Six men in camouflage jackets pulled up in a pick-up and beckoned for me to get in. Where have you been? We've been looking all over town for you. Let's go!
Pedro moved his gun to make room for me in the back while Richard took the wheel. Are you ready to see a 'tigre'? Hell, yeah!
Three days earlier I'd met the men while looking for someone to take me into Bolivia's Pantanal wilderness. Having been on the Brazilian side years ago, I'd seen my share of animals but one had evaded me. My quest to find an agency or official guide to take me in was proving fruitless. Other measures were required. Exhausting all possible leads in Quijarro, I hopped into a collectivo and found myself in the smuggler's kingdom of Puerto Suarez. To say the place was dead as a dodo when I arrived would be an understatement. I pulled the last ace out of my sleeve and started asking locals where I could find the local Fishermen's Union. Stumbling out of town on a potholed dirt track, rusting corrugated iron shacks by the side, I came upon a neanderthal
looking individual. His only saving grace was the sweet looking girl sitting behind him in the house doing homework. Hard to believe there was any family resemblance but perhaps Stone Age had used his club and snagged Imam's sister. Presenting himself as a member of the secretive union I was looking for, he introduced me to the president, a Brazilian looking fellow who went by the name Richard. I'm looking for someone to take me into the Pantanal but not to go fishing. Birds, crocodiles and snakes don't interest me either. I want to see a tigre/jaguar in the wild. Do you want to take shots of it or shoot it? Take photos, of course.
A short bargain session followed and three days later (even 'fishermen' need a weekend off) I was back in town. So, what's the gun for?
I asked as Stone Age AKA Pedro moved it for me to sit in the pick-up. Oh, you know, 'protection'
, replied Richard. But if you want to shoot the jaguar, that'll be one hundred bucks.
Pay the poachers to shoot a jag with their gun. That's gotta be up there with the weirdest
proposals ever. Leaving Stony and me by an isolated lake in the middle of nowhere, the gang drove off to do whatever men of their calibre do in these parts.
A night and morning session of Spot the Kitty ensued with interludes of fishing. A marsh deer, monkeys, an agouti and myriads of butterflies. A planet's worth of mosquitoes, some so fat that they couldn't fly away after their criminal act but no Kitty. Different tactics were required. As the sun passed its pinnacle in the sky, we made our heading for a salt lick we had scouted earlier. Setting my hammock up amongst the tree tops I lay silently with camera ready. Stony hooked himself monkey-style to a tree and got on with his coca-chewing, whiskey guzzling lifestyle.
Four hours later and about two litres of blood lighter with a face so molested it looked like a prize fighter had assaulted me, we had to give up. Either Kitty wasn't around or he'd caught on to us and given us a wide berth. Well, Kitty, was
around. Doing our morning rounds, we came upon fresh tracks left after the night's rain. A baby jag or other species
of wild cat, it was hard to tell from Pedro's slur, had done a lap around our camp. Sadly, a turn in the weather was about to bring the adventure to an abrupt end. A cold front coming in from the south meant that the temperatures dropped from thirty to fifteen overnight. Factor in the rain, the mosquitoes and the discovery that Kitty was on to us and and our prospects looked bleak. When Richard and his cronies showed up in the afternoon we were more than ready to make an early exit.
On the way back I witnessed that it is indeed possible to drink whiskey, chew coca and drive at the same time so don't believe western media when they try to convince you of the opposite!
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