Dispatch #9: The World’s Largest Swamp : Brazil’s Pantanal do Mato Grosso

This version is print friendly

(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.  


      22 years later, the long-awaited chance to revisit the Pantanal has finally come. 
I am in a different chapter of my life, with a new wife and family, and so is the swamp. It has been discovered and developed and protected and is now a hot  destination for ecoutourism.  Plus it’s safe for Americans. There are no terrorists here, only piranhas, and their reputation for skeletonizing whatever is in the water with them is highly exaggerated.
       Our three little boys are on their spring break.  Budding naturalists, they are big fans, along with tens of millions of other under-ten-year-olds, of Steve the Crocodile Catcher, the fearless Australian wildlife biologist on the Discovery Channel, and the Pantanal  is Steve the Crocodile Catcher heaven. I tell them about the yellow anaconda I saw on my last visit—a small one, only ten feet long—and all the others reptiles and birds and mammals they are going to see.
       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.
      We 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 great heroes.
      For four hours we speed through this well-watered savanna, which is known as the cerrado and seems like prime human habitat, but we don’t see a soul. Twenty-three million Brazilians— almost one seventh of the population—live on less than a dollar a day and have nowhere to live, and this land is empty. What’s going on here ? Why aren’t there any people ? I ask our driver. Because it all belongs to rich ranchers from São Paulo, he explains, who are not interested in having large numbers of marginal people for neighbors, and the state government doesn’t want to have to deal with the problems 
they would bring. 
      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. 
         Our days began with breakfast at 6:30, followed by an outing that lasted till eleven or so, then lunch, followed a long siesta (the stifling, muggy mid-day heat  being impossible to function in), then another outing in the late afternoon that lasted until the sun went down promptly at six. The options were setting out on foot, on a mountain bike, on horseback, in a safari truck, or in a canoe. We also arranged for a boat trip on the Akitauana River, which was well worth taking. Vitinho went with us except when we rode horses. His father had been seriously injured in a fall when he was a child and he had been terrified of horses ever since. Each outing produced new mammals and birds, a new outpouring of the Pantanal’s cornucopia. One morning we wandered through an acurizal, a strip of acuri palms. Cattle eat the fruits of the acuri and defecate the pits, which are the main source of food for the hyacinthine macaw, so their presence is  not entirely detrimental. We passed the skeleton of one that had been bitten by a fer-de-lance.
We found the prints of a jaguar and a tapir (the largest mammal in South America, related to elephants, but the size of a pygmy hippo)and  saw, fifty yards ahead of us,  the furtive figure of an agouti, a high-rumped, white-spotted rodent, the size of a rabbit,  carrying a baby in its mouth. We spooked a large herd of white-lipped peccaries that had been stomping and snorting and tearing up the forest floor; they stampeded into the underbrush. We watched  a tiara, a relative of otters, climb a tree that was having the light squeezed out of it by a strangler fig.  The vine was the vegetable equivalent of an anaconda, as thick as one of the snake’s spiraling coils. We saw black howler monkeys and capuchins, one with a baby on its back, cavorting in the trees. The young capuchins were very curious and approached within twenty feet. We heard a sound like a creaking door  that was  being made by a skittish female crimson-crested woodpecker that was doing her best to keep out of sight.
        In the evening there were movies and slides and lectures about the Pantanal, which is an incredibly complex ecosystem, most of which no scientist has ever set foot in and never will,  because it is completely impenetrable. When the rains stop, the swamp dries out. Water lingers in lagoons and bayous choked  with fish, and with their food sufficiently concentrated to fuel the rigors of courtship and reproduction, the wood storks and maguari storks and jabiru storks and the many kinds of heron, the limpkins and egrets and all the other large wading birds gather in breeding colonies spread over acres, whose din can be heard for miles. Depending on the time of year and the water regime,  different shifts of birds are constantly coming in and departing, some for North America, some for the tip of South America, some for the northern Pantanal, which doesn’t dry out as much. Little, if any, work has been done on the butterflies, which are much more varied than the birds. I saw a tattered South American cousin of the monarchs which migrate in the fall thousands of miles from as far north as Manitoba to the volcanos of Michoacan, Mexico. It was darker orange, almost red, with thicker black veins. Its migratory patterns are unknown. Vitinho doubted that there were any undiscovered bird species still lurking in the Pantanal, but no one really knows what is in there, and I find that mysteriousness, that there is still, somewhere,  such an incomprehensible profusion of life,  reassuring.
