A wilderness of water The Pantanal

by Christine. K. Eckstrom. Published in " Audubon ",the Magazine of the National Audubon Society (March/April 1996)

South America’s Pantanal, the largest wetland in the world, is an oasis of water and wildlife. As development threatens to destroy it, conservationists are fighting to preserve it.

The surface of the Rio Negro is glassy; the sky it reflects is boiling black clouds. Big weather is coming, the first of the season. It is late October in the Pantanal, the world’s biggest wetland, which spreads like a great webbed hand across the center of South America-from the Mato Grosso of southwestern Brazil into eastern Bolivia and northeastern Paraguay, covering 77,200 square miles, an area the size of South Dakota.

The Pantanal has been compared with the United States’ Everglades. Both provide water filtration and flood control over a large expanse. Rich in nutrients, both are nurseries for wildlife. The two share dozens of the same species - especially wading and water birds - but the amount of wildlife preserved in the Pantanal is staggering. Only 40 wood stork pairs nested in Florida’s Everglades National Park in 1993; here, there are more than 100 times that number.

The land is ruled by a seasonal pulse. Periodically the highland rivers swell with rains, and the Pantanal fills up like a shallow bowl. By March a sheet of water seven feet deep usually covers thousands of square miles. Marshy grasslands become lagoons of water lilies. Drowned pastures swirl with shoals of fish, and every patch of dry ground becomes an ark of wildlife-jaguar and marsh deer, anteater and armadillo, howler monkey, tapir, and anaconda.

This meeting place of rivers - among them the Cuiabá, the Taquari, and the Miranda - is a gathering ground of South American ecosystems. Plants and animals from the Amazon and Atlantic forests to the north and south and from the cerrado and the Chaco grasslands to the east and west converge and overlap creating a refuge for uncounted flocks of ibis, spoonbills, herons, and limpkins. Three major flyways pass through, bringing wood storks from the Argentine pampas to the south, flycatchers from the western slopes of the Andes, and ospreys and yellowlegs from the wetlands of North America.

Within its swampy reaches the area holds significant populations of the big mammals that define South America: the jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas, and the tapir, the continent’s largest tropical mammal. There are maned wolves and marsh deer, giant otters, giant anteaters, and giant armadillos -each the largest of its kind in South America. All are endangered, and all live amid a population of 10 million caimans - the highest concentration of crocodilians in the world.

Despite these riches, the Pantanal is surprisingly little known. "Here we have one of the last intact ecological paradises of the world, and the world does not know it exists," says Brazilian conservationist Adalberto Eberhard.


The Pantanal has become the focal point of opposition to a massive development project called Hidrovia, which aims to create a shipping channel that would pierce the heart of the continent. The Paraguay River flows through the Pantanal and then joins the Paraná, which flows south to the Atlantic near Buenos Aires. The original plan called for Hidrovia to dredge and channelize the Paraguay-Paraná River. Oceangoing vessels would travel through landlocked Paraguay. Bolivia would have an interior seaport. Big ships would carry cargo from the coast more than 2,000 miles north into the center of the continent.

The project is backed by the governments of Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay, which see it as the backbone of Mercosur, the common market of the South. They now claim that they will not sanction any environmental damage but will use only "navigational" aids such as special lighting and buoys along the river to aid shipping. Environmentalists, however, fear that the original project has not died. Hydrologists believe that rocky ledges in the Paraguay River at Serra do Amolar, Brazil, and in two other areas downstream act to slow the wet-season outflow. They fear that dredging or blasting these areas as part of Hidrovia might alter the delicate water dynamic. Drawing parallels with recent floods on the Mississippi and the Rhine, scientists say that a single flood rush each year - instead of the current steady water release over several months - could be catastrophic to people living downstream.

"This could change everything- forever," says Frederico Luiz de Freitas Jr., secretary of the environment for Mato Grosso do Sul, the Brazilian state that administers the southern two-thirds of the Pantanal. The original project is seen by many others as folly on a gigantic scale - both in terms of environmental destruction and in terms of economics. As one entrepreneur - a hotel manager at the Caiman Ecological Refuge, a combination ranch-ecotourism destination points out: "If Brazil wants to haul out agricultural and mineral production from the interior to the coast, it would be much more efficient for them to renovate the old railway we already have across the southern Pantanal, build new ones in the north, and carry everything to São Paulo by rail."

