It's a tendon-wrenching, arduous ride, and before the parrots are done squawking the morning news from their roosts in the palms, mare and I are streaming sweat and plastered in mud—a gluey gray slurry for which no one offers a name.
Mid-afternoon we rein up at an elevated ribbon of forest. A pungent stink rolls out to greet us and two dozen vultures flap away at our approach. Our small party dismounts, and Bia; her ranch foreman, Urbano Vilalba; two cowhands; a biologist named Marion Kellerhoff; and I follow our noses into the gloom of the woods.
The carcass has been dragged 25 yards from where Urbano found it yesterday, his attention drawn by circling vultures while out here shifting cattle around. Now it lies half submerged at the edge of the bog, bloated, discolored, and twitching with maggots. Two days ago it was a regal, cream-colored, long-horned, half-ton, humpbacked zebu bull worth $400 at current beef prices. Today it's jaguar kill.
That a jaguar has dined on bull is not a particularly noteworthy event in the Pantanal. Typically vultures alert the rancher, the rancher calls in a professional jaguar hunter, the hunter tracks the cat with a pack of scarred hounds, shoots it, and leaves the carcass for scavengers. Even though jaguar hunting is illegal in Brazil, it's still common in this remote, largely unpeopled realm. As a jaguar hunter put it to me: "Who's to know?"
There will be no jaguar hunter this time. Bia has signed a contract with a nonprofit conservation group trying to preserve the threatened cats in the Pantanal. Naturalist Marion Marcondes has ridden out here to verify that a jaguar killed one of Bia's bulls. She'll file a report, and Bia will be reimbursed—"partially reimbursed," Bia notes dryly—for her loss. In return Bia will let the jaguar live.
"I adore jaguar hunting," says Bia, 64, whose grandfather staked an enormous land claim here in 1892. "And I can't stand outsiders telling me what to do. But we have to go forward. The Pantanal is changing under our feet. Like it or not, we Pantaneiros have to change too."
Lying far south of the Amazon, the Pantanal is a lopsided, 74,000-square-mile (191,659 square kilometers) wetland within the Upper Paraguay River Basin, where the borders of Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia meet. It's one of the world's largest wetlands—an area more than a third the size of France. The name translates loosely as "big swampy place," pântano being the Portuguese word for swamp, but the Pantanal is really an alluvial plain, one so nearly flat that rainwater just loafs across it, flooding it in the full season, draining away in the dry.