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Inside Brazil's Wild Wetland

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.

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