for capturing more than a glimpse…Learn their behavior!

Be on the Prowl in Big Cat Territory 

Jaguar in Brazil Pantanal on the prowl

© Frederico Tavares

Jaguars are solitary mammals that prefer to be alone. The only exception to this behavior is during mating, and the birthing and rearing of offspring, in which the mother fiercely protects one to four cubs for two years or more. During this time, the mother will even defend her litter from the father. Jaguars define their territory by clawing trees and leaving droppings along the forest floor; males mark an area of about 65 square miles. Jaguars also communicate vocally; males bark and growl, while females exert a coughing roar.

Jaguar roaring in the Amazon Forest

Look Closely for Camouflage

Jaguars use camouflage—also called cryptic coloration—as a tactic to mask their location, identity and movement. Most jaguars have tawny-colored fur, but some have black-on-black, or melanistic coloration. In dense rain forest environments, jaguars are more likely to be all black to melt into the shadows. The majority of jaguars have coats mottled by numerous jagged black circles called rosettes. Leopards have a similar appearance, however, their markings lack the dotted center that jaguars possess. Rosettes are designed to break up the cats’ outlines among the grasslands and savannas, and obscure the scattering of light and shadows so that they remain hidden from their prey.

American jaguar female in the darkness of a brazilian jungle, panthera onca, wild brasil, brasilian wildlife, pantanal, green jungle, big cats, dark background, low key

Stalk their Prey

The South American native word for jaguar, yaguara, means “animal that kills in a single bound.”

Jumping Jaguar. Green natural background. Panthera onca. Natural habitat. Cuiaba river, Brazil

Jaguars are known to prey on more than 85 species, including monkeys, birds, peccaries, agoutis, deer, tapirs, capybaras and cattle. Their appetite for underwater fare is most remarkable. Using up to 1,500 pounds of force, jaguars pierce through bones, skulls and hard-shelled reptiles like turtles and tortoises. Even caimans (order: Crocodilia) are on the menu. Jaguars lounge and hunt terrestrial animals from the branches of trees, but they are equally adept fishers. In fact, these cats use their tails to lure prey to the surface and then scoop them up with their massive paws.

Jaguar Successful Hunt for a Caimnan Northern Pantanal on a tributary of the Cuiaba River

© Jeffrey Whittingham

Nighttime ambushes are most successful for jaguars, as their vision is better suited for darker conditions. They have a mirror-like structure called the tapetum lucidum, in the back of their eye, which reflects light back into their retina. This is the “eyeshine” you might observe when shining a light in the direction of your cat or dog. This biological advantage nearly doubles the jaguar’s vision and allows them to pounce with precision on unsuspecting prey.

Travel with Nat Hab & WWF and Track Jaguars with Our Expert Guides

Alongside our travel partner, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Habitat Adventures offers the most in-depth foray into South America’s grandest wildlife realm. Our Pantanal itinerary ensures exclusive access to jaguar habitat, with multiple opportunities to see these magnificent cats in the wild. Our Brazil naturalist guides average 10 years of experience, with additional training and resources from WWF scientists. In the Pantanal, we are also joined by local guides from each lodge who are resident experts in their region’s flora and fauna.  

Fellow traveler Sheri Dollin reflects on her Jaguars & Wildlife of Brazil’s Pantanal adventure with the following words:

“Brazil has always been one of those places I have wanted to visit, but I questioned what there was to see in terms of wildlife. When I was on a Galapagos expedition with Nat Hab, our photography guide was Zapa. He is from Brazil and enthusiastically told us that Brazil is a wonderful place for wildlife, so I booked a trip with him as the Expedition Leader. It was totally worth it! The most memorable moment was experiencing the elusive jaguar. I was overjoyed to be able to witness their daily lives without impacting them with our presence. We saw eight different jaguars in the three days we were on the river. This experience gave me hope that, if we work at it, humans can live and thrive with nature and wildlife without destroying it.”

Travelers observe jaguar in Brazilian Pantanal

© Cassiano (Zapa) Zaparoli

Follow Nat Hab Expedition Leaders into Porto Jofre, home to the highest density of jaguars in the entire Pantanal. Scan the riverbanks for these stealthy cats and then venture south into the Caiman Ecological Refuge, where you’ll take daily nature walks and search for jaguars during nightly safari rides. Equipped with stellar vision and hearing, jaguars are likely to detect you well before you detect them. Fortunately, Nat Hab trips are capped at 10 travelers, fostering intimate wildlife encounters and meaningful memories among even the most silent of moments.

Visit During the Dry Season

My final suggestion is to visit during the dry season. In the Pantanal, the rainy season runs from December to March, with more than 70 percent of the total rainfall occurring at this time. The dry season—July to September—or the intermediary seasons—April–June and October–November—are the best times to visit this area as temperatures are cooler and wildlife is more active. Additionally, prey species congregate at the remaining sources of water, thus drawing in jaguars in concentrated areas and increasing the likelihood of witnessing some action.

Northern Pantanal on a tributary of the Cuiba River

© Jeffrey Whittingham