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A Fortnight On The Cuiaba

A Fortnight On The Cuiaba

“Such is the diversity and sheer magnificence of the Pantanal in Brazil that even after having returned to the daily grind for more than three weeks now, the wilderness of the wetlands hasn’t left me,” reflects Bhavna Menon of her indulgent neotropical experience.

A handsome jaguar the author sighted in the Pantanal. Photo: Bhavna Menon.

Every time I look at the photographs or even go through my field notes, I am transported back to the whirr of the speed boat (the Pantanal has boat safaris owing to the thick forests that make conventional land safaris near impossible) on the stunning Cuiaba river that is flanked by forests on either side. This curtain of foliage is dramatically parted every once in a while by a curious jaguar, sunbathing caimans, jumpy capybaras or even the tall and intimidatingly beautiful Jabiru Storks.

A good six-hour drive from the Cuiaba airport, the way to the Pantanal is over the Trans-pantaneira road, which is little more than a mud track. The journey gives a first glimpse into the life that exists in this part of the world. The water bodies full of hyacinth that dot either side of the road are the perfect place to look out for caimans. As we moved slowly with our faces plastered to the car windows, determined not to miss anything, I nearly jumped out of the moving vehicle when I spotted my first caiman! As I drank in this first sighting, I was also honored with the presence of a giant anteater prancing gracefully across a grassy patch, much like a lady sporting a ball gown. Once our excitement for the caimans and anteater had died down, we were privy to a huge colony of storks and egrets embellishing the trees in different shades of white. Leaving behind the cacophony of the birding site, we drove on and then halted suddenly to watch a golden rope slither across the road. ‘Succuri’ yelled the driver as we struggled to recover from the sudden stop and rapid Portuguese.

A caiman lies partially submerged in the river. Photo: Bhavna Menon. 

Rushing out of the vehicle we followed the commotion to spot a beautiful yellow anaconda, glinting superbly in the mid day sun. Clapping his hands with delight, the driver boasted about his luck with anacondas, while we tried to absorb the fact that we had actually seen one! These stunning snakes are patterned in yellow and black much like the jaguar.

The Pantanal is not only an exceptionally bio diverse region (a discovery we made within five minutes of entering the wilderness) but an animal sensitive area too. With Toucans, Chachalacas, Caracaras, Hyacinth Macaws, and Black Vultures roaming the resort grounds at will, you can sense how wildlife, even birds, have been given their right to exist without stress despite living in a human infested landscape. Even on the river, once a jaguar has been sighted, no one shouts, or jostles with each other for a better look at the cat or for a better spot. It’s a welcome change from the scene at popular cat destinations in India. Here, people are patient, the cats are obliging and life goes on as smoothly as a capybara swimming across a water channel.

It is this relatively ‘stress – less’ existence between the observer and the ‘observee’ that accounts majorly for a fantastic wildlife experience. Owing to a relaxed audience and a good wildlife sensitive model in place, we were lucky enough to see 15 individual jaguars in our two weeks in the Pantanal.

Sometimes spending close to four hours watching them hunt, we would observe as they would stalk across the riverbank on the lookout for caiman, systematically checking every hyacinth clump for the reptiles. We heard capybaras issue alarm calls that sound like a dog with a very bad cold, watched armadillos watching us from the safe confines of their den, traversed the most beautiful of rivers, braved rain and cold weather while watching a jaguar hunt and drag a capybara across a beach in a torrential downpour, observed mating jaguars on a cold, dark evening till dusk enveloped them, heard the haunting call of howler monkeys, raced into surreally lovely sunrises and sunsets, spotted birds with the most colorful of plumages, watched river otters communicate over a log full of fish and watched bats pick off insects from the surface of the water, which by late evening reflected the unimaginable hues of purple, yellow and blue of the fast darkening sky.

A capybara family wades through the waters. Photo: Bhavna Menon. 

This landscape boasts of nearly 2000 jaguars, and the population of cats in this region is said to be relatively safe, with revenge killings by ranch owners and poaching believed to have reduced over the years. Thought to be the ultimate phantom of the South American wilderness, jaguars have been more visible over the last eight years. As I rewind my memory, I judge the most memorable of sightings as the one when a female jaguar decided to pay us a visit at the resort. The magnificent feline settled down on a walkway built to observe birds, and stared into the water below for a pouncing chance at any unsuspecting caiman. Undeterred by our presence, she soon melted away into the dark forest while we juggled varying degrees of euphoria.

The Pantanal is a haven for cat and bird enthusiasts alike. Sail on the Cuiaba, track the rosettes and every time you find yourself drifting into a peaceful mid summer slumber, slip your hand into the refreshingly cold water to reawaken to the magic that is the Pantanal.

Bhavna Menon graduated with a Bachelors degree in Arts from Delhi and later, moved to Mumbai to pursue her post-graduate studies in Journalism. She is currently employed with Last Wilderness Foundation, an NGO working towards wildlife conservation, as a Project Co-ordinator. An unedited version of this article was first published here.

Author: Bhavna Menon.


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