The Essence of Life

The Essence of Life

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sasha Siemel and the Pantanal

Jaguar, Zagaia, 357 S&W Magnum and Mr. Siemel

The first time that I ever heard about Sasha Siemel was on an article at Guns & Ammo HANDGUNS 1990 ANNUAL titled "The First Magnum", by Roy Jinks. The article tells the story of the development and launch of the Smith & Wesson 357 Magnum cartridge and revolver, but in the lower left corner of a page it presents the picture above with the following legend: "Sasha Siemel hunted the big cats of the Amazon with a spear. His backup was a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, wearing registration #10."

Later on in the article, a table informs that revolver S&W 357 Magnum registration No. 10, barrel lenght 8 3/4 inches was delivered to Sasha A. Siemel, Big-Game Hunter From South America, on April 26 1935.

I must say that at that time I was more focused on firearms than on hunting, and it would be some more years before I would learn about Mr. Siemel and his fantastic adventures in the Brazilian hinterlands and how imprecise Mr. Jinks was about where Sasha Siemel hunted.

Almost a decade later I had the pleasure and privilege of proof reading my friend's John Coningham Netto fantastic and epic book, "BODOQUENA - Uma Odisséia no Pantanal" where the main character, Jari Carreiro, or Mr. John himself, is quite saddened by the news of the passing of the famous professional jaguar hunter Sasha Siemel in cold Pennsylvania, a half world and another half century away from the Pantanal do Mato Grosso where he made his fame.

The Pantanal is located aproximately in the geographocal center of South America, and is one of the world's largest tropical wetlands areas, and is located mostly within the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, but it extends into Mato Grosso and portions of Bolivia and Paraguay. It sprawls over an area estimated at between 140,000 and 195,000 square kilometers (54,000 and 75,000 square miles). To the south and west the Brazilian Pantanal morphs into the Paraguayan and Bolivian Chaco. About 80% of the Pantanal floodplains are submerged during the rainey season, nurturing an astonishing biologically diverse collection of acquatic plants and helping support a dense array of animal species.

In the early XX century cattle ranch and fur trading were the cornerstones of Matto Grosso state (before 1977 Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul were a single state and it was spelled Matto Grosso) and the Pantanal was the heart of these industries. The rich floodplains provided fantastic and extensive grazing during the winter (which is the dry season) and the cattle industry flourished after the Paraguayan War, rivaling that of the southern Pampas.

But there was one element that intimately linked the cattle industry and the fur trade, the big cats: Jaguar or Onça-Pintada (Panthera onca), the world's third largest cat, and the its smaller relative the Suçuarana, Onça-Parda, Cougar or Mountain Lion (Puma concolor).

And once the cattle herd proliferated to great numbers it did not take long for the smart cats to realize that cattle provides a much easier meal than the fleeting cervo-do-pantanal, the dangerous queixada, the crusty cayman, the somewhat ugly capybara or the invasive porco-monteiro.

And once again, as the jaguar and the cougar started to charge the ranchers a steep price for the use of their original habitat, nothing more natural that these ranchers should rebel and fight back, and in order to do so they hired Zagaieros or Zagayeros, brave hunters that used a heavy lance, similar to the European boar spears and packs of hounds to pursue and kill cattle killing cats.

After several adventures in unhealthy Brazilian diamond boom towns Sasha Siemel changed his focus to the more exciting, but probably less dangerous, pursuit of the onça-pintada and suçuarana, and that made him a larger than life person in his own time. Just to give an idea of how famous Mr. Siemel was, Smith & Wesson shipped 357 Magnum revolver serial No. 1 to FBI's J. Edgar Hoover on April 17, 1935, and nine days later, shipped serial No. 10 to Sasha A. Siemel, big-bame hunter from South America.

"Tigrero", published in 1953, is Sasha Siemel's fascinating recounting of his life and adventures in Brazil, and besides dangerous big-game encounters it also provides a picture of life in the Brazilian frontier in the first half of the XX century, and it appeared to be a lot more wild than the United Stated Old West.

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