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

Click here for print friendly version

Page 1 of 2

(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. 

Continue to Next Page

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