Brazil's Pantanal, 2009
Traveling the length of the dusty Transpantaneira Road, which was only completed in 1976, wildlife is everywhere and usually quite visible. Arriving in Porto Jofre at the end of the road, another type of adventure begins—exploring the main channels and quiet tributaries of the Cuiaba and Piciri Riversby boat . Here as well, the wildlife is phenomenal —capybaras and caimans, black-collared hawks perched along the channels looking for fishing opportunities, anhingas and ringed and green kingfishers. Yellow-billed cardinals and toco toucans bathe in small riverside pools, large-billed terns perch in family groups on emergent sticks, and pied plovers, in their clean black-and-white plumage run, herky-jerky style on golden sandy river banks. A very special animal inhabiting this area is the giant river otter, one of the iconic animals of South America. These playful creatures swam ahead of the boat surfacing for only a moment, curiously peeking back before quickly splashing away.
Late October marks the beginning of the end of the dry season. Listening to the low, guttural moans of black-and-gold howler monkeys carried over long-distances by shifting winds as darkening skies signaled an approaching thunderstorm is one of my very special memories of this magical place. As the day grows tired and the heat of the afternoon fades into the warm and still luminous evening, the “night shift” takes over and greater fishing bats and blackish nightjars flutter and sweep over the rivers and backwaters.
The Pantanal also offers the possibility of sighting one of the legendary and most mysterious animals on our planet, the almost-mythic jaguar. By patiently and carefully searching the densely-vegetated river banks, one can, with a great deal of luck and very sharp eyes, encounter the cat, the largest “felid” of the New World. Indeed, the Pantanal is one of the best places in Latin America to see jaguars. After several long days on the river and a few brief encounters with the cat, we finally came across a magnificent male resting regally in the shade of a streamside grove. Ever since reading Jaguar, One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve, by one of my personal heroes, Alan Rabinowitz, it has been a dream of mine to see and photograph a jaguar in the wild. Encountering this glorious animal in its natural habitat, unconcerned with our presence, and quietly resting in the shade will always remain one of my favorite wildlife moments.
Even without our extraordinary good fortune with the jaguar, the Pantanal is truly one of the must-see places for any lover of wildlife. The largest parrot in the world—the vivid hyacinth macaw or the “Jesus Christ bird,”—the wattled jacana dancing on lilies, appearing to walk on water, along with Azara’s agoutis in the forest and Brazilian tapirs and crab-eating foxes patrolling at night are just a few of the wildlife highlights one can hope for in this very special place in the heart of South America.
I am already thinking of my return, because for me, Pantanal does indeed mean magic.