A South American Wildlife Gem: The Pantanal

by Kathy Parker | September 20, 2016

Copyright Kathy ParkerWe had been on the river all morning but were hurrying back to our lodge, hungry and disappointed that jaguars had eluded us. We had left before dawn, bundled up in blankets to stay warm as our boat sliced through chilly early morning fog. Wildlife sightings were numerous, but several promising leads on jaguars had evaporated.

Suddenly our driver cut the boat’s speed way back. We scanned the nearby shore and staring out at us from behind a veil of grasses were the piercing eyes of that furtive, spotted cat—a jaguar (Panthera onca) (Figs. 1 and 2)! Such is the thrill of a visit to the largest freshwater wetland on earth, the Pantanal.

Jaguar © Kathy Parker

Jaguar by river © Kathy Parker

Accounting for 3% of wetlands worldwide, the Pantanal covers more than 54,000 mi2 (140,000 km2) in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay—an area at least 17 times that of the remaining Everglades. It’s among the best locations for viewing wildlife on the planet. Many of the animals that it shares with the Amazon and the Atlantic Rainforest can be seen more easily in the Pantanal (Fig. 3), thanks to its more open character, the concentration of wildlife around contracted wet areas during the dry season, and its relatively pristine character.

Hyacinth macaw © Kathy Parker

The Pantanal’s life blood is the water draining into the Paraguay River basin from the adjacent highlands during the rainy season. The water overflows the basin’s stream channels and floods the surrounding flat terrain, inundating close to 80% of the Pantanal Basin at the height of the rainy season (October–March). Nutrient-rich floodwaters trigger a spurt of plant growth, and food becomes more abundant for native herbivores, like capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris). Fish breed, with young riding the floodwaters to disperse.

During the dry season (April–September), evaporation and regional drainage gradually shrink this immense wet covering, leaving ribbons of water (Fig. 4) winding through a diverse mosaic of savanna, shrubland, and forest, with isolated ponds and swamps (Fig. 5). These shrinking pools concentrate aquatic creatures for the animals that feed on them (Fig. 6). As we boated along rivers during the dry season, large wading birds, caimans (Caiman yacare), and other fish-eaters were so common that we often couldn’t decide which to watch (Figs. 7, 8, 9, 10).

Pantanal Brazil stream © Kathy Parker

Waterlily pond © Kathy Parker

Wattled jacana © Kathy Parker

Cocoi heron © Kathy Parker

Jabiru © Kathy Parker

Tiger heron © Kathy Parker

Amazon kingfisher © Kathy Parker

The best time of the year to visit the Pantanal is during the heart of the dry season, between May and August. Temperatures are cooler, fewer biting insects are active, and wildlife is easier to see. The single road into the heart of the Pantanal from the north (the Transpantaneira) offers tremendous wildlife viewing (Fig. 11), but is passable only during the dry season. In addition to many animal sightings, we encountered wet tracks along the Transpantaneira, left only moments before by a jaguar moving along the road.

Capybara © Kathy Parker

Many choices of organized trips to the Pantanal exist. I selected a trip that spent 4 nights in the Pantanal and 2 nights in the nearby Chapada dos Guimarães, highlands that have sparkling waterfalls and stunning rock formations (Figs. 12 and 13). In addition to spectacular scenery, visiting the drier uplands gave me the chance to photograph habitats and many birds I had not seen in the Pantanal (Figs. 14, 15, 16). Our gateway to the area was Cuiabá, at the northern end of the Pantanal, but tours also enter the vast wetland from Corumba, to the south. We stayed at several lodges and cattle ranches, all offering quite comfortable accommodations and varied activities such as river trips, hiking, and fishing. While there is no guarantee of seeing a jaguar, they are more evident in the northern Pantanal. Animals that inhabitat open grasslands and savannas, such as giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), are often spotted in the south.

Waterfall © Kathy Parker

Overlook © Kathy Parker

Pygmy owl © Kathy Parker

Lineated woodpecker © Kathy Parker

Rufous hornero © Kathy Parker

Although it remains one of the best places to see charismatic species like jaguars and hyacinth macaws, only 2% of the Brazilian Pantanal is protected by reserves, and land use within the region is changing. As human settlement in the surrounding cerrado (savanna-woodland) has expanded in the past 50 years, ranching, agriculture, and mining in the upper watersheds have become more common. Along with these activities have come widespread deforestation, hydrologic alteration, and increased sedimentation and pollution of streams. These effects are magnified downstream in the Pantanal. The history of the Florida Everglades serves as a poignant reminder that without the seasonal influx of nutrients and clean water from the upper reaches of the drainage basin, the life blood of this unique wetland system would be severed, placing one of the world’s great ecological treasures in peril.

About the Author

Kathy Parker is a retired geography professor who lives in Athens, Georgia. She taught physical geography and biogeography courses for three decades and authored numerous journal articles and book chapters about animals and desert plants. Her travels have taken her to remote reaches of the globe, where she has photographed landscapes and wildlife to share with students of all ages through outreach and continuing education, and with a broader audience through regional exhibitions.

4 thoughts on “A South American Wildlife Gem: The Pantanal

    • Thanks, Bill. It was incredible! We had hoped to see one, but I figured it might be a fleeting glimpse at best. This male not only peered through the grass at us, he then got up and sauntered into full view on a sandbar before slinking off into the brush. Better than I could have imagined!

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