Thursday, August 09, 2007

Back From The Pantanal

Some Pictures and Thoughts

Bird's eye view of the Pantanal (Pantanal, Brasil)

I'm sun burnt, marked by half-healed tick and mosquito bites, and still nursing a few infected cuts on my feet, but I'm back in the New York City harness. Part of me is happy to be home, but I already feel the burden of our frivolous "first-world" pressures and distractions. I've been confirming studio visits and dinner dates, dragging my feet through two weeks of unattended email, catching up with piles of paperwork at the day job, and stressing over how few paintings I've so far completed in '07. By contrast, in the Pantanal my worries were limited to hydration, securely taping shut my pant legs (to discourage ticks), and accurately recording census data. My time there was stress free and I was therefore better able to fully appreciate the experience.

Anchored water hyacinth (Eichhornia azurea) flower near shore of bahia at Pousada Ararauna

It helped, of course, that I was surrounded by people who share my enthusiasm for wildlife and ecology. I was one of eleven volunteers hailing from Ireland, California, Colorado, Ohio, and New York. The researchers we assisted in the Pantanal work on three different projects. "Amphibians and Reptiles of the Southern Pantanal" is headed by Ellen Wang, a Ph.D. candidate at Sao Paulo State University. "Birds and Dynamic Habitat Mosaics" is led by Dr. Reginaldo Jose Donatelli (Sao Paulo State University) and Gustavo Rosa. "Ecology and Conservation of Pantanal Otters" is led by Dr. Helen Waldemarin, but I worked with Manoel Muanis, a M.Sc. candidate at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. All three projects were of interest to me but, as those familiar with my affection for serpents would assume, I was most excited by the herpetology work.

Clemuso holding cat-eyed snake (Leptophis annulata); this fellow was captured inside Frank and Nicki's toilet; very calm. non-venomous colubrid species, but often mistaken for the venemous and much maligned Fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper) (Pousada Ararauna, Pantanal, Brasil)

The official project abstract describes the Pantanal as follows. "The Middle Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Pantanal, where this research takes place, is a relatively pristine area with high conservation status. Deforestation has been minimal, access via roads is difficult and the main commercial activity is low-impact cattle ranching using native pastures." I don't find that description entirely accurate. Although the Panatal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered the world's largest tropical wetland, it is not what most of us would deem "pristine." Cattle are ubiquitous, and although the Pantaneiros, the longtime residents and cowboys of the Pantanal, have restricted their cattle-related deforestation, the large herds have a visible impact on the ecology of the wetlands. There are 55 cattle for every 1 person in the Pantanal, an estimated 4.5 million cattle in all.

Contrast of defrested cattle land and "natural" makeup of the Pantanal, as seen from air on flight out to research site

Prior to traveling to Brazil, I imagined the Pantanal to be a relatively virgin area, with few visible human marks. In fact, it more closely resembles a Texas ranch. Barbed wire fences are ubiquitous (fortunately, excepting some large deer, all wildlife species can pass through them without problem) and sandy roads crosshatch the landscape when viewed from above. Horses and canoes are still used as the primary modes of transport on the fazendas, but trucks, tractors, and motorboats are just as, if not more, popular.

Ellen closing one of the many fence gates in the Pantanal; the fences are installed by Pantaneiros to regulate cattle movement (Pantanal, Brasil)

But it behooves us to appreciate that the impacts of ranching are not all negative. Because 95% of the Pantanal, which covers an area comparable to the state of Nebraska, is privately owned (the land is divided among the various ranchers) the fazendas protect the ecology of the region. Industry can not so easily move in on private holdings and, better still, some landowners are now opting to set aside small portions of their land for conservation (in return for tax credits and stipends from the Brazilian government). Florida's tropical cattle ranches are similarly valuable to conservation, preventing residential and industrial development from encroaching on critical habitat and fragile ecosystems.

