National Geographic : 2005 Aug
rolls out to greet us, and two dozen vultures flap away at our approach. Our small party dis mounts, and Beatriz (called Bia), her ranch fore man, Urbano Vilalba, two cowhands, a naturalist named Marion Marcondes, and I follow our noses into the gloom of the woods. The carcass has been dragged 25 yards from where Urbano found it yesterday, his attention drawn by circling vultures while out here shift ing cattle around. Now it lies half submerged at the edge of the bog, bloated, discolored, and twitching with maggots. Two days ago it was a regal, cream-colored, long-horned, half-ton, humpbacked zebu bull worth $400 at current beef prices. Today it's jaguar kill. That a jaguar has dined on bull is not a par ticularly noteworthy event in the Pantanal. Typ ically vultures alert the rancher, the rancher calls in a professional jaguar hunter, the hunter tracks the cat with a pack of scarred hounds, shoots it, and leaves the carcass for scavengers. Even though jaguar hunting is illegal in Brazil, it's still com mon in this remote, largely unpeopled realm. As a jaguar hunter put it to me: "Who's to know?" There will be no jaguar hunter this time. Bia has signed a contract with a nonprofit conser vation group trying to preserve the threatened cats in the Pantanal. Naturalist Marion Marcon des has ridden out here to verify that a jaguar killed one of Bia's bulls. She'll file a report, and Bia will be reimbursed-"partially reimbursed," Bia notes dryly-for her loss. In return Bia will let the jaguar live. "I adore jaguar hunting," says Bia, 64, whose grandfather staked an enormous land claim here in 1892. "And I can't stand outsiders telling me what to do. But we have to go forward. The Pan tanal is changing under our feet. Like it or not, we Pantaneiros have to change too." Lying far south of the Amazon, the Pan tanal is a lopsided, 74,000-square-mile wetland within the Upper Paraguay River Basin, where the borders of Brazil, Para guay, and Bolivia meet. It's one of the world's largest wetlands-an area more than a third the size of France. The name translates loosely as "big swampy place," pantano being the Por tuguese word for swamp, but the Pantanal is really an alluvial plain, one so nearly flat that rainwater just loafs across it, flooding it in the full season, draining away in the dry. 54 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * AUGUST 2005 "You need a lot of land to raise cattle if three-quarters of it is going to be underwater [part of] every year. The man of the Pantanal learned early on that he couldn't fight the full." Land becomes lake in March as pastures flood on Barra Mansa Ranch and stingrays ride the overflow of the nearby Rio Negro. By late August the rays have retreated with the floodwaters, and horses stand on the same spot-sandy, barren, and bone-dry.