By Bruno Kelly
UARINI, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazilian jaguars, imperiled by hunters, ranchers and destruction of their habitat, have learned to survive at least one menace -- flooding in the Amazon. They take to the trees!
Although they can be six feet long and 200 pounds, the largest South American cats nimbly navigate treetops where they stay from April to July when the rainforest floor is under meters-deep water.
"It shows that even as a large animal, the jaguar can withstand the flooding -- feeding, breeding and raising its young in the treetops for three to four months," says Emiliano Ramalho, the lead researcher for Project Iauarete, which is administered by the Instituto Mamirauá.
"This had never been documented before we began researching the jaguars here."
The Iauaretê Project monitors jaguars in Mamirauá, studies their relationship with local residents and undertakes conservation for the species, which lives deep in the rainforest.
Documenting jaguar behaviour during the rainy season is rare, with their long-term stays in the treetops first recorded by the researchers in 2013 after nine years of monitoring in the region. But from 2016 to 2018 in several visits to the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, 600 kilometres (373 miles) west of Amazonas state capital Manaus, we photographed jaguars perched high on branches.
Called "painted jaguars" in Brazil because of their intricately spotted fur, jaguars are difficult to see in the dense jungle canopy.
Researchers discovered their behaviour after nearly a decade of studying them from floating bases, braving the same conditions that put flood waters at the doorsteps of more than 10,000 people living in the Mamirauá reserve.
On one expedition last month, researchers with headlamps tracked down and tranquilized a black male jaguar at night, placed his limp body on a blue tarp and wrapped his head in a towel as they fitted him with a black tracking collar, measured his teeth and checked his vitals.
So many jaguars have been fitted with trackers that researchers can now pinpoint them by holding up pronged radio receivers as they pilot small boats through the flooded forest.
Ramalho says that understanding this behaviour is further evidence supporting the need to preserve the Amazon floodplain.
The Iauaretê Project has teamed up with the Uakari Lodge in the reserve, which is operated by an association of local residents, to offer ecotourism trips that take advantage of the trackers to allow tourists to catch a glimpse of the animals.
The goal is to raise awareness for conservation and generate income for residents. A trip to see jaguars living in trees costs 10,000 reais ($3,000) per person.
Ecotourism fosters better relations between jaguars and residents, who are sometimes fearful or angry because jaguars can eat livestock and pets.
Local resident Railgler dos Santos, a field assistant on the project, says seeing the intense black eyes of a jaguar staring out from the jungle has stayed with him.
"There's definitely a connection there, having the fortune of seeing the animal face to face," he said.
Related photo essay https://reut.rs/2q4y15b
(Reporting by Bruno Kelly; Additional reporting by Maria Clara Pestre; Writing by Jake Spring)