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Trip Reports

The Pantanal, Brazil

written by Monique Fallows

A Giant otter feeding.

Posted on Friday, 30 September 2011

Chris and I have for many years wanted to visit The Pantanal, the world’s largest inland wetland area. In the 1950’s a road was partially built that would connect Brazil and Paraguay. It was never completed but this unfinished road now allows wildlife enthusiasts the opportunity to explore this incredible wildlife region. This area supports a great variety of mammals, reptiles, birds and fish species. All of these would be animals we had never seen before and as such we were extremely excited about our visit.


Our first stop was a two night stay at a traditional cattle ranch called “Pouso Alegre”. The locals here are called Pantaniero’s and are traditionally cattle and subsistence farmers. On this 10,000 hectare farm we were hoping to see the Giant anteater. We were unfortunately not lucky enough to see one but there were many highlights.


On the first morning we came across a fish trap that was being plundered by caiman and a host of fish eating birds including Jabaru storks, skimmers and a variety of herons. The caiman were amazing to watch as they practically “breached” out of the water while chasing the fish. They were very tolerant of our presence and as they are mainly fish eaters we felt safe to sit very close to them on the ground. The photographic opportunities were fantastic and it was great fun trying to capture the caiman whilst they were hunting.



On our first afternoon we also got our first look at the magnificent hyacinth macaws. This is a huge blue parrot nearly one meter tall, and is incredibly beautiful. They were also pretty raucous and certainly helped create a special atmosphere in The Pantanal. On our second afternoon we spent time waiting at a nearby waterhole, hoping again to glimpse the giant anteater. Again, we were not to be rewarded but we got a very good look at two toco tucans and a gregarious bunch of coatis for most of the afternoon. 


Just before we were thinking about leaving for the evening a tapir slowly started walking down the path behind us. This is the largest animal in Brazil and very funny looking indeed! This one was pretty shy so decided to delay its drink upon seeing us. Luckily a second tapir came from another direction and was very happy to come and drink right in front of us. It was very relaxed and we got a fantastic view of it.


On our last morning we went in search of the giant anteater again. We still did not find it but instead came across its much smaller cousin, the Southern Tamandua. What a highlight! We spent about two hours with this amazing critter as it sniffed and foraged around in the small bushes. Even though its eye sight is not very good it has very powerful claws, so it was a good idea to keep a safe distance.


After a fantastic start we made our way further down the road to Jaguar Ecological Lodge where we would be for the next week. We had focused this part of the trip on spending time on the Cuiaba and San Lorenzo Rivers in search of the Jaguars. This is what the Pantanal is most famous for and I guess most tourists come here with the hope of seeing one.The river systems are extremely vast and the methodology employed is to spend hours moving up and down the rivers in the baking hot sun, hoping a jaguar would show itself!


Our guide was Tito, a local Pantaneiro with a great sense of humour, very important when spending nearly fourteen hours on a small tin boat together!It quickly became apparent to us that racing down the road in the early morning to get on the river meant that we would be missing out on what we thought was the highlight of the trip. The road goes right through the wetland area and such an array of animals and photographic opportunities would have been missed.

Just before we were thinking about leaving for the evening a tapir slowly started walking down the path behind us. This is the largest animal in Brazil and very funny looking indeed!

So, we elected to spend time at the roadside water areas with the caiman at dawn. At Pouso Alegre we had watched them fish but here they were more intent on displaying to each other. I am not sure if you have seen it on tv documentaries but the caiman does the most incredible display. It throws its head back, drops its body and raises its tail slightly, and while doing all of this the caiman vibrates making the water above it move and shake in the most interesting way. It was a very deep sound and when sitting on the ground I could feel the vibrations too. This was just an absolutely amazing thing to see and feel. Once this activity quietened down we would proceed to the river system.


As I already mentioned we had a small tin boat with no cover to drive the systems. Temperatures were extremely hot and reached 40 degrees Celsius most days. There was just no escape from it and I found this part of the trip really tough. The river systems were also not really what I was expecting. I was thinking there would be lots of overhanging trees with exotic birds flying overhead, but there were no dense forests and animals and birds were fairly difficult to find. This part of the trip involved a lot of driving around, becoming increasingly dehydrated!