         The other guests shared our awe and excitement. Among them was a stockbroker from Scarsdale and his teenage daughter. They had planned to go to Machu Picchu but had canceled out after the bombing of the American embassy in Lima a few days before President Bush’s visit and had come here instead. There was a couple from Berne, both lawyers, and their adopted daughter, the lovely product of a short-lived interracial union, and a young British couple who were teaching at St. Paul’s, the British school in São Paulo. The headmaster who had hired them had been found dead, either strangled by a homosexual lover or the victim of sexual self-asphyxiation. They were transferring to the British school in Swaziland, teaching their way around the world.         
       One evening we were invited to dinner by Roberto Klabim, who comes up once a month from Sao Paulo. His great-grandfather was a Lithuanian Jew who fled the pogroms of the l880s and started with a stationery store, then got into manufacturing cigarette papers. Subsequent Klabims had built up a vast cellulose empire, and Roberto had acquired the fazenda in l984. It was part of a much larger spread called the Estancia Miranda, which had been put together by some British aristocrats in l915—the same time that other British aristocrats were putting together huge ranches in Pantagonia and the Texas Panhandle. The original raison d’etre of  the estancia was to extract the aroeira trees—a “noble wood,” as Vitinho put it, rock-hard and water-resistant—for  sleepers for a railroad that was being built to Bolivia. Later, it became a cattle ranch. Roberto’s father had  bought it in the fifties, and it had been split up among his heirs. Roberto was the only one who was supplementing the ranching operation with ecotourism. He was all business, and utterly lacking in the famous Brazilian alegria and sense of fun, not someone who would take the morning off to go birdwatching. He seemed to regard the outrageous flora and fauna on his property more as an asset, a resource that  should be managed and capitalized on,  than as a source of spiritual nourishment or scientific edification. He didn’t know that the  thousands of   mushrooms  sprouting in his cow paddies were hallucinogenic ‘shrooms, as we called them in the sixties, in the genus Psilocybe. You could make a lot of money selling them Rio and São Paulo, I told him,  and they aren’t illegal in Brazil,  unlike marijuana and cocaine (a lot of which, by the way, is flown in from Bolivia to clandestine strips in the Pantanal or is driven in on the road from Campo Grande to Corumba that we came in on.  Roberto wasn’t amused. 
         I picked a dozen of the mushrooms and dried them and took them as a house present for Barbara Leary, the last wife of Timothy Leary, who is now the partner of Kim Esteve, a modern art collector in São Paulo, whom we were going to visit next. Barbara’s reaction was, I’ll take them if you take them first and we wait for forty-five minutes and see what happens. The last time I had done ‘shrooms was at a Jimmy Cliff concert at Carnegie Hall in l976. These were unquestionably psilocybin mushrooms, but the question was which species ? They vary considerably in terms of the potency and toxicity of their alkoloids. One of Kim’s artist friends had a book on the genus with photographs of  dozens of  members, but none of them were from Mato Grosso, so in the end we chickened out and flushed  them down the toilet. Yet another facet of the Pantanal’s bountiful natural history that needs to be looked into.  


The must thing to bring along is a bottle of rubbing alcohol to wash insect bites with. Even if you slather yourself in bug dope, it is so hot and sticky that it will wash off and you are going to get bitten. The alcohol both cleanses the bites and reduces the urge to itch, and the various microbes that thrive in the moist microclimate of your fingernails can product apricot-sized “jungle ulcers” if you scratch enough and your immune system is not adapted to the tropics. 

De Schauensee has been superseded by tk’s Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica, Princeton University Press.

Back to the Home Page
Visit the Dispatches Discussion Room
Send Comments and Questions to AlexShoumatoff@Shoumatopia.Com