The Pantanel

Earthly Paradise

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“Welcome to Paradise!” A pair of binoculars dangling from his neck, ornithologist Reggie Donatelli stands on the lawn of the Fazenda Rio Negro and invites me to survey the surroundings. Fifty feet away, nestled in a palm tree, is pair of Hyacinth Macaws, their plumage a gorgeous shade of purplish blue. A threatened species, this bird is found primarily in the region known as the Pantanal. Nearby, looking very much like its cousins the ostrich and the emu, a Greater Rhea pecks at the lawn, searching for grubs. Also within sight are a Jabiru stork, a Campos flicker, Buff-necked Ibises, Herons, Egrets and flocks of parrots – just a few of the over 300 species of birds which have been observed here. For bird-lovers, this place might well be paradise.

The Fazenda (ranch) is located on the banks of the Rio Negro, teeming with fish, caimans (alligators), and rarely seen creatures like the Giant River Otter. The forests and savannas which surround this land are home to jaguars, peccaries (boar-like ungulates), anteaters, capybaras (picture a dog-sized guinea pig!) monkeys, foxes, and countless reptiles, amphibians and insects. Included in the latter category is the mosquito, which in the early evenings does its best to make us feel like a part of the local food chain. “Us” is an Earthwatch team, here to assist Professor Donatelli as he monitors the avian component of the mosaic of life which comprises the Pantanal.

Located south of the Amazon basin and east of the Andes, the Pantanal is said to be the largest wetland in the world – an enormous river basin roughly the size of England (about 90,000 square miles), within the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. It is the flood plain for the Paraguay River and its tributaries.

Although facing many threats and challenges from human occupation, the Pantanal (translated as “swamp” or “marsh”) is considered to be one of the last relatively pristine areas on earth, rich in biodiversity. A healthy Pantanal is essential to maintaining regional water quality. This enormous wetlands serves as a natural filter, a “kidney” to the super-organism of the ecosystem. It also acts like an organic sponge to buffer and control the effects of flooding.

The Pantanal is threatened by agribusiness, by pollution, and by efforts to dam, dredge and straighten its rivers. Alarmed by the deterioration of Florida’s everglades, a region smaller in scale, but similar in its make-up to the Pantanal, the governments of Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay have thus far kept most large scale development in check. A number of government and non-governmental organizations have organized efforts to protect the Pantanal, in part through promoting ecotourism and cattle ranching which, historically, is thought to have a relatively light footprint on the grasslands of the region.

The Pousada Ararauna acts as base for scientists and research teams who are studying the region and its varied fauna. The accommodations are pleasant and comfortable, the food outstanding, and the wildlife viewing remarkable. They offer observatory trails, photographic safaris, and boat, canoe and horseback tours. Earthwatch also brings in volunteers to work on projects studying jaguars, peccaries, fruit-eating creatures, and otters. For more information go to or

There are two seasons hereabouts – wet and dry, and our Earthwatch team is here in January, the heart of the rainy season, when much of the region is underwater. Some of the research is done by boat, some on horseback, on foot and on four-wheel drive vehicles, which manage to get stuck in the mud on a semi-regular basis. Under Reggie Donatelli’s watchful eye, we learn how to take a daily census of birds, set mist nets (made of fine mesh) to catch birds, record their vital statistics, band and release them. Each band has a unique number which can be used to trace the bird’s migratory patterns if it happens to be caught again. On occasion, recordings are used to attract different species of birds to the nets. My role here is to help make recordings and to document some of the myriad sounds of the Pantanal. In so doing, the hope is that we’ll bring this extraordinary region to the attention of tourists and travelers. If you are looking for one of the few places on earth that remain relatively untouched by the hand of man, this is a destination you may want to seriously consider. The panoply of wildlife here is diverse enough to keep the most jaded observer occupied, and you can do your observing without sacrificing any creature comforts. Responsible ecotourism is one of the key elements in the plan to preserve and protect the Pantanal – an earthly paradise where humans and animals still have the chance to coexist.

Scientist Profile
Dr. Reginaldo Donatelli has a Ph.D. in Ornithology (1991) and a Master’s degree in Zoology (1987) from Universidade de São Paulo, SP, Brazil. He has been Professor of Zoology (Vertebrates) at the Universidade Estadual Paulista, UNESP, Bauru campus since 1991.

