The internationally acclaimed photographer revisits his jaguar expeditions in Brazil’s Pantanal region and recounts an incredible conservation story. By Steve Winter

Steve Winter
A female comes down to the river to drink; both jaguars and tigers have one thing in common—they love the water. Jaguars can swim for hours looking for food.

In pursuit of my second jaguar story for an international title, I documented the natural history of the world’s third-largest cat (the largest one in the Western hemisphere) as well as the threats it faces and the connection it shares with the indigenous people of the region.

steve winter jaguars
A jaguar I named Scarface runs to capture a caiman for dinner. He did not succeed.

I concentrated my coverage of wild jaguars in the reserves in the Brazilian Pantanal, where ecotourism has helped in protecting them over the last decade. Here, jaguars live in some of the highest densities anywhere across their range, from the US-Mexico border to Argentina. The cats are safe in these reserves, while in some other areas, they are hunted by ranchers who retaliate against cats that prey on cattle, though strides are being made to reduce the conflict.

steve winter
Jaguars are the heart of the economy in the Pantanal, the world’s largest inland wetland. Ecotourism has replaced ranching in this area, the only location where you can easily see wild jaguar.

Poaching for wildlife trade had dropped to almost nil after the international trade in big-cat skins was outlawed globally in the 1970s, but in the last few years, it has rebounded to
significant levels. In Peru, Bolivia, and other parts of South America, jaguars are now hunted by poachers who can fetch hundreds of dollars for their beautiful pelts—I photographed a trader selling skins near Iquitos in Peru; there has also been a spike in trade of jaguar teeth and other parts.

steve winter jaguars
Jaguars in the Pantanal spend much of their time on the riverbank looking for food.

When I first visited the Pantanal, the area was 95 per cent privately owned—mostly cattle ranches. Cowboys would say, the only good jaguar was a dead jaguar, as they blamed the cat for all cattle deaths. I helped secure the funding for a jaguar GPS/SAT collared study; the conclusion of the research found that only one per cent of cattle deaths could be attributed to jaguars.

steve winter
One out of 20 times, the jaguar is successful at capturing prey. Its number one food source in the northern Pantanal is caiman.

When I returned to the area nine years later, I found most of the cattle ranches in the area were now ecotourism lodges as the local landowners could make more money from jaguar and bird ecotourism than cattle. In fact, a recent study found that each jaguar in the tourist area brings in around $1,10,000 per year in ecotourism income. Today, cowboys can’t afford to harm a single jaguar in the area.

steve winter jaguars
A mother grooms her cubs on the banks of the River Três Irmãos in the Pantanal. This was a moment I waited many years to see. When the cubs are a couple of months old, the mother begins weaning them, exposing them to wounded prey to help them learn hunting skills.

Related: Wildlife Photographer Steve Winter Recounts The Time When He Was Almost A Dead Man