Miguel is a passionate conservationist based in Brazil who has been entirely dedicated to wildlife conservation in tropical forests. After graduating in Rio de Janeiro he moved to a small town deep in the Amazon to start working at Mamirauá Institute, a social organization that develops research and conservation projects together with the local communities. He's had experience working with camera-traps, but over the past years has done research on human-wildlife conflict involving jaguars and traditional communities in the Amazon.
Learn more about Miguel Monteiro
October 27, 2022
The quest for the black panther
A light rain trickled down the leaves of the dense forest, glistening as the morning sun penetrated through the clouds. A troop of capuchin and squirrel monkeys passed noisily over our heads as we glided through the flooded forest on canoes. Our group moved in absolute silence except for the occasional beep emitted by our equipment, which perfectly matched the rhythmic pounding of my heart, bursting with excitement. We were listening carefully to the sound being picked up by our radio antenna that indicated which way to go and how far we were from our objective. As we inched closer to an enormous fig tree, the radio signal grew stronger. Although no one spoke a word, the feeling was unanimous – it must be here. We made our way around the tree with our heads tilted up, eyes scanning every branch and leaf. A black, bulky figure was spotted about 20 meters up the tree, lying on a large branch. Its huge paws hung lazily on each side. Amber-colored eyes observed us attentively, contrasting with the black fur like a fire at night. We were face-to-face with a black jaguar (Panthera onca).
The jaguar’s dark fur is the result of a genetic mutation called melanism which produces excessive amounts of melanin, a pigment that turns the fur black. Despite the different color, black jaguars are the same species as regular spotted jaguars but are sometimes called “panthers”, a common name used for other melanistic wild cats such as leopards. This particular individual was being monitored as part of a research project led by Mamirauá Institute’s Ecology and Conservation of Felids in Amazonia Research Group. At first, in the beginning of each year around the months of January through March our group goes out to the field in an attempt to capture and collar wild jaguars. During this time of the year, the water level in Mamirauá Reserve is rising, and since the whole reserve becomes flooded, the amount of land available steadily decreases. The jaguars move along these restricted stretches of land, which is exactly where we place our traps to maximize the chance of capturing an individual. This year, our group was only able to capture one jaguar, a black male that weighed 61 kg. The animal was sedated by a veterinarian and fitted with a GPS radio-collar. We also measured the jaguar and collected blood samples during the procedure. This way we will be able to gather information about the jaguar’s movements and behavior as well as its health condition and genetics.
Once the jaguar is fitted with the GPS radio-collar, we are able to approach it in the wild to monitor and observe it. This activity is only possible, however, around the months of May through July when the water level is at its peak in Mamirauá Reserve and the jaguars exhibit a unique behavior of adapting to a semi-arboreal lifestyle in the trees (read more about this behavior here). To observe the jaguar, we head out to the latest GPS location recorded by the collar and home in on the animal using the radio signal. Since the whole forest is flooded we move in canoes, which also enable us to advance silently through the jungle. It is no easy task to locate a naturally-camouflaged jaguar amidst the dense foliage, but with well-trained eyes and a bit of patience we generally have successful sightings. When the animal is located, we observe its behavior and collect information about the environment. Over the years, our team has been able to observe jaguars in courtship, females with cubs and even a jaguar pouncing on a monkey!
With the opportunity to observe wild jaguars at hand, our research group teamed up with a community-based tourism initiative called Uakari Lodge to take a small number of tourists once a year to try and spot the jaguars we monitor. This way, part of the money generated by this activity funds our research projects and another part goes to the local communities. Since local communities are directly benefiting by jaguar-watching tourism, this has an impact on human-jaguar relationships in the region. A new study conducted by our research group showed that local villagers are more tolerant of the jaguars’ presence and have more positive attitudes towards the species compared to people who aren’t benefited by tourism.
In conclusion, the quest to find the black panther has yielded valuable scientific information. The genetic data and home range estimations from collared jaguars have been used in range-wide studies and national action plans for the conservation of the species. Also, novel epidemiological studies using blood samples from sedated jaguars are generating important results which will guide local management strategies to minimize impacts on the jaguar population. Furthermore, tourism activities that revolve around jaguar-watching have provided funding for further research, and have helped foster a more sustainable relationship between local communities and jaguars.