#9: The World’s Largest Swamp : Brazil’s Pantanal do Mato Grosso
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(A shorter and in some ways better version of this, deftly edited, as usual, by Sheila Glaser, appears in the March, 2003 issue of Travel & Leisure.)
The Pantanal do Mato Grosso, in west-central Brazil, south of the Amazon, is the largest swamp on earth. In the summer rainy season, from October to March, it floods an area almost twice the size of England, spilling over into adjacent Paraguay and Bolivia (where it is known as the Chaco) and becoming a lake of oceanic proportions that flows imperceptibly southward. Drained by the Paraguay River, which empties into the Parana, the water eventually pours into the Atlantic above Buenos Aires. This epic wetland (which is what pantanal means in Portuguese) harbors the most astonishing concentration of wildlife in the Americas. It is one of the last places where you can experience a teeming, riotous diversity of animals, the seemingly unlimited abundance of life that existed on much of the planet before it was overrun by humans. Only the game parks of East Africa hold a candle to it.
When I first visited the Pantanal, in l980, there was no tourist infrastructure. The word ecology was known to only a few Brazilian biologists, and biodiversity and ecotourism were still several years from being coined. The government of Mato Grosso, was trying to capitalize on its magnificent swamp, but was thinking more in terms of hunting and fishing, and to generate foreign interest, it was flying ambassadors over from Brasília and letting them blast away at the caimans and the emus (smaller, South American versions of alligators and ostriches, respectively), the storks and ibises and herons and dozens of other species of aquatic birds. I was married to a woman from Brasília, and somehow got invited on one of these junkets. But instead of taking a shotgun, I took binoculars and my well-worn copy of Rudolph Meyer de Schauensee’s guide to the birds of South America. I flew to Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso, and was taken to the swamp by the man in charge of state protocol, a Brazilian of Prussian and French ancestry who had a toothbrush moustache and clicked his heels and spoke nostalgically about Hitler, or King Adolph as he called him. Mato Grosso was a haven for ex-Nazis—local color one could do without. Most of them have died out by now. But this bizarre, conflicted man, not sure where his loyalties lay, had joined the French Foreign Legion during World War II and within a few days had been hit by shrapnel and left permanently shellshot. His grandfather had been the baron of Marajo, the island in the mouth of the Amazon that is bigger than Switzerland.
We flew down to Poconé, which is in on the northern edge of the Pantanal, and drove out on the Transpantaneira, an attempt to build a highway across it in the seventies that was abandoned after ninety-two miles. The diversity of the bird life, the sheer numbers of huge, spectacular birds, was like nothing I had ever seen before or imagined possible, even though I had spent months wandering in the Amazon. It was like the Everglades times a hundred, or maybe a thousand. In Florida’s wetland there are maybe two hundred snail kites; the species is endangered. Here there are more like two hundred thousand. In all of North America there are only three species of kingfisher. Here there are five-- five different models of kingfisher, each with its own ecological niche, distinctive markings, and behavioral refinements. And so it is with practically every form of life in the Pantanal.
We went out on the Cuiabá River in a speedboat and cast large silver spoons out into the murky water. This was sport fishing without sport; each cast brought in a thrashing, thirty-inch dourado, which looks like a golden salmon and is as delicious, but belongs to the same group of fish as piranhas—of which the Pantanal boasts no less than twenty species. The collective feeding frenzies that piranhas are notorious for are not well understood. The local Pantaneiros swim among them routinely and are rarely attacked, unless they are menstruating or have red-painted toe or finger nails.
Detaching myself from the ex-legionaire with Nazi leanings, I hung out for a few days with a biologist who was studying the Pantanal’s capybaras. These are the largest rodents on earth-- mastiff-sized, with box-shaped muzzles; they looked like creatures from the mind of Lewis Carroll. When I returned to the States, I started telling people about this last, lost paradise on earth. If you want to see wildlife, don’t go to the Amazon. Most of the animals are screened by the trees or are a hundred and fifty feet up in the canopy. Go to the Pantanal. It’s unbelievable.
years later, the long-awaited chance to revisit the Pantanal has finally
This time, I want to see what the southern Pantanal is like. There’s a ranch with trained nature guides who take you out into the swamp that is reportedly fantastic, so we fly to Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, a state that was created from Mato Grosso in l977, and soon we are speeding along in an air-conditioned minivan through a grassland dotted with small, twisted trees and six-foot-tall ant castles (actually termitaries), among which herds of scrawny white humped nelhore-zebu cattle are grazing. Mato Grosso is the Texas of Brazil. Most of the country’s beef is produced here. Only the occasional saucer-sized iridescent-blue morpho butterfly or pair of green macaws with yellow breasts winging over the savanna remind us that we are in tropical South America. The cowboys here are known as campeiros. They have a facão, a big, razor-sharp knife tucked in the back of their belt, like the gauchos of Argentina. Their faces are like dark, cracked leather and like cowboys everywhere they have a red kerchief knotted around their neck and don’t speak much but drink and brawl a lot. Most of the time when they are on their horses, they are up to their thighs in water, trying to keep the cattle from straying deep into the swamp and joining the hundreds of thousands of feral ones that are already in there and impossible to round up.