Dr. Donatelli’s field experience includes: study of migratory birds in the Lagoa do Peixe, and in the Taim’s reserve, Reggie with a birdRio Grande do Sul (bird banding); survey of birds in northern Pantanal (Poconé region); project developed in the Caratinga’s World Wildlife Foundation reserve and Vale do Rio Doce’s reserve, both in Minas Gerais; studies on Amazonian birds in Belém do Pará; bird-banding in southwestern SP, Assis region for three years (doves’ nesting in sugar-cane); and a survey of birds in many tropical forest remnants in São Paulo. He is currently writing a field guide of birds from Bauru and region (central-western part of the Estate of São Paulo) and is conducting studies on Birds and Dynamic Habitat Mosaics in the Pantanal, Brazil. Listen to the audio interview below:

Scientist Profile
Dr. Alexine Keuroghlian is a researcher and teacher at the University for the Development of the State and region of the Pantanal (UNIDERP). She participated in the primate project with the World Wildlife Fund project in the Amazon – now called the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragment Project.

Alexine KeuroghlianAlexine’s first research project was studying endangered black lion tamarins in the Amazon basin. However, after her brief work with primates, she began researching peccaries, first in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, and now in the Pantanal. Now Alexine has been studying the role of peccaries as a landscape species in fragments of the Atlantic forest, and in the Pantanal.

Keuroghlian’s education includes a Master’s in Wildlife Management from West Virginia and a Ph.D. in the Program of Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology at the University of Nevada at Reno. Listen to the audio interview below:

Other Interviews

Interview with Reinaldo Lourival

Renaldo Lourival Interview

TITLE:  Pantanal Wetlands           
WITH:  Reinaldo Lourival, regional director of Conservation International.           

We are talking about the Pantanal.  The biggest wetland in the world.  It’s 140,000 square kilometers, ten times the everglades, and it’s located at the center of South America. So, what we are doing in the Pantanal area, we are trying to implement a conservation strategy that is based on the concept of the ecological corridors, or biodiversity corridors.  So we want to link the Pantanal to the surrounding ecosystems. That means that animals and plants would have the chance to exchange genetic material from a population that is in the upper part of the basin or the watershed, and they can change genes, and they can breed.

What’s going on is the Pantanal is a complex ecosystem and it comprises the watershed which is in the central plateau of Brazil and the big flood plain.  The big flood plain is still intact.  We’re talking about more than eighty percent intact.  But the surrounding areas are going through a process of fragmentation due to agricultural development, human encroachment, and road building and stuff like that.  So the idea is that we can connect those areas using rivers and watersheds as a means to keep the gene flow, genetic material exchange. 

It’s a very rich ecosystem.  It’s very productive.  So in the case of the Pantanal we have more than three thousand and five hundred species of plants.  We have three hundred species of fresh water fish.  We have 100 species of mammals.  Six hundred and fifty species of birds.  Because of productivity of the ecosystem you have a big abundance of fish, which brings you a big abundance of waterfowl, which then gives you abundance of reptiles.  So, you’re gonna find there the biggest densities of crocodilians in the world. So you have, sometimes you can find a pond where you find more than a thousand animals together.

it’s not only because of the size, but the complexity.  It links many different ecosystems in South America.  So, it’s a place where species can use to breed and, or they can use for migration.  So, we have a lot of birds that migrate from the northern hemisphere.  They migrate from the southern part of the continent.  Also to visit the Pantanal and use the productivity of their breeding purposes. 

We have a major threat that is mining on some of the areas on the plateau that brings quicksilver to the flood plain which is incorporated in the food chain.  We are talking about the development of transportation routes along the Pantanal. We are talking also about human development, which increases sewage, that goes to the flood plain.  And in term of these internal threats, in the Pantanal we have cattle ranching as a major economic activity.  And it has been sustainable for the last two hundred years.  But then, due to difficulties in terms of cattle ranch development, some of the farmers are introducing new grazing areas. They put the forests down and put new grass on top of it.  So it creates a huge grassland areas that simplifies the ecosystem.  It’s bad for biodiversity in general. 

Biologist Leandro Silveira on the Pantanal Jaguar

Leandro Silveira on the Pantanal Jaguar

Well, The jaguar is a top predator.  It’s the largest carnivore in Brazil.  And, it is one of the best examples of habitat quality.  Its presence is one of the best examples of habitat quality because they require each animal.  Require a large home ranges and they depend on habitat quality.  They depend on good natural cover.  They depend on natural prey base.  That means the presence of a jaguar in one specific site, that means that site is in good quality. 

