When Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe this summer, it set off a fire storm against luxurious trophy hunting. In Brazil, home of the jaguar, hunting this big cat is a luxury few can afford. Laws make it next to impossible. Even for those with money to burn and the courage to brave dense jungle and dense heat, going after a jag comes with a price.
In 2010, a group of land owners in Mato Grosso state gave it a whirl. Unfortunate for them, police caught them organizing trophy hunting trips. Eight people were arrested. Somewhat ironically, it was a Brazilian dentist named Eliseu Augusto Sicoli that was the chief organizer of the hunts that cost a mere $1,500 per person, per day. By comparison, Palmer paid around $50,000 in total. Brazil’s Federal Police said that 28 jaguars were trophy hunted that year on the illegal safari program.
“You can’t hunt a jaguar and you surely can never bring a jaguar to the United States or anywhere else as a hunting trophy,” says Ugo Eichler Vercillo, a director at Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment. The only way a jaguar pelt or body part makes it into the U.S. would be through the illegal trafficking of endangered species aboard a private airplane.
According to the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, or CITES, Brazilian jaguars are an appendix I endangered species and cannot be marketed. Lions are considered appendix II, meaning there is a legitimate hunting market for them. Palmer was within his legal rights to hunt lions in Zimbabwe.
Bringing jaguars into the U.S. is already banned. One reason: the population compared to lions is next to nothing.
Douglas Trent, a well-known American ecologist who has been in and out of Brazil since 1980, estimates the jaguar population to be around six thousand in its two main habitats: the Pantanal and the Amazon.
“Jaguars were really threatened by hunting when there was a commercial market for jaguar furs, but since there is no market for that now it’s led to less illegal hunting in Brazil,” says Trent. “We hope the same can be done with lions so hunting these creatures is outlawed. If not, lions won’t be with us for much longer.”
Trophy hunting is another animal altogether. The hunter isn’t interested in protecting its goats from predators, nor the fur coat. They are interested in big game hunting and want to bring back evidence of the kill. In Cecil the Lion’s case, it was his head.
“We have to be very vigilante of trophy hunting here and any hunting of the jaguar,” says Vercillo. Brazil’s Federal Police, now famous for its busting of a massive corruption scheme inside of state-owned oil giant Petrobras , has its own environmental crimes unit dedicated to the illegal capture and kill of rare – and expensive – Brazilian species.
“There is the possibility that other land owners will offer up their property for adventure-seeking hunters that want a jaguar,” Vercillo says. Hunters send dogs after the cats to chase it up a tree and shoot it from there.
“The federal police caught one safari group; they’ll catch the next one,” Vercillo says. “After this latest news about Zimbabwe, and our 2010 bust of the Mato Grosso hunting tours, I think we will see less of this activity.”
American president and big game hunter Teddy Roosevelt hunted Brazil’s big cats back in 1913 during a four-month expedition in the Pantanal and Amazon. In his book, the “Through the Brazilian Wilderness”, Roosevelt wrote that it was one of the biggest cats he’d ever shot, noting it was twice the size of a male African leopard and as muscular as a lion.
Brazilians in Mato Grosso have learned to live with the beast, even if it does knock off a pet dog and trim a cattle ranchers head count from time to time. On rare occasions, it will go after humans.
They weigh over 300 pounds, have a bite that can crush a human skull, and – of course – can run fast, have sharp fangs and even sharper claws. This is the Brazilian velociraptor, and the Pantanal is its Jurassic Park.
Joao Sousa, 48, works here. He manages cattle on a large ranch along the Paraguay River and is tasked with making sure the owners’ animals are alive and kicking. He got up close and personal with Brazil’s beast in March 2014.
“I could smell a dead animal up ahead and went to check it out on horseback with my dog,” he says of a five year old beagle named Brasão. “When I got near it, I dismounted and walked over to see that it was just a dead crocodile. When I turned my back to walk back to the horse, that’s when I heard the growling,” he says, adding that he took off his cowboy hat and tried to redirect the cat away from him like he would direct a bull. It didn’t work. The jaguar grabbed him by his arm and only let go when his scream brought on four more dogs to chase it away. Brasão bit the cat’s underbelly and was hit by its claws, incapacitated for two months.
“It was seven in the morning when it happened and I saw him. His arm was wrapped up and bloodied. His face was scratched. He was wiped out,” says Adelia Campos, one of the maids on the ranch. “This has never happened. I hope it never happens again. When he returned from the hospital he was black and blue from his head down to his waist and arm because of the force of that animal.”
Luiz Alex de Silva Lara was struck by a jaguar when returning from a fishing trip with his father to a Paraguay River camp site in 2008. The cat jumped him from behind and broke his neck before dragging him off into the woods. He was 22. Fishermen found him hours later, chunks of flesh removed from his body.
Cecil the Lion would have been just as mean. The difference between a jaguar and a lion is jaguars in Brazil have a lot more places to hide. It is not easy to find a jaguar, let alone see one when it is nearby.
Sousa said the jaguar that attacked him was hiding in tall grass and probably fled his crocodile kill when he saw him coming. He was protecting his breakfast. Sousa would have been its lunch if not for his dog, Brasão.
“I don’t even know how many stitches I got,” Sousa says, showing me his arm. There is a six inch long crucifix stitch carved into his forearm. “We lose calves all the time here because of jaguars. Forget goats. We used to have 300. I think we’re lucky to have 30,” he says. Does he want revenge on these things?
“It’s better to leave them alone,” he says. “It’s a serious law. It’s not worth going after them. I just know that I don’t want to see it ever again.”