On our seven days on the river we were fortunate to have four jaguar sightings. Our first encounter was a very brief thirty second look at a male that poked his head over the bank. He was on “honeymoon” with a female so before we actually saw him we were sitting listening to this mating pair. I have to say it was really cool that we got to hear a jaguar before we even saw one! We did have another sighting of a female and then a male jaguar, both on the bank but quite hidden by the vegetation.



The best sighting was on our second day. I think this large male was well known as he had a name, “Balboa”. He had a droopy left eye and looked like he had been through a number of wars. After watching him lie on the bank for a while he got up and walked a long way along the bank until he eventually slipped into the coolness of the trees. Jaguars are so different to the leopards we are used to seeing. They are much more heavily bodied so do not come across as being as sleek. They have enormous heads and their rosettes are very different to that of the leopards. But, it is an exquisite animal and Chris & I were so thrilled to have been privileged to see it.


There were a few disconcerting moments though. And of course, it involved people and their behaviour! On our first day we just missed seeing the mating pair on the bank and there had been some sort of altercation between a number of boats. We arrived to people swearing and shouting, and we even thought a fist fight was about to break out. Because so much emphasis is placed on clients seeing a jaguar the pressure is on for the guides. Some boats are in radio contact with each other so as soon as there is a sighting news travels fast. We had up to twelve boats at a sighting and with some of the jostling that goes on, it did take a little bit away from the experience.  I can to some extent understand how this happens, but just like we try to do at Seal Island, there were so many other animals and birds to see it does not have to be all about the jaguars.


In fact the highlight on the river for us was two fold. Almost every day we had great interactions with the Giant otters. There are estimated to be only 5000 worldwide and The Pantanal is one of the strong hold areas. They are gregarious and live in holts built in the river bank close to feeding areas. They feed during daylight hours and we got to spend a lot of time with them whilst they were hunting. My word, what a predator this animal is! We observed them “fishing” and watched them catch various fish species, including piranha and catfish. The river water is a very dirty brown so I think they must use their whiskers to locate their prey. They don’t just find one fish, they’ll catch one and then immediately be back on the hunt. And they are deadly! On one 1.5 hour feeding foray there must have been about twenty five fish caught between five otters. They also do not share their meal and this produces the most entertaining noises as they enjoy their meal. They are highly vocal in any case, but when they are eating they sound like they are saying” YumYumYumYumYum” over and over and really loudly! It was great fun to watch. All the holts we came across had babies so it was also fantastic to watch the interaction between the pups and the adults. Like I said, this was an absolute highlight of the trip.



The second highlight came on the last day. It was hotter than normal and we were getting so uncomfortable we were close to going crazy. So, a group decision, seconded by Tito, was made to go for a quick dip in the river. Oh, what relief! We had so much fun and it relieved the heat so much. Everyone is pretty aware of caiman and piranha so I don’t think too many people do this. But, it was certainly worthwhile at the time and I wish we had done it every day.


Before I end off I also need to make mention of the great sightings of capybara. This is the largest rodent in the world and they are semi aquatic. As such they are found along the river ways and are fairly easy to approach. We saw so many of them, they were kind of like the springbok of the Pantanal! We were also very lucky to see two Green anaconda’s. Both snakes were seen on the same day, just after very heavy rain which must have provided ideal conditions to see them. This has to be one of the most beautiful snakes I have ever seen! Green on top and then a golden yellow striped belly. The ones we saw were about two meters long, although they can get as long as nearly nine meters. Before the trip I thought we would be very lucky to see one so to see two was very special. Chris even got to hold one and commented on how strong it was.


Well, I hope that gives you some idea on our trip and all the phenomenal wildlife we got to see in the Pantanal. I also want to thank our guides, Luis in Poso Alegre and Tito at Jaguar Ecological Lodge for being such great hosts and for finding the animals for us!



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