Thursday, November 08, 2007

Far Afield: Brazil's Pantanal, Land of the Jaguar

I wanted to see a capybara.

That was my main hope on a recent trip to the Pantanal. I've always had a strange fascination with capybaras--something about a rodent the size of a Labrador retriever that roams in herds had captured my imagination since I was a kid. On two previous trips to South America in areas reputed to be capybara habitat, I had never seen one of the world's largest rodent.
Julinho Monteiro, our local guide for the trip, responded to my request, "You usually can't guarantee wildlife sightings, but I'll guarantee you'll see lots of capybaras. Lots of caimans, and lots capybaras."
My wife Jennifer and I were in Brazil's Pantanal, the world's largest wetland located in western Brazil. The Nature Conservancy recognizes it for its incredible wildlife diversity, and is working on unique collaborative partnerships to protect it. This huge area--which includes parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia--is not a national park, but is rather covered in cattle ranches. Each year, rivers flowing through this grassland flood their banks, and then recede, concentrating birds, reptiles and mammals around the ponds that remain.

I knew it was biologically important, but that fact doesn't really capture the spirit and beauty of the Pantanal. Within minutes of entering onto the Transpanteneira, a dirt roadway that dead ends in the middle of the Pantanal, we were seeing birds of every size, color and description. And caimans. Thousands of caimans.

What about the capybaras? Oh yes. Herds--yes, herds--were constantly appearing around each bend of the river. All the capybaras I could want to see, observe and photograph, and then some more. Although most South American natural areas are not known for their mammal viewing opportunities, here we saw a tremendous number and variety of strange and wonderful creatures--giant anteater, tapir, howler and capuchin monkey, peccary, swamp deer, armadillo, giant otter, crab-eating fox.
And then: Deep into the Pantanal, camping on the front yard of a family that lived 8 hours by boat and car from the nearest town. In this area, we were looking for that most elusive of Pantanal animals: the jaguar.

The first appears like a ghost sitting in grass along the riverbank. The jaguar appears indifferent about the encounter. I am not. This is stepping into the dream world of my youth: the world brought to me by Ranger Rick and Marlin Perkins and mountains of library books filled with travel and adventure.

But this jaguar is just the beginning. Within an hour, we see three more. Julinho Monteiro, an independent guide who started his own company, Pantanal Trackers, has an almost supernatural ability to find the spotted cats.

The next day, we see another: a mature female that falls asleep with us watching. We take photos and watch it, and then it's time to drift away, on to see what else the Pantanal has in store.--Matt Miller


Anonymous said...

I know Julinho! I am a college student and had the opportunity to visit the Pantanal in October of 2005. I fell in love with the place and am hoping to return as soon as I can find the funds. Julinho was our guide and is a friend of mine. He mentioned your trip to the Pantanal. I found capybaras to be quite frightening while wondering around at night but absolutely adorable during the day. It sounds like you visited Carmindo as well? He too is a friend who I would very much love to visit again. I loved your story and am glad that the Nature Conservancy is helping to protect the Pantanal. There is nowhere else in the world like it. Sincerely,
Laura, WA

TNC-Idaho said...

Thanks for the post, and great to hear from another Pantanal enthusiast. We did spend 3 nights camping on the front lawn of Carmindo and Maria. It was a wonderful experience, and I agree there is no place like it on Earth.

Check back for more Pantanal photos in the coming weeks.


Anonymous said...

An Idaho-based company, ROW Adventures, offers trips to the Pantanal along with Brazils Amazon and the Savannah near Cuiaba - a triple ecosystem journey. Based in Coeur d'Alene, ROW has been around since 1979.