PHOTOGRAPHER PROJECT: Pantanal, Story and photograph by Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures.com

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D440260We hear all the time that little things make a difference.Sometimes it’s hard to believe; other times, it couldn’t ring truer. Throughout my career I’ve combined photography with conservation, since a concern for our planet and its inhabitants has always been important to me. For the past few years, the Natural Exposures Invitational Photo Tours has taken guests to the Pantanal in the wilds of Brazil. Here, we do our best to incorporate the same philosophy of integrating photography and conservation, much like any of our travel destinations.

South America’s Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, yet tourists only visit about one percent of this land each year. That’s the equivalent ofan approximate 20 x 20 kilometer range of the total 140,000 to 150,000 square kilometers. Roughly 80 percent of the floodplains are submerged during the rainy season, nurturing an astonishing and biologically diverse collection of aquatic plants and helping to support an array of animal species.

The Pantanal region includes essential sanctuaries for migratory birds, critical nursery grounds for aquatic life, and refuges for such creatures as the yacare caiman and, of course, the jaguar.The Brazilian Pantanal is home to the highest density of jaguars in the world. It’s also great for agriculture and cattle due to fertile growing conditions. About 95 percent of the region is privately owned by ranchers and farmers, which creates a conflict for the jaguar that often ends in the big cat’s death.

There is hope that tourist dollars can replace some of the income ranchers and farmers are now receiving from logging and cattle. Programs (which continually need funding) are in place to compensate ranchers for cattle loss from jaguars. Conservation groups and researchers are working to coordinate efforts on public and private lands, hoping to maintain enough contiguous jaguar habitat and natural prey populations to ensure genetic connectivity and ensure a future for the jaguar in the region.

As we cruise the rivers of the Pantanal, our guests see hundreds of species of beautiful and rare birds, from tiny hummingbirds to the large jabiru stork. We watch toucans, macaws and parakeets. The world’s largest rodent, the capybara, is plentiful, along with reptiles, fish and mammals that include the giant otter and Brazilian tapir. We use a floating lodge that allows us to easily explore the area without disturbing it.

Daily excursions upriver provide opportunities to identify jaguars. Jaguars have a pattern of spots on their faces that are as unique to an individual animal as fingerprints are to a human. The photographs taken by our group are used to help wildlife researchers identify previously unknown individuals.

Throughout the week we check our photos closely, hoping to see a new “unnamed” cat. During our time in the Pantanal, we all become researchers, and last year several new cats were identified. On our last day, heading out of the jungle, I photographed a jaguar I was certain we had not seen before. A week later the lodge biologist confirmed my suspicions. As is the custom, I had the pleasure of naming the jaguar for the record books. I chose Dice Man, a fitting tribute to my black-and-white, spotted little buddy we call our South American pygmy wolf and leader of our studio security team back in Bozeman.

Learn more about our next photo trip to the Pantanal by visiting www.naturalexposures.com/wildlife-photo-tours. There were 21 jaguar sightings in five days on the 2013 trip. You could be the next person to identify a new jaguar and help to keep them in their natural habitat!

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