© Copyright 2022 by Penelope Maclachlan
Rosa’s eyes blazed. Somebody probably warned me against putting my hand between the bars of her cage. She was the first onça I ever saw during my childhood in Brazil. She was nothing like our cat at home, as she was twenty times bigger with huge jaws and feet.
The second time I saw an onça was in Guarujá, a popular seaside resort on the coast of São Paulo. A group of men were showing off a cub which must have been very young, as it was hardly bigger than a domestic kitten, though you would never have mistaken it for one. The head and paws were, proportionately, massive. It was silent, and probably too scared or ill to protest or try to run away. I don’t know how they caught it, and I doubt if it lived long. Soon after that another group of men showed off a penguin which had allegedly swum from the Antarctic, 7,379 kilometres or 4,597 miles away. It looked as if it was suffocating in the heat.
Shakespeare referred to an ounce in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon tells the slumbering Titania that she will fall in love, when she wakes up, with the first live creature that she sees:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In thine eye it shall appear
When thou wak’st, it is thy dear.
I took ounce to mean onça, and wondered if Shakespeare had ever been to Brazil and seen one.
The animal, a kind of jaguar, is the biggest cat in the Americas, and the third biggest in the world. Only lions and tigers are bigger. It resembles the leopard, but is stronger. Most onças have orange-coloured coats and are spotted, but many have black fur.
In Brazil the onça’s favourite habitats are the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal, the world’s biggest wetland, which stretches across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. Although not as well known as the Amazon rainforest to its north, this gigantic seasonal floodplain is also home to a variety of plants and wildlife.
Indigenous tribes revere and celebrate this creature. The word jaguar may be derived from the Tupi-Guarani word yaguara, meaning wild beast that overcomes its prey at a bound. Onça is a Portuguese word.
The animal stands 68 to 75 centimetres tall at the shoulders. Males can weigh 56 to 96 kilos, or 123 to 212 pounds. Females are usually smaller, and weigh from 36 kilos or 79 pounds. They prefer dense forest and swamps away from roads. Males will appear where humans live, but females, especially those with cubs, avoid people. In the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal males and females hunt during the day and at night.
Onças may attack humans who corner or frighten them, but they are the least likely of all cats to kill humans deliberately. They can and will eat almost anything else, even South America’s biggest animal, the tapir. These jaguars are carnivores, with strong teeth and powerful jaws, and can bite through the shells of tortoises and turtles. They also kill mammals by biting through the skull between the ears to the brain. Their favourite prey include capybaras, which are like outsize swimming rats, giant anteaters, marsh deer, turtles, caimans and fish. Onças are fast and fearless swimmers, and are as lethal in water as on land. They cannot run as fast as cheetahs, which rely on their speed when hunting. Onças stalk and ambush their prey. They are so strong that they can seize a heifer, kill it, and drag the carcass to a hiding place such as a thicket.
Onças are solitary except for females with cubs. They use scrape marks, urine and faeces to mark their territory. They roar and grunt when they want to let other animals know their whereabouts. They make chuffing sounds for greeting and during courting. Mothers comfort their cubs by chuffing. The cubs bleat, gurgle and mew.
Onças can mate up to 100 times a day. In the Pantanal breeding pairs stay together for up to five days. Females usually have one or two cubs at a time. They wean their cubs when they are three months old. At six months the youngsters hunt alongside their mothers. Males sometimes eat their own cubs. When the female is aware of this threat she hides her cubs. The Pantanal is at risk. Its waterways – essential to all life in the region - are threatened by deforestation, soil erosion from expanding industrial agriculture, and infrastructure projects. The danger to the onça is obvious. It needs space to roam and hunt, and it thrives in water, a source of its food.
Onças have already lost half their historic range. The used to roam from southwestern United States and the Mexican border through the Amazon basin and into the Rio Negro of Argentina. Today, they are very scarce in Arizona and New Mexico, Sonora state in Mexico, northern Brazil, Uruguay, and the grasslands of Argentina. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) found that onças occupied only about 51% of their historic range in 2008. The Amazon basin rainforest currently holds 57% of the global jaguar population.
The biggest threat to onças is humans. Poaching is illegal, but nevertheless takes place. The Amazon rainforest has land which ranchers and garimpeiros (clandestine prospectors and miners) covet. They fell the trees to clear spaces for cattle ranches to fence in livestock destined for the abattoir and barbecues in Brazil and worldwide. What the garimpeiros seek is minerals, in which the rainforest are abundant. They include copper, tin, nickel, bauxite, manganese, iron ore and gold. Prospectors from all over the world arrive in hordes to plunder the land. Hacking down the trees releases toxic carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. This pollutes the atmosphere and is one of the causes of global heating so extreme that it is threatening all our fellow creatures, including human beings.
In the course of invading, wage slaves of fazendeiros (great landholders), latifundiários (owners of great landed estates), and capitalist enterprises shoot bullets through the heads of indigenous tribespeople who try to guard and protect their crops, homes, families and themselves. Murder is a capital offence in Brazil, but the current president (since January 2019), Jair Bolsonaro, is well aware that this slaughter take places. He ignores laws promulgated to protect the tribes, who fight back. Bolsonaro absented himself from Cop26 (the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties) which took place in Glasgow from 31 October 2021, but representatives of the Brazilian Amazon indigenous tribes appeared, and were outspoken and articulate.
The next presidential elections in Brazil will be on 2 October 2022. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also known as Lula, could make a comeback. He has been President twice – first in 2003, and in 2006 was re-elected and remained in office until 2010. In 2018 he was imprisoned for alleged corruption, but the charges were quashed and, after over 18 months in jail, he walked free. He is very popular with the indigenous tribes and has promised that if he wins the 2022 election will establish a ministry of indigenous affairs. Reversing the damage to the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal is vitally important to him. If he succeeds, his actions should do much to preserve both the indigenous tribes and endangered wildlife.
Information about the Amazon rainforest is accessible from Rainforest Action Network https://act.ran.org/donate and Amazon Watch https://amazonwatch.org