The Pantanal is known in Brazil as “O Grande Pantanal” or sometimes as South America’s Wild West, home to some of the greatest concentrations of fauna in the New World—giant anteaters, yellow anacondas 13 feet (4 m) long, rare maned wolves, pumas, crowned eagles, and powerful 300-pound (135-kg) jaguars. Half the size of France, it is the world’s largest wetland and one of its outstanding reserves, some 140,000 square miles (363,000 km2) of which 38,600 square miles (100,000 km2) spill over into neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay.
Black howler monkeys (the male is black, the female gold) fill the night with unearthly cries. Long-legged maned wolves bark to summon dark-furred young to dens in tall grass thickets. Basking jacarés, toothy jaws agape, crowd sandbanks.
Bands of engaging little capybaras, world’s largest rodents, graze both on land and in water. Spotted ocelots pounce on rodents, and oversized jaguars leave paw prints five inches (18 cm) across in moist earth of this vast alluvial plain which 65 million years ago was an inland sea.
But it is the remarkable abundance of birds that leaves visitors awestruck, not only resident species but tens of thousands that wind up here at the southern end of their migratory routes. Brilliant, resident, yard-long (1-m) hyacinth and golden-collared macaws fly over in gabbling flocks. Flightless ostrich-like rheas stalk about grassy areas like overage ballerinas. Gilded hummingbirds probe bright blossoms.
Crested caracaras take up high tree lookouts, their penetrating two-note calls like wood planks rubbing together (as in their scientific name, Polyborus plancus). Stately jabiru, maguari, and wood storks stalk fishy fare, as do fierce-looking rufescent tiger-herons, sunset-hued roseate spoonbills, elegant scarlet-and-yellow-billed wattled jacanas tiptoeing on lily pads, southern screamers, whistling ducks, and others.
It is one of the largest gatherings anywhere of graceful wading birds—storks, herons, egrets, ibises—literally filling the sky as they fly back to nightly roosts. Birders often see 100 or more avian species in a single day just on the 93-mile (150-km) Transpantaneira road.
The reason for this abundance is moisture—the Pantanal, just 300 to 700 feet (100–200 m) above sea level, receives surrounding highlands’ runoff in seven rivers which annually flood the area before joining to form the Rio Paraguai and eventually draining into the Atlantic Ocean.
In rainy October–March this overflow covers much of the Pantanal leaving patches of dry upland where animals of all kinds cluster—caimans, snakes, capybaras, giant anteaters, wading birds, ocelots, deer. Waters reaching 10 feet (3 m) or more provide ecological niches for thousands of species from microorganisms to over 400 kinds of fish, many foraging on fruit dropped in the water by flooded trees, and all that feed on these, from giant river otters to stealthy, dark jaguarundis, eagles, and wading birds.
Tea-colored floodwaters recede gradually over the slight altitudinal variation starting in March, concentrating organisms in pools—a lush food supply for nestlings, leaving surrounding nutrientreplenished soil a rich green savannah for grazers like graceful Pantanal deer.
Rainfall and drainage differences make the southern Pantanal shallow earlier so wading birds feed there then. This is reversed after April and birds fly north to nest, peaking from July on in crowded noisy colonies that can spread over several square miles—a flooding pattern which has limited human incursion by making year-round farming impossible.
There are two main national park areas. One is a band on each side of the Transpantaneira, an elevated 93-mile (150 km) roadway with splendid wildlife-viewing of predators and prey in a wide variety of both winged and four-footed types, itself well worth a day trip. The other is Parque Nacional do Pantanal Matogrossense, 84 square miles (219 km2) of land and water accessible only by air or river, as by cargo boat from either Caceres or Cuiabá to Corumbá. This park is mainly for biological research but camping permits can be obtained from IBAMA in Cuiabá. (Most of the Pantanal is privately owned by ranching families with little apparent cattle-wildlife conflict.)
The Pantanal has two main approach routes: from the south, Corumbá, reachable by road from Campo Grande; and the north, Cuiabá, with an airstrip. From Cuiabá, three gateways are Cáceres, Barão de Melgaço and Poconé, all leading to Porto Jofre on the Transpantaneira.
Best time to go is drier April–October. Bring clothing for hot days, cool nights, lotion for sun and mosquitoes. Accommodations range from fazendas (ranch-style hotels, some with boats and horses), pousadas (simple to standard lodging), pisqueiros (catering to fishermen), and “boatels”(floating boat-lodges, often costly but luxurious), many located in and around Corumbá, Cuiabá, Porto Jofre, or along the Transpantaneira. (The Pantanal and Amazonia both have remarkable wildlife but, being more open, the Pantanal’s is more easily visible.)
Threats include poaching and pollution, especially from agrichemicals and mercury washed down from the neighboring altiplano.
ALSO OF INTEREST
A remote little-known wildlife paradise is Das Emas (the Rheas) National Park deep in Brazil’s southern highlands. Perhaps because it is so undisturbed, rare maned wolves, rheas, and pampas deer roam freely in this 513-square-mile (1,330-km2) undulating grassland savannah with cerrado woodland and gallery forest on one side and vast marshes on the other.
Yard-long (1-m) blue-and-yellow macaws in dazzling aerial flotillas turn azure and gold as they turn this way and that against the sky, here in their largest concentration outside the Amazon. Blue winged, red-shouldered, and red-bellied macaws stream across with colorful toco toucans, squawking parrots and parakeets, buff-necked ibises, and predatory raptors.
Tall, gangly, blue-eyed, red-legged seriemas stride along better than their short wings can fly, looking for grassland insects, mice, and frogs, among a kaleidoscopic avian array including redwinged tinamous, curl-crested jays, white-winged nightjars, dot-eared coquettes, pale-crested woodpeckers, white-vented violet-ears, and dozens of others.
Peccaries and coatimundis snuffle through leaf litter. Armadillos named for their armorplating—three, six, nine-banded, and giant (up to five feet/3.5 m long)—dig for grubs.
But Emas’ visual drama is its stunning, otherworldly landscape—brick-colored vari-shaped termite mounds as tall as a man as far as the eye can see, and wandering among them, great bushy tailed giant anteaters with claws that tear open rock-hard mounds, probe deepest recesses with sticky tongues up to two feet (60 cm) long to consume up to 30,000 termites a day. Periodically these hundreds of square miles of mounds glow greenish-blue at night with luminescent larvae of coresident beetles which prey on millions of emerging flying termites attracted to their eerie light during the first September–October rains—a ghostly, unearthly sight.
Emas is 300 miles (483 km) south of Brasilia over nearly deserted roads; park service permits are required; and though crossed by dirt roads and tracks with marvelous wildlife-viewing, there is no convenient lodging. Ranch families sometimes take in visitors, and park offices near the entrance (dirt airstrip nearby) have guesthouses where visitors sometimes stay. Best times for weather and wildlife are June–August.
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