Brazil: the wild side

by Mark Brazil

Statistics tell us one story of Brazil: It is the world’s fifth-largest country and South America’s largest by far, and it is an anomaly in being the only Portuguese-speaking nation on that continent.

Brazil is home to the largest tropical forest on Earth and, just pipped by the Nile, the second-longest river, the 6,570-km Amazon — which is by far the world’s largest in terms of total discharge and accounts for around a fifth of the planet’s total river flow.

Brazil was named after its first export, brasil a red dye made from a tree (and perhaps the origin of my own name). The country now conjures images ranging from those of the industrial and agricultural powerhouse it has become, to ones of costumed carnival revelers, scantily clad girls on bright sandy beaches and the seemingly endless horizons of the Amazon rain forest.

Whichever way you look at it — climatically, industrially, biologically, developmentally: Brazil is hot.

A federal republic with a federal constitution and a democratic process that requires everyone to vote, its civil systems can return the result of a national election within 24 hours — something that many of the world’s other powerful democracies might benefit from emulating.

The largely Roman Catholic population consists mainly of those with European, African and Amerindian ancestry unified by a common language — Brazilian Portuguese.

Personal experience tells another story. Between my first traverse of the country in 1986, and through almost annual visits since 2002, Brazil has developed in so many ways.

Yet, although its infrastructure and economy have changed beyond recognition, one aspect of the country has not changed — the people: They are still irrepressibly lively, fun-loving and friendly. Mornings start with a strong handshake, a hug and a thumbs-up bonhomie that makes almost any day feel like a good day.

I could write about social matters, about security concerns in Brazil’s major cities or about environmental issues faced in so many of its biomes, but I’d rather reflect on Brazilians taking pride in their country, on the positives that this lively nation has to offer the world.

With October’s COP10 (10th Conference of the Parties) to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Nagoya still so fresh in the memory, it seems appropriate to view Brazil — through the eyes of a traveling naturalist — as a land of astounding biological diversity, where efforts are being made to conserve endangered species and habitats, and where rewards in terms of wildlife experiences are astounding.

I begin my journey through southern Brazil in its lively old capital (1763-1960) of Rio de Janeiro. Arriving there as I invariably do after a roughly 40-hour journey from my home in Hokkaido, and with a 12-hour time difference to boot, my impressions of the city necessarily tend to be blurred by jet lag.

On each visit, though, I never tire of visiting the splendid Jardim Botanico (Botanical Garden) established in 1808, which is now a beautifully preserved wooded park in the city.

There is no better way of immersing yourself immediately in the lush foliage of this tropical country and encountering the first colorful birds of this bird-rich land. Parrots and hummingbirds, tanagers and toucans are here, and so too are the tiny, squirrel-like marmoset monkeys unique to South America.

The iconic, nearly 40-meter-tall “Christ the Redeemer” statue towering in its Art Deco splendor atop 710-meter-high Corcovado mountain overlooking the city surely beckons, but I avoid its crowds and instead prefer to head for the perhaps equally popular granite-and-quartz monolith that is Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain).

The views from there are breathtaking, and there is no better time than sunset to grasp the extent of the city with its slope-crowding suburbs, its surrounding forests and the swarms of frigate birds gliding and swooping over it all.

To the uninitiated, the best-known of Brazil’s biomes is the Amazon, renowned for its rich tropical forest and the great river that flows through it from its source in the Peruvian Andes to the Atlantic. In its basin — which covers more than 7 million sq. km (approximately the area of Australia) — it would be easy to lose yourself for decades in exploration or in cataloging one fragment of its biodiversity.

Yet in southeast Brazil, there is another type of forest — one that predates the Amazon, is perhaps even more diverse in its species, and is certainly replete with endemic life forms found nowhere else on Earth. This is the Atlantic Forest.

Surviving only in tiny, mostly hilltop fragments, this forest type is like a Noah’s Ark, supporting the last individuals of rare and critically endangered species such as the muriqui (woolly spider monkey) and the golden lion tamarin. Many more of its life forms have already been lost as coffee plantations have marched across the landscape, yet in pocket-sized sanctuaries such as those at Intervales in Sao Paulo State, or in Estacao Biologica de Caratinga in the state of Minas Gerais, rare species are being conserved. The latter, in particular, is a crucial home to the northern muriqui, of which perhaps no more than 800 individuals now survive in the world.

