The Jaguar and the Caiman — Right Time, Right Light, Right Hands

— By Sabin Russell

Most vacation videos are destined for the digital attic; often treasured, but seldom seen. Not so, the astonishing two-minute sequence shot by Berkeley Lab nanotechnologist Kedar Hippalgaonkar during a motorboat tour of Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, a world-renowned refuge for jaguars. He and his wife, Tech Transfer’s Parul Jain, planned a two-week trip to Brazil in August to celebrate completion of his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. They hoped for a glimpse of the big cats. Instead they witnessed a rare daylight hunt by a swimming jaguar, which creeps ashore, surprises, and kills a 120 pound caiman sunning on a spit of sand; all captured on digital camera. Posted last month on YouTube, the Berkeley Lab couple’s dramatic vacation video has 34 million hits — and counting.

Surrounded by professional wildlife photographers with very expensive cameras and lenses, Hippalgaonkar [Hip-al-gone-car] managed to keep his Olympus OMD-EM5 extraordinarily still as the real-life drama unfolded. It turns out that his steady camerawork was no accident: his research on nanoscale heat transport as a Berkeley Lab postdoc involves hours of intense concentration and precise manipulation of tiny objects. “His hands do not move because he works with nanowires,” says Jain. “For that he has to have the hands of a doctor.”

Hippalgaonkar contends that good luck also played a part. “People go for weeks or months just to spot a single jaguar,’’ he says. “But on our trip, we saw five.” If they were lucky, they certainly earned it. From the inland city of Poconé, they traveled 90 miles west along dirt and gravel roads in a rented 1989 Fiat to reach the site of the tour operator. “We must have crossed 100 wooden bridges, with caimans under every bridge,” says Jain. The goal was a remote outpost at the junction of three rivers, where an American ecotour operator had set up a lodge in jaguar country. Jain, who has worked three years at Berkeley Lab licensing intellectual property rights, used her well-honed negotiation skills to persuade the tour operator to customize their trip, to focus it solely on jaguar spotting during their three-day stay.

It is not at all unusual for jaguars to eat caimans, which are plentiful in the Pantanal and comprise up to 80 percent of the cats’ diet. But the hunting is typically done at night, in the water. “Jaguars are amazing swimmers,’’ says Hippalgaonkar. On August 25, the couple was particularly lucky, coming within 15 feet of a swimming jaguar known to local wildlife biologists as “Mick.” They quickly backed away their six-person boat, and then, joined by several others — some carrying professional photographers — watched the caiman hunt unfold about 150 yards from the caiman’s beach. “The boat guide told us he’d never seen anything like it,” says Hippalgaonkar.

On their return to California, they sent their raw footage to National Geographic. “We’ve both been fans of National Geographic since we were kids,” says Jain. The two minute sequence includes a superbly done narrative by National Geographic conservation scientist Luke Dollar. The rarity of the event, the steady camerawork, and Dollar’s narration were just the right mixture to spark a viral internet phenomenon. The professional photographers also got in some decent shots: Still images of the same incident are also drawing heavy traffic on the Web.

After their amazing trip to the Pantanal, the couple rounded out their two-week tour of Brazil with a five-day visit to Amazonas Province, where they swam in ink-black piranha-infested waters of the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon. “That was relaxing,” says Hippalgaonkar. Yet none of these adventures can compare to their trip on the Downhill Blue Route of the Berkeley Lab shuttle bus. That was where, on April 29, 2011, two lovers of wildlife, Kedar and Parul, met for the first time, on their way home from a long day of work.