In Search of the Jaguar: Up Close and Rare

60 Minutes cameras capture nature's most elusive big cats in Brazil

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Editor's Note: Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, who devoted his life to protecting jaguars, died of cancer this week at 64. In 2010, he took Bob Simon on an adventure deep into the Brazilian jungle in search of the elusive cats. The two men had what Dr. Rabinowitz called "unbelievable luck" in their pursuit.

We name fancy cars and sports teams after them, but precious few people have ever seen a jaguar in the wild. They don't live in the United States anymore and can only be found in the sweltering jungles of Central and South America. But just try to find one - they hunt by night and sleep by day, comfortably concealed in thick, dark brush.

It's because of their elusive nature, their power and their beauty, that jaguars have long been worshipped by tribes as demigods, whose real home is a spiritual world which man cannot even fathom. But whichever world they frequent, they only emerge -- briefly -- during the dry season when they go down to rivers to drink.

So when it got dry last year and Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, the world's foremost authority on jaguars, invited us to go with him to some far flung wetlands in Brazil, near the Bolivian border, we picked up the phone and booked our flights.

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Photos: Finding Jaguars in Brazil
Segment: In Search of the Jaguar

We headed towards an unspoiled, remote area called the Pantanal, where the temperature rarely dipped below 115 degrees. We had to cross more than 125 rustic wooden bridges over dried up ponds and lakes, home to piranhas and caimans, cousins of the crocodile. It was good to be in a car.

We started our search for jaguars on the Cuiaba River with Alan Rabinowitz, the CEO of Panthera, a new conservation group. He told us that jaguars are very fast and have been known to kill people. It was good to be in a boat.

Rabinowitz has been studying the cats' migration routes and habitats in the jungle for 30 years. But he has gone months without seeing a single one. His advice to us: get lucky.

"It takes hours and hours of doing this because even when they're out there, it's almost [like a] needle in a haystack," he told correspondent Bob Simon. "Even though this is the densest, highest concentration of jaguars matching any place on Earth, there's still a limited number of jaguars here."

But luck was a lady that day: it wasn't long before we caught our first glimpse -- and it was just a glimpse -- of a young jaguar, sitting on the river bank behind a fallen tree.

He was difficult to see, but Rabinowitz spotted him. "Its head is right there. Amazing, see it? You got it, it's beautiful. See it? Isn't that something? This gives you the real gut feel of the secretive nature of this animal," he said.

"There's no sign of defeat in its face," Rabinowitz added.

At dawn the next day, we went looking for jaguars again. One of our spotters tried to tempt the cats out of the jungle, but his simulated mating call just didn't do it.

But it might have appealed to anacondas. One anaconda we came across, according to the spotters, was nine feet long. Then we went up a small river that looked like an aquatic Garden of Eden -- no jaguars there either, but an extraordinary assembly of birds and others creatures.

We saw a family of very rare giant river otters, basking in the sun after a morning of fishing and swimming. We saw the world's largest rodents, unflappable hundred pound capybaras, a favorite dish of jaguars. Jaguars like caimans as well, as we saw from evidence of past meals.

Photographer Steve Winter has been a jaguar groupie for years and was helping us look for the cats. He has shot what could be the finest jaguar portraits ever taken. They weren't easy to come by.

"I spent the first three months in the jungle and got a big fat zero," he remembered. "No cats."

Asked how he felt about his three-month jaguar dry spell, Winter told Simon, "I felt like my career was over."