The Wild

In Praise of the Pantanal

Text by Sustain Team | Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee
In the pristine tropical wetland of Brazil’s Pantanal, South America’s highest concentration of wildlife and biodiversity flourishes.
 The immense Pantanal is an enormous seasonal floodplain in the centre of South America, extending from the banks of the north Paraguay River and its tributaries. Its annual flooding brings many changes to the land and soil, which supports abundant plant, bird, and animal life. The Pantanal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve with varied habitats, forests, and plant life.

The immense Pantanal is an enormous seasonal floodplain in the centre of South America, extending from the banks of the north Paraguay River and its tributaries. Its annual flooding brings many changes to the land and soil, which supports abundant plant, bird, and animal life. The Pantanal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve with varied habitats, forests, and plant life.

Bang in the centre of the South American continent lies the world’s largest and most pristine tropical wetland, the Pantanal. Though somewhat overshadowed by its more famous neighbour the Amazon rainforest, the Pantanal is a massive mosaic of flooded grasslands, savannahs, marshes, seasonal rivers and channels, and tropical forests. It covers a vast region with an area of over 180,000 square kilometres, mostly in Brazil, but also stretching into Paraguay and Bolivia. Within this unique land, a huge reservoir of biodiversity, and the continent’s highest concentration of wildlife, thrives. Over 650 bird species flourish in this wondrous zone: vibrant hyacinth macaws, graceful anhingas, enormous jabiru storks and so on. The fascinating 159 species of mammals that live here include giant anteaters, giant river otters, capybaras, jaguars. In the magical waterways of the Pantanal 325 fish species breed, feeding the region’s birds, mammals, and reptiles, including anacondas and millions of caimans.

Viewing wildlife in the Pantanal is dependent on the season and water levels, and there’s something different and unique going on throughout the year. Wildlife enthusiasts, photographers, eco-tourists and naturalists consider this a true animal paradise. From January to March, 80% of the land is flooded and boats and canoes are the main mode of transportation. For the next three months the water of the flooded plains recedes and it’s possible to also explore parts of the region on horseback. In the dry months from July to September, large numbers of birds and reptiles can be spotted near the drying pools, and visitors can start exploring on foot as well. In October, as the rains gets underway once again, water levels start to rise. Migratory birds leave, but for the resident animals it is mating season.

An estimated ten million caimans inhabit the Pantanal, making this the planet’s largest concentration of these crocodilians. Yacare caiman, the most widespread species, grow to eight feet in length. They were once heavily hunted for their skin, to support the coveted crocodile leather market. After the 1992 global ban on trade in crocodile skin, the caiman population has bounced back with vigour. Interestingly, this predator is also preyed upon in the Pantanal. In the shallow riverbanks jaguars regularly hunt caimans, sometimes killing adults twice their size. Caimans themselves mostly feed on fish, as well the occasional bird, small mammal, or other reptile.

Giant anteaters are hairy, terribly shy, and mostly nocturnal residents of the Pantanal. Their diet is so specialised they eat only ants and termites and they are well adapted to do so. Their powerful limbs have elongated claws which are used to dig up ant hills and termite mounds, which they detect first with their sharp sense of smell. What appears to be a very long nose is in fact an elongated jaw. Giant anteaters have enormously long tongues and plenty of sticky saliva that helps them consume the thousands of ants they need to eat each day. Most giant anteaters are solitary except females who carry their dependent babies on their back until they are weaned. Anteaters have been known to fight jaguars using their intensely sharp claws to lay off an attack.

Huge populations of capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, live in the Pantanal. These animals are well adapted to life on both land and water, and are excellent swimmers. They will often sit close to each other, back-to-back, on an island in the middle of a channel, so they can keep a lookout for jaguars, their chief predator. This kind of spot is safe for them as it’s difficult for jaguars to reach them. They are also able to stay submerged when they need to stave off an enemy.