A more serious threat to the Pantanal is the growing global demand for ethanol. With do-gooder "first-worlders" like myself calling for alternative fuels, cash poor countries see a window of opportunity. Sugarcane is among the most popular crops for ethanol production and Pantaneiros must clear-cut before they can plant cane. The fact that biofuel production isn't a Utopian solution shouldn't come as a surprise. Scientists unaffiliated with industry have criticized biofuels for years. David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, explains, "Ethanol production requires large fossil energy input...Further, its production and use contribute to air, water and soil pollution and global warming." The Sierra Club's Mr. Green adds emphasis, "If you think the industrialized monoculture that fattens livestock is scary, ponder the gloomy prospect of a couple hundred million automobiles feeding off the land." And, if ranching and agriculture in the Pantanal don't take their toll, pesticide and fertilizer runoff from the surrounding highlands may pick up the slack.

One of the adult spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) disturbed by my wading in pousada bahia (Pousada Ararauna, Pantanal, Brasil)

It's difficult to protect a unique ecosystem like the Pantanal when economic development is the Holy Grail. Brazilian environmental agencies talk of "balancing economic sustainability with conservation." Indeed, given our fanatical embrace of neo-classical economics and the neoliberal paradigm, we must try to balance the equation, but I see no reason why we shouldn't also strive to reeducate ourselves, to find viable alternatives to industrial capitalism. Rebecca Solnit writes,
"we have all been trained as torturers of a sort in this economy and nation that generate a huge array of atrocities while training us not to see or feel them. Enormous violence is all around us, in the brutality of capitalism as it devastates for profit rural landscapes, from Amazon rainforests to Wyoming ranches, produces poverty for more profit, and consigns the resultant poor to incarceration, illness, homelessness, and dead-end jobs."
All "First worlders" are guilty to one degree or another, but this doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and surrender to thoughtless greed and willful ignorance. Individual and local resistance efforts can and do make a difference, especially in terms of cultivating awareness and restructuring value systems.

Manoel and John in canoes on river during afternoon otter census (Pantanal, Brasil)

Pousada Ararauna, the lodge where my team of volunteers stayed, is owned by a private university and is dedicated to ecotourism and ecological research; it is located on Santa Emilia Farm, a 6,450 acre property in the southeastern Pantanal. The details (and focus subjects) of the three projects vary, but they all seek to ascertain how tourism, agriculture, and other developments are impacting the biodiversity of the region. The hope of all such research is that the findings will bring more attention to the ecosystem in question and result in more federal protections and environmental awareness on the part of the local landowners.

A pair of Hyacinth macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) perched in "para todos" tree in early morning, with moon behind (Pousada Ararauna, Pantanal, Brasil)

My time in Brazil flew by, as it often does when I find myself physically engaged with (and thinking about) ecology. Rather than write a detailed account of the trip, I've listed a few highlights below and I'll post more captioned pictures in coming days. You can also visit my Flickr Brazil set to view more photos.

Pantanal at dusk (Pantanal, Brasil)

Also, for those readers who are wildlife geeks like myself, identification of some of the spiders, insects, fish, amphibians, and reptiles I came across is challenging. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Hyla alba treefrog species found by Manoel in kitchen bathroom; no common name I can find (Pousada Ararauna, Pantanal, Brasil)

Pantanal Highlights:

A giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus) - the species is threatened or endangered - near bahia at Pousada Ararauna

- Common though they are in the Pantanal (globally, they are endangered), I was thrilled to see giant armadillos (Priodontes maximus). I fancied myself quite the stalker after I managed to move within a few feet of one during my first afternoon at the pousada, but soon learned that the animals are rather mellow and, in fact, easy to catch. (Oh, my bruised ego.) Still, they're charismatic little guys and I was cheered whenever I saw them bumbling along. (FYI: The "giant" in their name is relative; they're not imposing critters.)