On my first visit to South America, one of the creatures I most longed to see was the extraordinary giant anteater, which eluded me then and for several more visits. Finally, however, I went to western Minas Gerais State, where there is a raised, plateaulike mountain habitat that is protected as part of the Serra da Canastra National Park. There, the raised grasslands dotted with innumerable gray termite mounds are the perfect home for this strange creature.

As if designed as an alien monster by a sci-fi artist, from a distance one giant anteater can easily be confused for two — its enormous, plume tail seems detached and as big as the actual body, while the long narrow tubular snout could be mistaken for a tail and suggest a creature that is heading in two directions at once.

Giant anteaters lumber, walking on their knuckles, snuffing and huffing as they scent out ants and termites. They probe quickly, slurp with their long sticky tongues and trundle on, perhaps with an offspring clinging to their backs, its flank stripes aligned with its parent’s. Though poor of vision, giant anteaters respond quickly to vibration and can show a remarkable turn of speed once spooked.

The grasslands are home, too, to perhaps the most elegant of the world’s dog tribe — the maned wolf. This rufous creature standing nearly a meter at the shoulder is like a large fox on stilts. Yet, though it is the largest canine in South America, sighting one takes dedication for it is shy and retiring. In most places, that is, except one.

An arduous eight-hour drive eastward in the same state delivers the traveler to the Caraca, a remarkable range of mountains, one side gouged by massive mines, one side protected as a natural park. In the latter zone nestles a church and a quaint cluster of buildings that once included a Catholic seminary but now serve as a remote retreat for folk from the city of Belo Horizonte.

The area is lushly forested, and sunrises there are heralded by the distant chorus of masked titi monkeys and the chuckling calls of chickenlike guans. In the evenings, though, visitors can witness perhaps the most bizarre wildlife spectacle in all of South America. From atop the steps outside the church, the local priest beckons for a wild creature to appear — by calling it by its species name, guara, in Portuguese and scraping a pan of meat scraps across the stone terrace!

Astonishingly, on most nights a guara (maned wolf) appears, emerging out of the deep, dark forest depths and pacing imperiously across the lower courtyard. It then climbs the steps to the upper terrace and, pricking its sharply pointed ears, turns its long pointed muzzle in the direction of the hushed human congregation. Ever nervous of sudden movement, it shies easily, but the lure of food soon brings it back until eventually, hunger assuaged, it retreats into the forest’s umbra — leaving awe and amazement behind.

Marmosets, sloths, muriqui and a host of birds in the Atlantic Forest, giant anteaters in Canastra and maned wolves in the mountains of Caraca are a tremendous opener for the ancient natural history of Brazil.

Although it is the Amazon in the north of the country that tends to dominate the public mind and the media, as a natural historian I prefer the relatively unsung natural glories of the Atlantic Forest.

The country’s modern history of course reflects its colonial past, and as such it is both relatively short and heavily Europeanized. However, not far from the mountains of Caraca is Ouro Preto, one of Brazil’s best-preserved colonial cities, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Founded in 1698, Ouro Preto’s name means “black gold,” and in its gold-rush heyday in the 1750s, the city — where high culture flourished — was, with close on 30,000 residents, twice the size of New York and five times that of Rio! Today, with a population of around 70,000, it seems an attractive, sleepy hilltop town commanding lovely views of the surrounding countryside. But its many splendid Baroque churches — some designed by the legendary Aleijadinho (born Antonio Francisco Lisboa; circa 1735-1814) — with their carvings, and gold and silver decorations, justifiably make this a popular destination for travelers through the region.

If the Atlantic Forest and its suite of rare and endangered species represents Brazil’s most extraordinary forest habitat, then the Pantanal stands up for its wetlands.

Lying largely in Brazil’s Matto Grosso do Sul State, though it also extends into parts of Bolivia and Paraguay, this seasonal wetland — the world’s largest wetland of any description — is on an enormous scale, covering as it does some 140,000 to 195,000 sq. km. (up to 1 1/2 times the size of Greece).

The Pantanal as a wetland often puzzles first-time visitors, because much of the area consists of private ranches and grazing lands that are prone to massive and catastrophic fires during the dry season. However, it is during the annual wet season (mostly November to March) that this enormous shallow bowl of countryside floods and fills. Then, the gentle gradient of the region, and the dense vegetation of the Pantanal, slow the runoff flow of the annual 1 to 1 1/2 meters of rainfall so that flooding lasts months, only slowly draining and evaporating away.

It is during the driest season of the year, when water is at a premium, that wildlife is most visible as the animals tend to concentrate at waterholes and around isolated river sections — so making them more approachable.

