TEEM­ING WITH WILDLIFE: THE MAGIC OF A MARSH

Close en­coun­ters with tou­cans, tapirs and even jaguars in the world’s largest con­ti­nen­tal wet­land

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ENVIRONMENT - Paddy Wood­worth

Many years ago, dream­ing my way through school­days with the help of a world map hang­ing on the cl as­s­room wall, t he swamp icons clus­tered in the mid­dle of Brazil caught my eye, again and again. So did the strange names as­so­ci­ated with them: Mato Grosso and, where the icons were thick­est, Pan­tanal.

Per­haps some­body told me some­thing about this re­gion, or per­haps it was just the evoca­tive power of those swamp icons, but the Mato Grosso be­came the quin­tes­sen­tial em­blem of wild­lands, teem­ing with strange and won­der­ful crea­tures, such as the macaw, tapir and tou­can, in my mind’s eye.

The facts on the ground, of course, were rather dif­fer­ent, even six decades ago. Most of the Mato Grosso, the “Great Scrub­land”, has long been trans­formed to ranch­land. You ap­proach the Pan­tanal (“Great Marsh­land”) to­day past the vast slag heaps of a score of gold mines.

Some of the Pan­tanal has also been con­verted, rather less suc­cess­fully, into cat­tle farms. It doesn’t look like a wet­land at all for the first cou­ple of dozen kilo­me­tres, at least in the dry sea­son. But a sud­den pro­fu­sion of hawks, kites and wad­ing birds, right along the road­side, does sug­gest a big shift in land use.

You re­ally know you are in the Pan­tanal when the road sur­face switches from black­top to red dirt. At the same time, rather con­fus­ingly, the colour of the ubiq­ui­tous ter­mite mounds in the land­scape also changes, but in re­verse, from red dirt to grey. The rea­son? The con­struc­tors of the so-called Transpan­taneira High­way cov­ered the un­sta­ble marsh sur­face with heavy red soil from north of the area, while the ter­mite con­struc­tion pro­ceeds per­fectly well with the lighter lo­cal grey and sandy ma­te­ri­als.

The orig­i­nal plan for the high­way was to tra­verse the whole marsh­land, fa­cil­i­tat­ing the most ad­ven­tur­ous ranch­ers, whose cat­tle graze deep into the re­gion de­spite vast sea­sonal flood­ing. But the road has never been fin­ished. It ends abruptly, 140km and 120 bridges far­ther south, on the banks of the River Cuiabá, the limit of the north­ern half of the Pan­tanal. The far­ther you drive to­wards the Cuiabá the fewer ranches you see. Marshes, in­ter­spersed with slightly higher patches of wet and dry for­est, of­ten stretch from one far hori­zon to an­other.

Some of the re­main­ing ranches are also ecolodges now. You are more likely to en­counter long lenses than las­sos at dawn on the range th­ese days, al­though I did see a run­away horse get­ting dra­mat­i­cally roped by three cowhands on one early-morn­ing bird­ing trip.

But it’s still re­mark­ably easy to re-en­ter the dream­time of wilder­ness, from the mo­ment we get into a boat on the Rio Claro. A baby caiman sur­faces just a me­tre away, be­fore we even leave the lit­tle wooden dock.

For­est closes in around the river as we head up­stream in the hon­eyed af­ter­noon light. The air is dense with the in­tox­i­cat­ing scent of, I think, chameleon vine. A big patch of shrubby trees is fes­tooned with a sin­gle glis­ter­ing spi­der’s web, made by a species as tiny as its colo­nial webs are out­size.

Small be­comes beau­ti­ful when a move­ment in the un­der­growth catches our guide’s at­ten­tion. An Amer­i­can pigmy king­fisher, bril­liantly plumaged in green, white and or­ange, perches just be­side us, smaller than a chaffinch. Just a few mo­ments later we get an equally good view of an ap­par­ently iden­ti­cal bird, but al­most three times larger, an Ama­zon king­fisher.

We will see two more king­fisher species in the next hour, along with a toco tou­can, and a re­mark­able dis­play by two yel­low-bel­lied dac­nis. No, I had never heard of them be­fore ei­ther, but I will never for­get their dance.

It’s the mam­mals, though, that pro­vide the big­gest sur­prises on this first short out­ing. First come the gi­ant ot­ters, ini­tially vis­i­ble only as un­du­lat­ing surges of water along the river’s edge. Then they pop up their heads nearby to get a good look at us. Their long lower in­cisors gleam like white stilet­tos, the bet­ter to grip a slip­pery fish with, no doubt. We will see them again, many times.

The evening light is fad­ing now, but we spot an adult and a ju­ve­nile coati, an an­i­mal best pic­tured as a cross be­tween a small fox and a lemur, long bushy tails com­i­cally erect as they crouch to sip water.

Then the shad­ows move again, and some­thing much big­ger wades right out into the river, only a dozen me­tres away. It is a tapir, and it seems to con­sider us for long min­utes with its enor­mous eyes be­fore van­ish­ing back into the for­est. As we re­turn down­stream, night­jars of­fer us rare views as they hawk in­sects over the boat in the moon­light, numer­ous as swifts on an Ir­ish stream.

The next four days are filled with an abun­dance and va­ri­ety of wildlife that are to­day, in most parts of the world, the stuff only of dreams and dis­tant mem­o­ries. The names of some of the birds here are po­etry in them­selves – plumbeous ibis, rufes­cent tiger heron, red-throated piping guan – and their colours and voices live up to their billing.

Much of the na­ture tourism in the Pan­tanal is, how­ever, fo­cused on just one an­i­mal, the jaguar, which is both ex­cep­tion­ally com­mon and ex­cep­tion­ally ap­proach­able in the re­gion. Its reg­u­lar vis­i­bil­ity is pos­si­bly a legacy of il­le­gal feed­ing by tour op­er­a­tors, a dan­ger­ous prac­tice now, with luck, cur­tailed.

It is cer­tainly re­mark­able to see such a re­gal crea­ture emerge very slowly on a for­est bank on a sunny morn­ing, creep­ing stealth­ily above the water in search of caimans.

The dra­matic out­come of such a hunt, bril­liantly filmed by the BBC for Planet Earth II (and now plas­tered over YouTube with some most un­for­tu­nate com­men­taries) sets ex­pec­ta­tions very high. But for much of the time the jaguars just snooze in the sun, ap­par­ently obliv­i­ous to the prox­im­ity of half a dozen boat­loads of peo­ple wait­ing for them to move a mus­cle. It can feel more than a lit­tle like a zoo ex­pe­ri­ence. But that jaguar fo­cus leaves a great deal of space to qui­etly ex­plore the river’s teem­ing back­wa­ters.

For us the great­est plea­sure was to spend the sunrise in the com­pany of a large fam­ily of gi­ant ot­ters, as they fed nois­ily and blood­ily on carp. And then re­turn to them at sun­set, when they groomed each other play­fully and metic­u­lously, be­fore re­tir­ing to spend the night to­gether in their den. That was our sig­nal to re­tire our­selves, and dream, to a sound­track of night wildlife echo­ing around our cab­ins.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: WOLF­GANG KAEHLER/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY

In the Pan­tanal: a toco tou­can.

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