Holding a small Red belly piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri) (Pantanal, Brasil)

- I enjoyed catching piranha. The fishing itself is not challenging; you bait a hook with raw meat, toss it over, feel the tugs, and pull up a fish. The Pantaneiros use either a line with no rod (called handlining, which I've done once before, for sharks in Costa Rica) or a reel-less rod with the line attached to the end. You must use a wire leader to prevent the fish from biting off the hook. Needless to say, you must take care when releasing piranha; their teeth and jaws are truly remarkable. We caught two morphological variants of the Red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri), as well as several pitanga (Sp?).

Most of the piranha we caught were released, but a few of the larger ones were kept for piranha soup, a Pantaneiro favorite believed to be an aphrodisiac. Because I caught the fish, my dietary restrictions allowed me to eat some of the soup. It tasted like a very salty lentil soup; I couldn't detect the fish flavor at all (and sadly I didn't have an opportunity to see if the recipe made me particularly virile).

- We only saw four species of snake during my time in the Pantanal, but each of them were a thrill. I love to see and handle snakes; they're magical animals in my estimation. The four species we came upon were all diminutive, and we saw nothing of their enormous relative, the yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus). I was disappointed by this conspicuous absence but, after years of looking for snakes, I know well that each and every find is a treat.

Holding young spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) used in Lucio's mosquito vector experiment; mouth is taped to prevent unfortunate nips (Pousada Ararauna, Pantanal, Brasil)

- I enjoyed interacting with the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus). I handled a juvenile (being used in a mosquito vector experiment conducted by a researcher at the pousada), and I swam and waded with the reptiles a couple of times, determined to see how close I could get before spooking them. They are alligators, not crocodiles, and are therefore unlikely to mistake a human for a potential meal, especially given their relatively small size (5 to 7 feet). They were most numerous on the river banks, where they rested during the day, absorbing the sun's energy before heading to the water again for evening hunting.

Teri swimming in the caiman pool (Pousada Ararauna, Pantanal, Brasil)

- One night, while walking the small runway near the pousada (the best way to reach most areas of the Pantanal is by plane) with a headlamp, my beam blinded two orange eyes. Unable to see, the creature remained motionless while I steadily advanced on it. Moments later, I was standing a foot from a resting pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis), a member of the nightjar family (Caprimulgidae). The nightjars rank just behind the corvids (crows, ravens, and jays) as far as my favorite bird families go, and I was stoked to be so close to the curious fellow (or lady). I learned later that I might have reached down and picked the bird up...if only I'd kept my headlamp trained on those big eyes. Instead, I turned my head to call some other volunteers over and, no longer blinded by my light, the bird was soundlessly gone.

Part of the family group of eleven giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) near den as we drift by; marks on chest are individual (Pantanal, Brasil)

- The giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) family groups were particularly impressive. The largest group we came upon numbered 17 individuals, each distinguished by unique, white markings on their chest. They are inquisitive animals, and when our boat or canoe approached, they repeatedly reared from the water to take a look at the human trespassers, all the while coughing, huffing, and otherwise vocalizing. Sadly, this species is also endangered.

Giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) approaches at night; because they do not see or hear well, if you sit very still they sometimes come very close; this individual came within ten feet (Pantanal, Brasil)

- Walking around the pousada grounds at night was always a trat. Giant-anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), crab-eating foxes (Cerdocyon thous), feral pigs (Sus scrofa), and a grey brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira) were all seen on these little adventures. Furthermore, tropical nighttime sounds are beautiful and, if I turned off the light and stood still, the marsh and fringe woodland came alive for my ears. It's wondrous.

One evening I walked to the end of the runway, away from the lights of the pousada, and, having had a little too much to drink, sat down to do some half-thinking. Leaves crunched and birds called from the tropical forest to my right and, in front of me, the marsh was alive with frog conversation and the sporadic beacons of fireflies. I sat there in dumb bliss for some minutes...until some of the crunching sounds became more pronounced than I was comfortable with. Imagining an ambitious jaguar, I walked double-time back to the pousada, feeling ridiculously urban and silly. I'm sure that the little armadillo or anteater in the woods was happy to see me depart.

