The Citizens of  Pantanal

The Jabiru Stork is tall, stately, and majestic;

until, that is, you notice its upward curved beak.

Then it looks quite comical.

If you’d like to experience this sidesplitting feathered friend up close, you’ll need to travel to the largest wetland on the planet, the Pantanal, which stretches across the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. The Amazon usually gets the lion’s share of praise (before you get too excited, keep in mind that there are no lions in South America), but if you wish to view animals in their natural habitat with a 100% chance of success, this is the region you should be traveling to.

 

Time Matters

 

During the dry winter season of June through October, the waterholes shrink in number and size, making the animals to come out of hiding from the more remote sections of the wetlands. On the other hand, the rainy season of November through March makes for a lush landscape, but this is also when the region could sometimes only be accessible by boats and airplanes. This is the time when we visited the region and although the low-lying flooded areas made for some interesting driving experience, we thankfully never once got stranded.

Exploring the Pantanal

 

First off, let’s be quite clear that public transportation is non-existent in the Pantanal. This narrows down the modes of travel to basically three: rental car, boat, and airplane. We are a great proponent of the first, but that has as much to do with our love for driving and independent family travel in all regions challenging. If you decide on renting a car, it goes without saying that you should be sure to fill up your gas tanks as often as you can.

 

What's to See

 

Many endemic animals exist in the Pantanal, and since the place is always teeming with life, you generally don’t need to make an extra effort or even be lucky to spot most of them on a regular basis. We were there for just a couple of days, yet the family was able to spot anaconda, armadillo, capybara, monkey, wild boar, rhea, marsh deer, tapir, caiman, and of course, many species of birds. With some luck, you should also be able to see giant anteater, jaguar, giant otter, and many other interesting ones. Piranha fishing is another activity you could do here, but a word of warning: you’ll meet stiff competition from the ubiquitous caimans, who’ll make every effort to snatch those sharp-toothed fishes right out of your fishing rod before you’ve harvested your catchendemic animals exist in the Pantanal, and since the place is always teeming with life, you generally don’t need to make an extra effort or even be lucky to spot most of them on a regular basis. We were there for just a couple of days, yet the family was able to spot anaconda, armadillo, capybara, monkey, wild boar, rhea, marsh deer, tapir, caiman, and of course, many species of birds. With some luck, you should also be able to see giant anteater, jaguar, giant otter, and many other interesting ones. Piranha fishing is another activity you could do here, but a word of warning: you’ll meet stiff competition from the ubiquitous caimans, who’ll make every effort to snatch those sharp-toothed fishes right out of your fishing rod before you’ve harvested your catch.

The jabiru stork is a tall and handsome bird with a misshapen throat, oddly curved beak, and cautious gait. It is a common sight in the Pantanal, and the tallest flying bird in South America. They’re a sight to behold against the greenery of the marshland and even more impressive when they take flight, showing off their huge wingspan. The name “jabiru” given to these humongous birds translates roughly to “swollen neck” which the birds obviously possess. Their inflatable red pouches at the base of their necks are brighter in males, giving them an evolutionary advantage at mating. They have tactile receptors on their beaks, which help them “feel” their prey. Like pelicans, they then use their throat pouches to strain the water as they swallow the fish whole. Their beaks end in a sharp tip, which they freely use as a powerful spear to impale frogs, snakes, and small mammals. Still, if you can stay absolutely silent, you may be able to approach them closely by walking on tiptoes.

 

Jabiru Stork

 

Record books say they’re the tallest flying birds of South and Central America. The stork, which IUCN categorized as near threatened until 1988, is now a common sight in Pantanal in the Mato Grosso region. In fact, their appearance is a welcome break from the intense eye-catching greenery of the region. And if you can see the jabiru storks in flight, you’ll surely be awed when you see the effortless flying of those giant wings.

Two rheas walk the open grasslands of Pantanal, in the state of Mato Grosso of Brazil. The rhea is the largest bird in the western hemisphere and is a flightless cousin to the ostriches of Africa and the emus of Australia, with which they share a common ancestor that lived before the breakup of the tectonic plates. The rhea belongs to a supergroup of large, long-legged, flightless birds called Ratites. To best view these birds in the wild, you can drive down Transpantaneira, the main road that crosses the Pantanal, linking the city of Poconé to the small fishing town of Porto Jofre. On this road you’ll come face-to-face with many of Brazil’s wild critters, but keep in mind that it is a 100-mile long dirt road with no gas stations or food bistros along the way. More interestingly, it crosses no less than 122 wooden bridges, some of which are in a state of extreme disrepair. During the rainy seasons, this is a marshland that’s usually impassable due to flooding of the low-lying areas.

Rhea

 

The rhea is a species of flightless bird native to South America most closely related to the ostrich (in Africa) and the emu (in Australia). Ornithologists have confirmed that all three species are genetically related, with a common ancestor existing sometime before the onset of continental drift. The rhea is the largest bird species in the western hemisphere, and although listed as near threatened, they appear to be quite prolific in the wetlands of Pantanal, in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. 