Once heavily hunted for its pelt, the giant river otter is a furry semi-aquatic creature that grows to six feet in length and is a fast swimmer. It is still listed as an endangered species. Giant river otters are rather vocal, social creatures that live in family groups. They have learned to survive the waters of the Pantanal, despite predators like jaguars and caimans that attack their young. Giant river otters consume vast quantities of fish; this adult can be seen feeding on an eel.

Once heavily hunted for its pelt, the giant river otter is a furry semi-aquatic creature that grows to six feet in length and is a fast swimmer. It is still listed as an endangered species. Giant river otters are rather vocal, social creatures that live in family groups. They have learned to survive the waters of the Pantanal, despite predators like jaguars and caimans that attack their young. Giant river otters consume vast quantities of fish; this adult can be seen feeding on an eel.

Jabiru storks are the tall birds, with black heads and bills, and red necks, abundantly spotted in the Pantanal. In the wet season they feast on the ample fish, reptiles and amphibians in the flood plains. In the dry season they spend most of their time in muddy shallow waters feeding on fish and digging up insects. They can also fly. Their wingspan is nine feet, making them the second-largest bird in South America. Jabiru stork couples work together to make very large nests of sticks and mud where 3-4 eggs are laid and then hatched in four months’ time.

Vibrant cobalt blue hyacinth macaws are usually spotted in pairs as they mate for life. They eat the fruit of the acuri and bocaiúva palm trees. They are the largest of the parrot family, with an adult bird approximately 40 inches in height. Hyacinth macaws were almost wiped out in the 1980s as they were captured and sold as caged pets. They have now, through intense conservation efforts, made a remarkable recovery. A hyacinth macaw profiled against the light of a full moon.

Black-crowned night herons tend to inhabit the mangrove undergrowth, coming out only at dusk and dawn to hunt for food. In the low light, it stands still on the water’s edge to snatch frogs and fish which are its main food source. When prey is caught, the bird vigorously shakes its head to kill the animal, and then swallows it whole, head first. This heron is highly adaptable and is known to eat almost anything.

Sungrebes, also called South American finfoots, like to stay hidden in the thick vegetation of the Pantanal. They swim partly submerged in the water even as they feed on a variety of insects, frogs, crabs, and other small creatures. This sungrebe is eating water spiders. A remarkable adaptation of the sungrebe is that the male has shallow pockets under its wings, where chicks can fit and be carried as the bird is in flight. While ducks and geese may carry their young on their backs while walking or swimming, no other species is known to have the ability to fly with its young.

Sungrebes, also called South American finfoots, like to stay hidden in the thick vegetation of the Pantanal. They swim partly submerged in the water even as they feed on a variety of insects, frogs, crabs, and other small creatures. This sungrebe is eating water spiders. A remarkable adaptation of the sungrebe is that the male has shallow pockets under its wings, where chicks can fit and be carried as the bird is in flight. While ducks and geese may carry their young on their backs while walking or swimming, no other species is known to have the ability to fly with its young.

An anhinga sits on a branch and spreads its gorgeously patterned wings to dry out its feathers. Anhingas belong to the darter family, but their long necks have given them the nickname snakebird. Well adapted to swimming in the ponds, lakes, and swamps of the Pantanal, the anhinga mostly catches and eats fish, spearing it with its sharp bill. It’s hard to imagine that this pretty bird will completely moult after breeding, losing all its flight feathers for a short while until new ones emerge.

An anhinga sits on a branch and spreads its gorgeously patterned wings to dry out its feathers. Anhingas belong to the darter family, but their long necks have given them the nickname snakebird. Well adapted to swimming in the ponds, lakes, and swamps of the Pantanal, the anhinga mostly catches and eats fish, spearing it with its sharp bill. It’s hard to imagine that this pretty bird will completely moult after breeding, losing all its flight feathers for a short while until new ones emerge.

Largest of the toucans, the toco toucan has a brilliant orange beak which is used to feed mostly on fruit, but also insects and small reptiles. Its bill regulates heat distribution in the body. Small flocks of 4-6 birds nest in hollowed trees, where both parents will take turns incubating the eggs and caring for the young. The ancient Aztecs considered this bird sacred, an emissary of the spirit world, whose beak was believed to be the source of the rainbow.

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