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Inside Brazil's Wild Wetland

Founded 16 years ago, the ranch's Refúgio Ecológico Caiman has spearheaded such preservation efforts as the Blue Macaw Project, which hopes to keep the bird (also known as the hyacinth macaw) from extinction by identifying and protecting its nesting grounds. This large, highly intelligent parrot can fetch up to $65,000 on the black market and, as one New York dealer told me, can be trained to answer the phone. There are thought to be about 4,000 of them in the Pantanal and a few thousand more in the Amazon and northeastern Brazil. They mate for life and produce just two eggs every two years; only one of each pair of chicks is likely to reach maturity. On the fazenda they were plentiful and easy to see, sitting in the branches of manduvi trees, out of whose trunks they excavate their nests.

The Blue Macaw Project and other programs—behavioral studies of bats and jaguars and other birds—have been launched in conjunction with noted biologists at Brazil's universities, and with private foundations here and abroad. The Refúgio Ecológico Caiman is regarded by many as a pioneering program in a rather extraordinary merger of tourism, ranching, and scientific research.

On my first trip to the pantanal, the word ecology was uttered by only a few Brazilian biologists, and ecotourism had yet to be born. That is not to say the government of Mato Grosso meant to leave the Pantanal as it was; it hoped to capitalize on this magnificent swamp by inviting people to hunt and fish there. To generate foreign interest, ambassadors from various countries were flown in from Brasília and were encouraged to blast away at the caimans and the emus, the storks and ibis and herons and the dozens of other species of aquatic birds. Perhaps because I had spent nine months researching a book about the Amazon and was then living in Brazil, I was invited, too. I went, but instead of taking a shotgun I took binoculars and my well-worn copy of Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee's Guide to the Birds of South America.

After flying to Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso, I was met by the chief of state protocol, a Brazilian of Prussian and French ancestry with a toothbrush mustache who spoke nostalgically of Hitler. He was true to a type of émigré then common in Mato Grosso, which had become a haven for ex-Nazis after World War II (most have since died). Comendador Jayme, as our bizarre flack man was called, flew a group of us down to Poconé, on the southwest edge of the Pantanal, and drove us out on the Transpanteneira, a highway whose construction had begun in the seventies and then been abandoned after 92 miles (the cost of completing this lonely stretch of road would probably have bankrupted the state). I had never seen anything like the sheer number and variety of huge, spectacular birds I saw here. In retrospect, the Amazon, where the birds are often hidden in the jungle canopy, 150 feet above the ground, had been a disappointment. Here, the web of rivers and watering holes crisscrossing the wide-open spaces made them easy to spot—and easy to shoot.

Jayme also took us out on the Cuiabá River in a speedboat, from which we cast large silver spoons into the murky water. This was sportfishing without sport; each cast brought in a golden, thrashing, 30-inch dorado, which looks like a salmon—and is as delicious—but belongs to the same group of fish as the piranha; there are three different species of piranha in the Pantanal. (The collective feeding frenzies for which piranhas are notorious are not well understood. Pantaneiros swim among them routinely and are rarely attacked, unless they happen to be already bleeding.)

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