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Published: June 27th 2011
Three years ago, I was introduced to the inimitable (and slightly insane) Sahil Nijhawan while interviewing potential roommates for a three-bedroom apartment in New York City. During our first meeting, Sahil told me a funny story that, when he was a child in India, he would only breast-feed when he was around animals, forcing his parents to find strays on the streets whenever he was hungry. I knew then that we would be good friends.
Shortly after becoming roommates, he and I made a pact to collaborate on a film project that would combine my interest in documentary filmmaking with his interest in wildlife conservation (at the time, I was working at National Geographic Television and he was working for a big-cat conservation agency called Panthera). Now, hundreds of miles into the Brazilian Pantanal, we were in a perfect position to breathe some life into our dream project.
As luck would have it, the Pantanal happens to have the largest and healthiest concentration of jaguars (or, as they are locally called, "onca pintadas") in the world. While at Panthera, Sahil worked for the organization's "Jaguar Conservation Project," which helped to build jaguar 'corridors' between neighboring populations as well as
create a model of sustainable cattle-ranching that mitigated human-jaguar conflict. In that capacity, Sahil worked mainly as a satellite-imagery analyst, but also learned how to track big cats using radio-collaring, transects (a population density study), and fecal analyses, among other things.
Not surprisingly, the Pantanal is considered to be the easiest place in the world to see jaguars, due to their high density and the fact that they are easier to spot in wetland environments than rain forests (where they normally hide in trees). Consequently, our trip seemed like a perfect opportunity for Sahil and I to create a short video about jaguar tracking, with the intention of either creating a short documentary on the subject or (more likely) a pitch-tape for a larger project. So, while we were traversing the rivers of the Pantanal and fishing for piranhas, we always kept one eye-out for a passing jaguar. Sahil kept on telling me that many researchers spend their whole lives trying to see a jaguar in the wild, but I was still cautiously optimistic that our luck would hold out.
And it (sort of) did. During one of our many boat rides, Sahil and one of the local
A giant armadillo...
..apparently these are really rare.
fazenda workers saw a large mammal swimming across the river about 100 feet ahead of us. At first, they both assumed that it was a tapir (a large pig-like mammal with a prominent snout), mostly due to its size (tapirs are the second-largest mammal in South America). However, when we approached the actual tracks of the animal, Sahil was shocked to see that they looked much more like those of a jaguar (which has four toes) than a tapir (which has three hooves). In hindsight, Sahil also recalled that the animal's head looked much too round to be a tapir.
Unfortunately, the animal quickly disappeared into the surrounding vegetation so it was impossible to corroborate our theory, but Sahil was convinced that he (and I) had seen our first jaguar in the wild.
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