But efficiency is not always the deciding factor in development projects of this kind. Internave, the engineering firm that did the original feasibility studies for the project, estimated that construction costs on Hidrovia would run close to $1 billion, with triple that amount required for maintenance in the first 25 years. The engineering and environmental-impact study, which is scheduled to be completed in mid-1996, will cost $10.5 million, provided by the Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations Development Program.

But even more than Hidrovia looms ahead. Freitas is also worried about a natural gas pipeline slated to cross the southern Pantanal, connecting Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to the coast of Brazil. "This could be very dangerous for the Pantanal - the idea of cheap transportation on the Hidrovia combined with a cheap source of energy," he said.

Conservationists argue that the Pantanal should be excluded from development schemes. "We don’t know exactly how the Pantanal works or why we have so much life here," says Eberhard. "How can a land with such poor soils support such a large biomass? How does the water dynamic function? What are the movements of all the migrating birds? How can we make the best decisions when so much is unknown? What we know about the Pantanal is advancing by millimeters per year, but the dangers are coming against us at kilometers per second."

NINETY-NINE PERCENT of the land in the Pantanal is privately owned, and much of it is given over to fazendas -Texas-size cattle ranches, some as large as 1,000 square miles. Brazil’s Pantanal National Park is the only officially protected land in the area. But for the past 20 years much of its 550 square miles have been under water - the result of a long-term flood cycle or a permanent hydrological change; no one is certain which.

The flood hasn’t helped park director Benjamim Dias da Silva keep unwanted visitors out. He has spent most of his 34 years here not as a caretaker but as a commando, fighting a war against poachers who worked the backcountry for the skin trade, taking jaguars, ocelots, and otters - but most of all, caimans. At the peak of the poaching era, in the 1980s, as many as 1 million caiman skins a year were smuggled from the Pantanal. Most were slipped over the Brazilian border into Bolivia and Paraguay, then shipped to Europe, North America, and the Far East to be made into belts, purses, shoes, wallets, and watch straps. Many poachers operated not far from da Silva’s house. "I fired a lot, I captured a lot, but I never killed anyone," he says. "But a lot of people tried to kill me."

Da Silva still carries a pistol, though he doesn’t really need it anymore. Since 1993 a combination of Brazilian government efforts against poachers, a ban on the skin trade in Paraguay, and worldwide campaigns against caiman-skin products has virtually ended the slaughter in the Pantanal -a quiet victory, little reported.

COEXISTENCE IS EASY T0 SEE: HERE IS A WEALTH OF animals that in other places have been hunted to extinction. Mated pairs of bare-faced curassows stroll casually along river beaches lined with caimans; elusive ocelots take refuge in the underbrush. Capybaras cool off in the shallows, chin deep, as piping guans make their strange card-shuffle rattles in the trees and southern screamers let loose wild, yodeling cries. A giant otter pops up like a jack-in-the-box, too curious to resist a peek -a behavior that has subjected most of his kin to the depredations of skin hunters.

Skeins of wood storks and spoonbills soar past; iguanas and wood rails scramble into the underbrush; chaco chachalacas run squawking like chickens; lemurlike coatis dash into the woodlands; toco toucans flap out from the trees. Snail kites and savanna hawks perch on snags near open water, gazing down into ponds fringed with caimans while five-foot-tall jabiru work the shallows for eels.

Beyond this plethora of wildness stretches evidence of a human economy: Herds of white zebu cattle pepper the grasslands, grazing among a scattering of rheas, South America’s version of the ostrich. Cows and caimans have lived side by side here for more than two centuries. The partnership seems to work: Even conservationists concede that ranches run by pantaneiros - natives of the Pantanal coexist well with the region’s wildlife. "It is an unusual alliance, cattle and wildlife," says Eberhard, "but if you are a rancher here, you cannot have more cattle than your land can support in the wet season, when some farms are ninety percent under water. So the land is never overgrazed."

One problem in this paradise is, perhaps, its very plenty. According to Neiva Guedes, a biologist waging a one-woman campaign to save the endangered hyacinth macaw, the hardest part of her job is making people believe that the birds are rare. "Here," she says, "everyone has macaws in their backyards."

Farther north, at the Fazenda Rio Negro, rancher Orlando de Castro Rondon shares a perspective held by those who have lived for generations with the ficklecycles of this watery wilderness. Under a sky dark with coming rain, he stands by the river watching a family of capybaras swim to a tree near his house, where they slip ashore each evening to spend the night.

"The Pantanal does not accept aggression," Rondon says of those who would try to bend the land to their will. "The Pantanal will bite you back."

The Pantanal may now need very sharp teeth indeed.

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 " Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "

( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)