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Inside Brazil's Wild Wetland

PLUS: 10 FAR-FLUNG SOUTH AMERICAN ADVENTURES

Just south of the Amazon lie the vast central plains of the state of Mato Grosso, the Texas of Brazil. Only the occasional saucer-sized, iridescent-blue morpho butterfly or yellow-breasted blue macaw winging across the savanna reminds you that you are in tropical South America. Much of the country's beef is produced here, as are its cowboys, known as campeiros. They typically carry a facão, a large, razor-sharp knife, tucked in their belts, just as the gauchos of Argentina do. And like cowboys everywhere, their faces are dark and cracked and they wear red bandannas around their necks. But here, even when on horseback, they are often up to their thighs in water, struggling to keep their cattle from straying deep into swampland. That's because across these seemingly endless plains extends the largest swamp on earth: the Pantanal do Mato Grosso.

During the summer rains, which last from October to March, the Pantanal floods an area almost twice the size of England, spilling over into Paraguay and Bolivia and forming a lake of oceanic proportions. This epic wetland (pantanal means "swamp" in Portuguese) harbors perhaps the most astonishing concentration of wildlife in the Americas.

For the four hours it took my wife and me to get from where our plane landed in Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, to the edge of the Pantanal, we saw almost no one. Much of the land is uninhabited, more than half of it given over to large, isolated cattle ranches. It was to one of these enormous ranches, the Fazenda Caiman, that we were headed. As we sped through grassland punctuated by small, twisted trees and six-foot-tall termitaries, past grazing herds of scrawny, white, humped zebu, I began to notice billboards depicting the Pantanal's endangered mammals—the giant anteater, the jaguar, the maned wolf, which is lankier and shaggier than its North American counterpart. I'M A WOLF, BUT I'M NOT BAD, the wolf billboard read. PLEASE HELP ME SURVIVE.

As we drew near the Fazenda Caiman, grassland gave way to a landscape of flooded forest and open water. Caimans, a South American version of the crocodile, lay as still as stranded logs below the occasional bridge along the narrow and dusty road, which, as often as not, lies underwater. The fazenda, a working ranch, supports 28,000 head of cattle on its 130,000 acres, but part of it is an ecological refuge; in addition to protected land and research facilities, it has four pousadas, or inns, where visitors can stay. Ours, the main lodge, a low-slung wood-and-stone building with 11 rooms, encircled a large pool and made barely a dent in the horizon line.

It had been 20 years since I first visited the Pantanal, and in that time Brazil seemed to have undergone a sea change in ecological awareness. In 1988 Chico Mendes, an environmental activist and leader of the Amazon's rubber tappers, was killed by ranchers bent on converting the rain forest into pasture. The murder galvanized the Brazilian green movement and drew global attention to the wanton destruction of the world's largest tropical wilderness. Solid legislation for protecting the Amazon was finally put in place in the late nineties, but deforestation, which never completely ceased, has resumed in parts of the basin. Still, the effort made to save the Amazon's rain forest did have positive effects. The questions it raised about balancing economic concerns with ecological ones also encouraged some solutions. Though only a small part of the Pantanal is set aside as a national park, in someareas ranching has achieved an unexpected balance with the natural habitat.

The owner of the Fazenda Caiman, Roberto Klabin, a paper baron who resides in São Paulo, is part of a new breed of ranchers who see themselves not simply as businessmen but as stewards of the wildlife on their property. It may seem like an odd marriage, but for the moment, it's working. Klabin, down from São Paulo for his monthly visit, told us that the fazenda had once been part of a much larger spread called the Estância Miranda, established by British investors in 1912 (at a time when Brits were also buying up land in Patagonia and the Texas Panhandle). In 1950 it was bought by Wolff Klabin and a group of Brazilian businessmen and later was divided among Klabin family members. Roberto Klabin is the only heir who is supplementing the ranching operation with tourism. He regards the Pantanal's flora and fauna as assets, as resources to be managed along with his cattle. It may not be a romantic vision, but it happens to be both economically and environmentally sound. (Not incidentally, Klabin is also president of Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica, one of the largest Brazilian NGO's, dedicated to conserving the rain forest on the country's Atlantic coast.)

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