- A few of us were lucky enough to witness a collared forest falcon (Micrastor semitorquatus) as it attempted, twice, to take a grey-necked wood rail (Aramides cajanea). The falcon tore from the trees and swooped on the sprinting rail. It missed, perhaps startled by the presence of four humans so nearby. The rail panicked; rather than flee into the safety of the marsh, it attempted to return to the woods for cover. The falcon took note and attacked again as the rail made the fringe. Again, failure. At last the rail wised up and veered away from the trees, vanishing into the marsh reeds.

The falcon perched in the top of a dead tree and looked down at us contemptuously. Were it not for our being there, the rail may have been the falcon's dinner. I was at once happy for the rail and disappointed for the falcon. Having evolved as predators ourselves, it's only natural that we identify with the hunters.

Ellen showing two different color variations of Paradoxical frog (Pseudis paradoxa); this is the only species to appear with malformation in the Pantanal to date (Pousada Ararauna, Pantanal, Brasil)

- Tedious though it can sometimes be, I thoroughly enjoyed all the herpetology laboratory work. We weighed, measured, and identified all captured individuals before readying them for release. We identified and labelled any "Dead In Trap" specimens that we had retrieved. Unfortunately, there were a great many of the latter, casualties of dehydration or insect attack. (Many ants fall into the pitfall traps and, if they become irked with a fellow inmate, that frog, cockroach, or lizard is likely a goner.)

Leaf-cutter ants at work in evening hours; uncertain of species (Pantanal, Brasil)

- Finally, I very much enjoyed the company of the volunteers and all of the folks at the pousada, researchers, cooks, bridge builders, and Pantaneiros alike. A little music, dancing, and too much cachaca. Puxe meo dedo!

Gino, Gustavo and Ernaldo playing into the night (Pousada Ararauna, Pantanal, Brasil)

Anyway, that's all I'll write for the moment. As always, it takes time to digest a big trip and I'm sure there will be related posts to follow.

Rockstar shades and "safari" garb = ecotourist a$$hole
Late afternoon on the river(Pantanal, Brasil)

Photo credits: all photos this post, Hungry Hyaena


Chris Rywalt said...

This is a fantastic essay. From a purely technical standpoint, it's professional quality prose and photography; certainly worthy of being published in any number of magazines. And the topic is really interesting: The kind of adventure I think I'd like to have, but would never attempt in real life. Absolutely fascinating and captivating.

Michael said...

Looks like an awesome trip.
Check out "The World Without Us" for an interesting discussion of the interaction between cattle and wild ecosystems.
I look forward to seeing more images and hearing more about the trip.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Aw, shucks. That's nice to hear. If only I could get something published...or work accepted into a show. Yawn.


Awesome it was. The book is on my "to read" list.

Sunil said...

Fascinating experience that you have had there. This reminds me of my childhood vacations spent in my native state of Kerala in the south of India. The sounds of the night that you describe after the night of drinking rings familiar to me when I used to do similar things in India.
Overall, the photos are a treat and the writing great. I am not that much of a fan of snakes and would not swim in a caiman pool, but then I am not that much of a nature geek as you are.
By the way, the river otters were a sight to see.
Thanks very much for sharing this experience and I am glad you got to go on this.

emily said...

Researching giant otters for a potential thesis project and stumbled upon this magnificent photo-documentarian and entertaining writing.

great stuff! that's all. makes me want to be in the Pantanal ya! which reminds me i need to get back to research so i can get there ya.

la red mundial...que magnifico no?

Anonymous said...

Great blog. I am planning a trip there this fall (OCT), I would appreciate any suggestions (, Thanks

Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm Iuri from Brazil, I found this blog on google and i like it very much !!! I'm really interested on wildlife on my country! I travel to Pantanal and Bonito-MS once and it's wonderfull!
I'll be here to keep reading the posts ...

Iuri Rossi from Rio de Janeiro

Anonymous said...

How cool! It is really amazing!