It is pretty difficult to see jaguars in the wild.  They’re very secretive animals.  To study jaguars we end up doing a lot of detective work.  We work on signs.  We have to learn to read evidence left in the wild.  It’s a better chance of seeing jaguars is along the river side, on the river banks and the sand beach early in the morning when they come out for sun bathing.

We have recorded jaguars calling at night.  And, uh, we have in Brazil, hunters use a caller, we call it a jaguar caller.  It’s an instrument they make out of a plant.  And  it’s a hollow plant.  And you call imitate the sound and the animal respond to that.

Jaguars play a very mystic role, in Brazilian culture.  Especially in indigenous people all those local up there in remote areas.  They are very afraid of the jaguars.  They are very afraid to be attacked.  And what we have learned studying jaguars is that the last thing that animals will do is to attack a human being.  All the attacks, when you go off to the records of jaguar attacking humans, it is always related to situations where they were they were treed or, you know, they were being hunted or they were shot and they wounded and they would come back to the people.  So, what we have learned we have been in situations where we have been very close to animals and these animals just walked away. So what we could see was the fear is so big, but, actually the animals , do avoid humans and there’s no record of natural attacks in this regions.Pantanal Research Links

Links to research being conducted at Pousada Ararauna may be found under the “Projects” heading at

Helen Waldermarin on Otters

Helen Waldermarin
Author, researcher, otter specialist

I’m work in Pantanal, in Brazil, in Central West Brazil. And I’m studying otters, giant otters and neo-tropical otters in Pantanal. We have thirteen otter species in the world, and in Brazil we have these two species: the giant and neo-tropical.
The difference between giant and neo-tropical otters — the giant otters are bigger, longer. They are social animals; they live in familiar groups. And the neo-tropical otters are smaller, and they are solitary animals. They live themselves, only are together during the reproductive time.
I have two main issues in the project. One of them is we are studying how the neotropical and the giant otters can live together in this area without have a direct competition. So they are using the same resources, they are using the same area, they are similar animals, and how they are not competing in the area. Another one is to try to understand the habitat requirements and the general requirements of giant otters – they are a threatened species. And, uh, especially, um, what they need to live and to have a healthy population in an area, and they try to use this data for tourism management in Pantanal.
Ecotourism in Pantanal is increasing a lot, and the experience in some areas, outside Brazil especially in Peruvian Amazon, they found that the otters can be disrupted. The behavior can be disrupted. So the idea is have a good, a good tourism that will not disrupt the giant otters’ activities.
I guess the first thing is that we don’t know almost anything about these animals, and so to learn about the animals, the wildlife that we have. And besides this, considering that they are top predators, they are very important to maintain the biodiversity and the aquatic environment and the environment as general.

The Pantanel

Video: Featured on the video, in order of appearance are — a Campos (or Field) Flicker, a Rufescent Tiger Heron, a boat trip up the Rio Negro, cowboy musicians Celso do Silva and Arnaldo Silverio – who diligently practice every night at the Fazenda, an Egret in flight from its nesting site along the river, some feral pigs who visit the Fazenda in the evenings, ants, a caiman, a Tri-colored Hog-Nose Snake, an immature Yellow-billed Cardinal with an injured wing being examined, a Greater Rhea, sunset from the Fazenda. (2:12)


Related programs on Pulse of the Planet:

Pantanal: Listening to Jaguars

Pantanal: Tracking Peccaries

For information on joining an Earthwatch Expedition in the Pantanal go to the Expedition signup page at

Thanks to Reggie Donatelli, for his patience, generosity and good humor, Blue Magruder and Heather Pruiksma at Earthwatch, photographers “Uncle Jeff” Himmelstein and Ellen McKnight, and all the other members of the team (Lee, Warren and Ron) who had to put up with the pesky demands of a sound recordist (“Quiet on the boat, please!”), research scientists Don Eaton, Alexine Keurohghlian and Marion Kallerhoff, Rick Prum and family, musicians Celso do Silva and Arnaldo Silverio, and intrepid guide Picolay.

Video and all sounds ©2007 Jim Metzner. All Rights Reserved. Portions of this feature used with kind permission from Sampling or any commercial use without permission is strictly prohibited.