The Pantanal—A Fascinating Sanctuary


THE tourist became angry when Jerônimo urged him not to throw a beer can into the river. “Is this river yours?” he asked. “No,” Jerônimo replied, “it is ours. But if you keep throwing garbage into it, soon none of us will be able to fish here.”

This reveals just one of the ways that the Pantanal—a vast area including parts of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay—is being threatened today. The Portuguese word pântano means “swamp or marsh.” But the Pantanal is not flat, so its waters do not stagnate. Instead, they glide slowly and smoothly, leaving the fertile plain covered with a variety of grasses. Would you like to learn more about this vast region? Join me as I travel with a group of tourists to one of the world’s most fascinating ecological sanctuaries.

Alligators and Anacondas!

Leaving São Paulo, we head westward by bus for Corumbá, a distance of about 750 miles [1,200 km]. As we enter the Pantanal region, huge birds fly overhead, as if to welcome us. There is a jabiru (tuiuiú), with a wingspan of eight and a half feet [2.6 meters]. It almost needs a runway to take off! “The vigorous motion of the wings creates a fluttering sound from the friction with the air,” writes Haroldo Palo, Jr., who spent two years in the Pantanal. “During the [jabirus’] pairing and mating rituals,” he adds, “two or three males soar together . . . , showing off spectacular dives that can be seen from afar.”

The dry season has arrived, and the water level is low. Hence, fish are easy prey for the birds. Look! A jabiru and a heron are fishing among the alligators! The alligators are feasting on the vicious piranha fish. As you may know, the piranha have extremely sharp teeth and are attracted to prey that is bleeding. While we would certainly not want to be near one, the alligators seem to be oblivious to—and exempt from—any danger.

After crossing a river by ferry, we take a drive to a ranch. Suddenly, our driver stops and points to a huge snake crossing the dusty road. “It’s an anaconda,” he says. “Better take a picture quickly. You don’t see them up close very often!” The mere sight quickens the pulse, for the anaconda—reaching up to 30 feet [9 meters] in length—is one of the largest of all snakes. The anaconda is also speedy, I realize, as it vanishes into the bush. This is fine with me. Indeed, if the anaconda had not fled, I am sure that my trembling hands would have blurred the picture anyway!

The Life of the Pantaneiro

The Pantanal is home to vast herds of cattle. Caring for them is the work of the pantaneiro. He is actually a mixture of cowboy and farmer, a descendant of Indian, African, and Spanish dwellers. The pantaneiro tames horses and herds cattle from one end of the ranch to the other. We see several herds, each of which is composed of about a thousand head of cattle. Each herd is guided by six men. The cook is up front, followed by a herdsman with a trumpet made from a bull’s horn. Behind are more cowboys. One is the owner of the herd, and the others round up the lagging animals and the strays.

Jerônimo, mentioned at the outset, is a pantaneiro. Although it is more tiring, he is rowing us along the Abobral River instead of using a motorboat because the sound of a motor can frighten the birds. The reverential tone of his voice reflects his love for and interest in his home, the Pantanal. “Look! There on the riverbank—an alligator sunning itself,” Jerônimo says. Farther along, he points out the den of a pair of otters. “It is their home,” he says. “I always see them there.” From time to time, Jerônimo fills his cup with water from the river to ease his thirst. “Isn’t the water polluted?” we ask. “Not yet,” he answers. “You can drink some too if you want.” We are not entirely convinced.

The pantaneiro has an optimistic view of life. His desires are few, and his work is his recreation. He leaves home at dawn and returns at night, earning the minimum wage (about $100 a month) plus room and board—and he can eat meat to his heart’s content. “On my farm,” says one farmer, “the pantaneiro eats what he wants and as much as he wants. He is not a slave. If he’s not content, he can say: ‘Boss, give me my money. I’m leaving.’”

A Zoo Without Cages

The hotel-farm where we stayed is also home to many birds and animals, such as macaws, parrots, parakeets, jabirus, jaguars, capybaras, and red deer. A descendant of the Guaná Indian tribe whose family has lived in the Pantanal for 100 years told us: “We feed the birds here. Many of them were confiscated by the forest police from suspected poachers.” His wife said that at first they had just 18 parakeets, but now they have about 100 of them. “Our objective is to return them to their own habitat,” she says.

In this zoo without cages, we took pictures of macaws eating peacefully next to pigs and chickens. Tourists from all over the world are delighted with the profusion of bird and animal life and the landscape of the Pantanal. And the sunsets are astounding! One day, a young Japanese tourist was dazzled by flocks of birds returning to their roosts at sunset. Then the warning from the farmhand—“Miss, be careful. There are jaguars here!”—sent her running to her room. However, by the next day, she overcame her fright and was feeding biscuits to the macaws. We even photographed her feeding one mouth to beak. Her fear was gone!

One morning before sunrise, we went outside to look at the stars. It seemed as if we could reach out and touch them. An indescribable view! Here in the Pantanal, we could almost “hear” the silence. The sights and sounds moved us to give thanks to the Creator for this paradisaic scene. One advertising folder said: “If someone asks you someday if paradise exists, you can say: ‘Without a doubt, the Pantanal is a part of it.’”

An Ecological Sanctuary Profaned

During the past 20 years, the press has dedicated much space to discussing the threat that hangs over the Pantanal. In his book Pantanal, Haroldo Palo, Jr., writes about the different ways that the Pantanal ecosystem is being polluted. Briefly, they include the following.

Silting of the rivers. “In recent years, the Taquari River has been so silted up that it is impossible to navigate near its mouth, thus isolating . . . those living on its banks. The same process is occurring in the other rivers that flow into the Pantanal basin.”

The drought cycle. “I fear that if . . . we had a drought cycle of 15 or 20 years, as has occurred previously, there could be catastrophic consequences for the region’s flora and fauna.”

Herbicides and mercury. “The mechanized agriculture carried on outside the Pantanal uses herbicides that infiltrate groundwater and end up poisoning the rivers that flow nearby. Or they are carried by surface water along with the soil, causing the rivers to become silted up. In the Poconé Pantanal, another big threat is gold mining, which pollutes the water with mercury.”

Hunting. “Although prohibited by law, this is practiced in most of the Pantanal without control. With the exception of a few enlightened farmers who are protecting their natural riches and others who defend them for economic interests in the exploitation of tourism, animal life and the scenery are at the mercy of opportunistic interests.”

Return to the Concrete Jungle

What a contrast we note on our return to São Paulo! Instead of yellow ipês, purple ipês, and red sage, we are confronted with a jungle of skyscrapers. Instead of clean transparent rivers abounding in fish, rivers converted into sewers. Instead of the melodious songs of birds, the deafening roar of thousands of trucks and cars with their honking horns. Instead of clear blue skies, signs announcing “Condition of Air: Bad.” Instead of peace between man and animal, the fear of human predators.

We stayed for two weeks in the Pantanal, too short a time to get to know the different regions with their exotic names, such as Poconé, Nhecolândia, Abobral, Nabileque, and Paiaguás—each one with its own characteristics. But it was an unforgettable experience. The flora and fauna are like a balm for the eyes, a symphony to the ears, and a tonic for the heart. 

The Featured Image credits to theguardian



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