A family of capybaras, the largest rodents on the planet, steps out of the marshland with a watchful eye towards camouflaged caimans. The open grasslands of Pantanal, in the state of Mato Grosso of Brazil, is one of the few areas where you can see these animals up close in the wild. They look like overgrown beavers but are more closely related to guinea pigs. The capybaras are strong swimmers and adapted for a life in water. Partially webbed feet for paddling, long and brittle fur coats for drying out quickly, as well as eyes, ears, and noses located high up on their heads give them the ability to lie submerged in the water while maintaining a watchful eye at predators like the pumas, the jaguars, and the ubiquitous caimans. The capybara has been severely threatened due to hunting by people who go after their exotic skins, and some of the local populations have plummeted significantly. They’re cute critters, and children love the short, shrill shriek they emanate when approached.

 

Capybara

While always wary of camouflaged caimans that lurk in the marshland, for now, the members of this capybara family continue to roam freely. The capybara is the largest rodent in the world and is about as big as a large dog. They're quite docile though, and when annoyed, which was pretty much every time we approached to take a good look at one, emanate a shrill but short sound, the tone of which almost makes you feel sorry for these animals. They are strong swimmers, and they have excellent adaptations for life in the marshland.

An endangered reddish brown, black-legged marsh deer, scientific name Blastocerus dichotomus, is startled as he runs off to a safe distance. IUCN lists the animal as vulnerable status. Unfortunately, being the largest deer in South America, they provide a reliable source of meat, which makes humans their largest predators. These deer have adaptations such as large hooves which make them swift swimmers, and like to live in swamps and marshes, and before a runaway human population threatened their existence through hunting and habitat destruction, their only natural predators were the pumas and jaguars, big cats that are themselves critically endangered in the age of the sixth mass extinction. They have struggled to adapt to their changing environments, becoming more nocturnal in nature in order to avoid human contact and moved to more mountainous regions with sparse human settlements. The deer live in isolated pockets in Peru and Argentina, but primarily south of the Amazon river.

 

Marsh Deer

 

Besides Brazil, the marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus) is found in some of the other South American countries, although the risk of poaching has been one of the highest in this Pantanal region. Beyond hunting, there are the other usual threats like loss of habitats and pollution of their water sources. This deer startled us as he emerged from the bushes, and then ran off to a distance, but wary, he turned around to ogle his intruders. Spotting a marsh deer depends on a number of factors, including the time of the year, the water level in the wetland, and of course, luck.

Caiman

If there’s one animal you can be sure to encounter here, it is the caiman, camouflaging in the marshland to trick its prey, often unsuccessfully, like this one caught in dead branches and leaves. In fact, you’ll have to work hard not to run over these animals especially in the early morning and late evening, when they seem to find an excuse to just hang out smack in the middle of the road, to lurk under every bridge and bush, basking in the sun with wide open mouths. When we visited the region, the rain had just abetted and with lots of places to soak and lesser areas to bask, they were often crossing the roads or lying motionless, usually with mouths wide open. Pro tip: concentrated and not scattered or impassable like the Amazon, we suspect that most would enjoy this place more, especially independent families traveling with kids.. 

A caiman tries to trick its prey by camouflaging among dead branches and leaves in the marshlands. It’s easy to spot many different critters here, including anaconda, giant anteater, capybara, monkey, wild boar, rhea, marsh deer, tapir, giant otter, jaguar and many others, but none as prevalent as the caiman. They seem to lurk under every bridge and bush, basking in the sun with wide open mouths. They’re generally shy, so approaching one by foot would make it quickly get inside the water. It’s a good idea, however, not to take your chances by approaching them too closely. Also known by their precise name of yacare or jacare caiman, they’re also endemic to Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. Although not currently endangered, they didn’t quite get the royal treatment, being heavily hunted for their skin to be used for leather, which caused their population to decrease significantly. Unless you visit the Amazon, your best hope to see the caiman from such close proximity is the Pantanal.
A caiman crawls out of the marsh to leave its friends behind in the Pantanal region of Brazil, the largest wetland on the planet. Every grey patch you can spot in the water here is likely to be a camouflaging caiman, and if you’re driving your rental car down Transpantaneira, you better watch out for those motionless logs with open mouths and razor teeth lying in the middle of the road. Even the biggest of the bunch are no more than ten feet in length from snout to tail, making them a favorite prey for the jaguars and anacondas. Only a few decades ago, the jacare caiman was all but certain to be hurtling towards a quick extinction, the consequence of a coordinated ruthless hunting campaign that catered to the lucrative market for crocodilian leather. Estimates are that during the height of the poaching era, millions of caimans were slaughtered. But after imposing strict legal protection, their numbers have since bounced back, and indeed has been one of the great success stories.

They’re literally everywhere, but they’re generally shy, so approaching one by foot would make it quickly get inside the water. It’s a good idea, however, not to take your chances by approaching them too closely, since their primary job seems to be to ambush the unwary capybara. Although it’s not very common, if you aren’t careful enough there’s a remote chance you just might get your feet caught in one of their snares. If you look towards the marshes but can’t spot them right away, look again. We can guarantee you that a significant number of those tree branches or misshapen rocks that you passed on the way were in fact submerged caimans lying in wait for their next meal. Although not currently endangered, they didn’t quite get the royal treatment from us, millions of them being hunted at one point for their skin to be used for crocodile leather, causing their population to decrease significantly. Unless you visit the Amazon, your best hope to see the caiman from such close proximity is in the Pantanal. Here, they are a protected species, thanks to efforts led by conservationists. If you decide to stick around until dusk, try to train your eyes across the horizon towards the wetland, and you’ll be treated to a mesmerizing sight. What at first might seem to you tiny glowing stars gently bobbing against the dark water would in fact be the lights reflecting off myriads of croc eyes.