whiz past billboards with paintings of the Pantanal’s endangered mammals—the
giant anteater, the jaguar, the maned wolf, which is lankier
and shaggier than its North American counterparts. “I’m a wolf, but I’m
not bad,” the wolf billboard says. “Please help me survive.” Since my last
visit to the Pantanal, Brazil has experienced a sea change in ecological
awareness, which began in l989 with the realization that the
Amazon is a key ecosystem for the entire planetary biosphere, and cutting
it down is not the thing to do (although this is still going on at a devastating
rate; not all Brazilians have gotten the message). The turning point
was the global outrage at the murder of Chico Mendes, the leader of the
Amazon’s rubber tappers, on Christmas Eve, l988, by ranchers intent on
converting the rainforest into pasture. Today Chico is one of Brazil’s
We are going to one of these enormous ranches, the Fazenda Caiman, which has 23,000 head of cattle on its 58,000 hectares (a hectare is 2.7 acres). But part of the ranch is an ecological refuge, and there is a lodge where ecotourists are put up in style. Its owner, Roberto Klabim, is a paper baron and is one of the new breed of ranchers who see themselves as stewards of the wildlife on their property. A far cry from the ones I met in l989 in Acre, the next state to the north of Mato Grosso, who gunned down Chico Mendes and were clearing and burning the rainforest without a twinge of remorse.
Several dozen homeless people were squatting in hovels covered with black-plastic sheets at the entrance to the ranch. These were part of the sem terra movement, the landless Brazilians who have organized and become a significant political force in the country. It took another half an hour to reach the lodge, which Klabim modeled after ones he stayed at in the Serengeti. The grassland gave way to a landscape of flooded forest and open water. Caimans were scattered as still as stranded logs below the bridges.
Our room was air-conditioned, and there was a pool, and the food was excellent, featuring local fish like pacu, as were the caipirinhas, the Brazilian equivalent of margaritas, which are made from cachaça, unrefined white rum, with sugar and lemon . For the next four days we were pampered by a highly competent staff of young college graduates in forestry or “tourismology.” The ranch was everything it was cracked up to be. I was able to identify 125 species of bird with the help of Vitinho do Nascimiento, the 36-year-old son of a local campeiro who after seven years of taking out visiting birdwatchers has become a cracker birder himself. 360 of the Pantanal’s 650 species have been spotted on the fazenda, most of them by Vitinho.
The most famous one is the hyacinthine macaw, a large, highly intelligent parrot that fetches $65,000 on the black market. A New York dealer told me they can be trained to answer the phone. There are thought to be about five thousand of them in the Pantanal and a few more thousand in the Amazon and the state of Minas Gerais. They mate for life and produce only two eggs every two years, only one of which makes it to adulthood. They were plentiful and easy to see on the fazenda, sitting on the branches of ipé trees in whose trunks they excavate their nests.
Vitinho didn’t speak English, but he knew the difficult English names of all the birds, which were so evocative of the raucous ornithodiversity we encountered every time we went out together that I am simply going to list some of them : the toco toucan, the chaco chachalaca, the crested caracara, the crested oropendola, the grey-crested cachelot, the brown-chested martin, the scaley-headed parrot, the undulated tinamou, the horned screamer, the rufescent tiger heron, the rufous-browed peppershrike, the smooth-billed ani, the scissortailed nightjar, the ferruginous pygmy owl, the rusty-backed antwren, the black-bellied tree duck, the white-rumped mojita, the olivaceous cormorant, the saffron finch, the saffron-capped blackbird, the peach-fronted parakeet, the pale-legged horneiro, the blue-throated piping guan, the blue-crowned motmot, the silver-beaked tanager, the golden-winged cacique, the gilded hummingbird, the black-capped donacobius, the purple-throated euphonia, the bat falcon—and that’s less than a fifth of the ones we saw. Some of them, like the ibises, had great local names like xumbu (acute accent on second u) and curicaca that were Tupi Guarani or from other indigenous tongues. The Pantanal is the home of the Bororo, with whom Claude Levi-Strauss did his field work in the l940s (see his most accessible book, Tristes Tropiques; Steven King and John Grisham have also set novels in the swamp) and several other tribes. They are all semi-civilized, all too aware of the larger modern society that surrounds them and has subverted their way of life.