Inside Brazil's Wild Wetland

Inside Brazil's Wild Wetland

Frédéric Lagrange
Frédéric Lagrange
With more birdlife than the Amazon and more cowboys, too, the Pantanal is the world's biggest swamp. In this vast province—50,000 square miles of lagoons, grassland, and forest—getting in touch with nature couldn't be easier


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.)

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.)

Bidding good-bye to our creepy escort, we spent 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 look like creatures conjured by Lewis Carroll. It was this Pantanal, with its strange animal life and uncharted territories, that attracted me. It had also attracted the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who did fieldwork here in the 1930's. He called it a "dream landscape." He was fascinated by the herds of zebus that took "refuge on the tops of hillocks which look like floating arks," and by the flocks of large birds that formed "dense white-and-pink islands, less feathery however than the fan-like foliage of the carandá palm, the leaves of which secrete a precious wax, and whose scattered clumps offer the only interruption in the deceptively smiling vistas of this aquatic desert." In spite of the ex-Nazis, the hunters, and the Brazilian government, the landscape he described was still here. I had the sense, as I've rarely had since, of being somewhere quite unlike anywhere else on earth.

Returning to the Pantanal, this time to the south, I was afraid that the ecotourism boom would have eroded and packaged much of the region's wild character. It hadn't. In the course of just four days, we found the prints of a jaguar and a tapir (the largest mammal in South America: related to the rhino, it looks like a pygmy hippo) and saw, not more than 50 yards ahead of us, the furtive figure of an agouti, a high-rumped, white-spotted rodent the size of a rabbit, carrying its young in its mouth. We spooked a herd of white-lipped peccaries that had been stomping and snorting and tearing up the forest floor and watched them stampede into the underbrush. We saw a tayra, a relative of the otter, climbing a tree that was having the life squeezed out of it by a strangler fig, the vegetable equivalent of an anaconda and as thick as 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 curious enough to come within 20 feet of us.

Our days began at dawn. After breakfast we would head out on foot or on mountain bikes, on horseback or in a jeep. Victor do Nascimento, the 37-year-old son of a local campeiro, who works as a guide at the lodge, went with us. One morning we wandered through a strip of acuri palms. Victor told us that cattle eat the fruits of the acuri and defecate the pits, which are the main source of food for the hyacinth macaw, so the palms are actually essential to the area's ecosystem. Another day, we took a trip on the Aquidauana River, which delineates the northern boundary of the fazenda and is home to a dazzling diversity of toucans, parakeets, and kingfishers. Of the kingfishers alone there are five subspecies, each with its own ecological niche, distinctive markings, and behaviors.

In the evenings we ate local fish such as pacu (it has large molars for cracking open the nuts that fall into the water) and drank caipirinhas, the Brazilian version of a margarita, made from cachaça (incompletely refined rum), sugar, and lime. After dinner, we were joined by the six other guests for movies and slides and lectures. From these we learned that though detailed satellite maps exist of the entire swamp, so much of it is densely matted with lianas and bushes and vines that it remains largely unexplored. This might explain, more than government policy or ranchers' good intentions, why much of the Pantanal is still pristine.

When the rains stop, the Pantanal dries out—almost. Water lingers in lagoons and bayous, which are choked with fish—a concentration of food sufficient to sustain the region's birdlife through the rigors of courtship and reproduction. Wood storks and maguari storks and jabiru storks; many kinds of herons, limpkins, and egrets; and other large wading birds gather in breeding colonies spread over acres—the din can be heard for miles. Depending on the time of year and the water levels, different species 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.

With Victor's help, I was able to identify 125 species of birds. Of the Pantanal's 650 known species, 360 have been spotted on the fazenda, most of them by Victor. Victor didn't speak English, but he knew the difficult English names of all the birds, so evocative of the raucous ornithodiversity we encountered every time we went out together: the toco toucan, the scaly-headed parrot, the rufous-browed peppershrike, the ferruginous pygmy owl. Some of them, like the ibis, had great local names, such as xumbú and curicaca, in Tupi, Guarani, or other indigenous tongues.

Victor doubted that there were any undiscovered bird species still lurking in the Pantanal. It is a mecca for ornithologists, and some of the world's most renowned birders have done species inventories, but no one really knows what's in there. I find this mysteriousness, the notion that there is still, somewhere, such an incomprehensible profusion of life, reassuring.

For instance, little, if any, work has been done on the Pantanal's butterflies, which are even more varied than the birds. Coming as I do from a long line of butterfly collectors—that began in 1830's Russia—I was intrigued. In 1970, I spent time in Jamaica searching for a small, metallic-blue butterfly in the Lycaenidae family (which Vladimir Nabokov specialized in). It had been named Shoumatoff's Hairstreak by my father, who collected the first specimens in the 1930's under the tutelage of his uncle, another Russian-émigré lepidopterist. In the Pantanal, I managed to spot a tattered South American cousin of the monarchs that migrate all the way to Mexico from the United States and Canada each fall. It was a darker orange, almost red, with thicker black veins. The particulars of its seasonal movements are unknown.

I also noticed, sprouting among the cow patties, hallucinogenic mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe. I hadn't taken mushrooms since 1976 (at a Jimmy Cliff concert), but for some reason I picked a dozen, dried them, and carried them with us to São Paulo. We were staying with Kim Esteve, a contemporary art collector, and his partner, Barbara Leary, Timothy Leary's last wife. Barbara said she would take them if I took them first and then we waited 45 minutes to see what happened. I hesitated. These were unquestionably psilocybin mushrooms, but which species?These species vary considerably in the potency and toxicity of their alkaloids. One of Kim's artist friends had a book on the genus with photographs of dozens of members, but none were from Mato Grosso. In the end, we chickened out and flushed them down the toilet. We decided to let more intact minds apply themselves to this unexplored facet of the Pantanal.

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