Variations: Tapir Nymph, Onça d’Água (Water Jaguar), Onça Pé de Boi (Cow-legged Jaguar), Paraná Pura Iuraretê (Turtle/Jaguar that Dwells in River Side Channels), Tai-açu-iara (potentially)
The Tapirê-iauara, or Tapir Nymph, enjoys a wide distribution in the Amazon, from the Orinoco in Venezuela to the Rio Negro, the Madeira, the Tapajós, and the Amazon down to Pará. Sightings have been reported from around Codajás, Fonte Boa, Itacoatiara, Nova Olinda, Oriximiná, Santarém, and Urucurituba. It lives in slower-moving waters, near groves of aninga or palm trees, and avoids human settlements.
The name tapirê-iauara is etymologically complex. Tapiré is Tupi for “tapir”, while y is “water” and ara is “lady” in língua geral; it also draws from the Tupi uara (“dweller”) or yguara (“dweller in water”). Hence, “tapir water-lady” or “tapir nymph” is a rough translation. This same derivation gives us the Amazonian nymphs Yara and Oyoára, the sea monster Hipupiara, and Paraná Pura Iuraretê, which was apparently a giant turtle creature that later was subsumed into the tapirê-iauara (iuraretê meaning either “turtle” or “jaguar”).
Reports of the tapirê-iauara appearance have varied somewhat. Most accounts agree that it resembles a cow-sized jaguar with a reddish waterproof coat, a thick mane, long droopy ears half a meter in length, and an overpowering stench (catinga). It may have jaguar legs, or the forelegs of a jaguar and hooved, donkey-like hindlegs. It may have horse legs with or without catlike paws, duck feet, or large otter paws. Variations in fur color include red, gold, and black with a cream patch in the chest. It notably does not look much like a tapir.
A tapirê-iauara is heard and smelled before it is seen. The large, finlike ears flap noisily against the water as it swims, while its putrid odor precedes it. From a safe distance, it’s merely nauseating; at close quarters the stench of a tapirê-iauara is enough to cause fainting and outright death. Tapirê-iauaras can also mesmerize prey into standing still before pouncing on them.
Tapirê-iauaras have a broad diet that includes large fish, capybaras, caimans, and humans. They are attracted to hauls of fish and the halitosis resulting from eating poorly-cooked fish. They often show up to inspect fishermens’ catches – or the fishermen themselves. When they do, they are fast, persistent, and resilient, relying on their odor to weaken prey before killing it with their sharp teeth and claws. One fisherman had to empty 12 slugs from a .22 rifle into a pursuing tapirê-iauara before the beast expired. Other fishermen have not been so lucky, having their catches stolen at best or being dragged into the river and devoured at worst.
Sometimes the stink of a tapirê-iauara is enough to cause a human’s shadow (and therefore soul) to depart. A person who has lost their shadow in this way is said to be assombrado. They can recover their soul by inhaling the fumes of a fire made with leaves, sticks, and the bones of undercooked piranhas.
Caraña resin (Protium heptaphyllum) is repulsive to tapirê-iauaras, and anyone concerned about tapirê-iauara attack should equip themselves with some before heading into the Amazon. Tapirê-iauaras also cannot climb, and so shelter should be sought in trees. As the tapirê-iauara’s odor will cause fainting and potentially falling out of the tree, secure branches must be found.
The Tai-açu-iara from around Parintins is similar and may be the same animal. It appears as a black piglike creature with jaguar paws.
Smith, N. J. H. (1981) Man, Fishes, and the Amazon. Columbia University Press, New York.
Smith, N. J. H. (1996) The Enchanted Amazon Rain Forest. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.