This is the season to revel in the abundance of the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, to seek out the world’s largest member of the parrot family — the gorgeous hyacinth macaw — and to avoid the cold stare of the Yacare caiman that line the banks of every pool.

Indeed, at night the Pantanal takes on a different aspect. Then it’s not just the eyes of the caiman that reflect light and shine like innumerable rubies scattered across the water, but roaming the darkness in search of food are crab-eating foxes, crab-eating raccoons, Brazilian tapirs and red Brocket deer, and the fortunate observer may also encounter solitary-dwelling southern tamandua (lesser anteater), an ocelot, a puma — or even the most powerful predator of the region, the jaguar. Like a leopard on steroids that works out with weights, the jaguar is capable of killing a capybara or caiman, while just its deep rasping roar is sufficient to send shivers down my spine.

Meanwhile, by day or night diminutive silver-gray Pantanal marmosets, with their long slender black tails, and the much larger black-and-gold howler monkeys are fascinating creatures to look out for. However, two other species in this naturalist’s wonderland never cease to attract me.

First is the enormous giant otter that can reach almost two meters in overall length and weigh as much as 45 kg. These fish-hunting, diurnal (active in daytime) water-loving members of the weasel family roam in family “gangs” in search of prey, but their faces seem so beaten and squashed that it is difficult not to think of them as having been bare-fisted pugilists in a former existence. They huff and grunt as they forage together, and having caught prey the crunching of their teeth through the scales of riverine fish are distinctly audible.

My second Pantanal favorite is the enormous hyacinth macaw. At a meter in length and with a wingspan of 1.4 meters, this is an enormous bird and by far the largest of the flying parrots — only the flightless kakapo of New Zealand outweighs it. Its deep-blue plumage with bright-yellow rings around the eyes and bare skin around the base of the bill are attractive, but the size of its massive bill is alarming. Powerful enough to easily amputate a misplaced finger, these birds typically use that ferocious tool to feed on palm nuts so hard that I found them difficult to even scratch into with a pocket knife.

More than their size or their plumage, though, it is the life history of hyacinth macaws that attracts me. Intensely social, pairs remain together throughout the year and throughout their lives, occupying traditional territories and nesting cavities. Their raucous calls are extremely varied and few sights are as stirring as seeing a family of these enormous birds take to the wing and circle their range chattering to each other as they go. Under threat from collectors for the pet and plume trades, they have also suffered from habitat loss and the burning of their habitat, but some ranchers are now supporting these birds and supply nest boxes for them — while some even plant the palms they require as a food source.

Although the Amazon is the primary draw for many travelers to South America, for me the Atlantic Forest and the Pantanal — two greatly contrasting environments — represent the very best of Brazil’s wild side in terms of wildlife.

For the most powerful and wildest possible experience in Brazil, and arguably in all of South America, nothing beats standing next to the thundering falls in Parana State in the south of the country — the incomparable Cataratas do Iguacu (Iguassu Falls).

The awesome power of the water is deafening and, for those who cannot resist taking the final walkway, it is frequently soaking. Nonetheless, it is a stunningly rewarding soaking because, as local Brazilian guides delight in recounting, as nearly 80 percent of the falls are in Argentina, that gives Brazil nearly all of the view!

And that view is nothing short of spectacular, placing it not only within the top 10 falls in the world — but at the very top of that list. Its name is derived from a local language, and means literally “big water” — though that is something of an understatement. Spanning some 2.7 km, Iguassu Falls comprises as many as 275 separate cascades that coalesce in times of heavy rain and flood. The largest, and by far the most impressive and deafening, is the U-shaped, 82-meter-high “Devil’s Throat.” Here, rushing water falls, plumes of mist rise, and swarms of great dusky swifts swoop and scream through the spray (amazingly they nest behind the cataract).

The volume of water is impossible to imagine, and statistics are almost meaningless (at its minimum during times of drought the flow has been as low as 300 cu. meters per second, but it typically averages more than four times that and peaks at 1,500 cu. meters per second. To believe in the power of these falls one must stand right beside them, and best of all is on a full, moonlit night, when the clouds of spray produce the most beautiful, ethereal and ephemeral display I have ever witnessed — moonbows.

Mark Brazil is a travel and natural history writer who leads nature tour groups around Japan and worldwide. His “Wild Watch” column in The Japan Times has been running since 1982. You can find out more at: www.wildwatchjapan.com.