Egrets wading through river grass, stalking their supper. Caiman, concealed in the foreground, doing the same. Howler monkeys bellowing their call that resonates through the forest. Pirarucu, one of the world’s largest fresh water fish, flopping above the water for only a moment. Jaguars lurking, looking, listening. This is the várzea floodplain forest along the Brazilian Amazon River basin.
Várzea is a term that refers to a type of seasonally flooded forest. Half the year, during the dry season, várzea resembles a typical tropical rainforest with dense evergreen trees and vines, tangled and scattered all about; however, during the wet season, the várzea is consumed by the rising Amazon River, and treetops are all that remain of the forest, surfacing above the nutrient rich water.
In 2013, I was living and working in the várzea, specifically, Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, which is situated in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. The reserve combined the values and needs of indigenous communities, wildlife and habitat preservation, and research. I worked with a small research group named “Projeto Iauaretê”. The word ‘iauaretê’ meaning “the real jaguar”, and stemming from a mysterious native legend of a man who morphed into a jaguar. The project revolved around studying jaguars in várzea habitat, with the aim to discover what they did during the flood season: stay amongst the treetops or migrate elsewhere.
Studying jaguars was not the only reason I was in Brazil…the other was a man. He was a Brazilian whom I’d met while in college; our passion for big cat conservation quickly morphed into a fervor for one another. I had come to Brazil to flesh out my pursuits: jaguars and Emiliano. However, since my arrival, the complications of life and love had soured what was once sweet. We had not yet spoken of these changes, but awkwardness between us had grown and our physical affection toward one another had altogether faded.
Emiliano and I, and all the other members of Projeto Iauaretê, slept in our hammocks on a small floating house on the Amazon River. The house had solar power, a rudimentary river water shower, and no means of communication with the outside world. We did not need alarm clocks; we awoke each morning to the deep hollers of howler monkeys, beginning with the break of dawn. My morning ritual was to make breakfast: boiled eggs, toast, and tapioca com quejo, a savory delight of a tapioca flap-jack with cheese folded in the middle. After breakfast, we broke into groups, each taking a small motorboat to a different location within the reserve. We were checking traps – modified foot snare traps we had constructed, set, and strategically placed throughout the forest in hopes to catch a few jaguars to radio-collar.
The process was repeated again after lunch. Our days looked somewhat like this: wake, eat breakfast, check traps, read a book, eat lunch, watch for wildlife, check traps, eat dinner, play dominos, sleep. Theoretically, this process would be disrupted had someone found a jaguar on one of our trap lines. However, this had not yet happened. For two weeks, day in and out, we rehearsed this drill. Each of these days, the rains came, raising the river, inch by inch.
One morning, drenched with sweat, mosquitoes buzzing in my ear and biting my neck, and feeling slightly discouraged, I walked the trails with Emiliano. The silence between us seemed to scream; here we were, alone, but unable or unwilling to discuss what had eluded us.
Upon reaching the first trap, we discovered that it was set off, jaguar prints all around, and no jaguar in sight. The two of us sighed, disheartened and deserted by a jaguar.
We continued on the trail, heads down with disappointment. After a few moments, we exchanged glances, locking eyes with one another for a long moment, smiles growing on our faces. We were both thinking the same thing: What if that jaguar is at our next trap?
We began moving faster, faster until we broke into a run. Running and running together, all the way to our next trap. Stopped in our tracks, we were met by a jaguar, sitting still like a statue, seized by our snare, staring at us through a jungle of leaves and vines. The jaguar’s golden eyes met mine, and I stood there, at first unable to move.
I stared back into the eyes of the jaguar, still sitting so silent. Fear was an afterthought; for a brief moment, I wondered if the jaguar was, in fact, caught. Perhaps he had outsmarted the snare, and was patiently waiting for the soul that dare try to trick him. Suddenly, the jaguar leapt toward us – but was held back by the lasso around his paw.
His name became Confuso, Portuguese for Confucius, because he looked so wise and all-knowing – sitting, staring, waiting. Confuso was the first of four jaguars I would help capture during that season. However, once the river rose, creeping up and covering the trails I had walked day in and day out, I migrated elsewhere.
BIO: Brandi Jo Nyberg has spent the past several years wandering from place to place. She currently lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and teaching at the University of Alaska.