South-Brazilian Pantanal in Spring
August - September 2014
How fascinating: After years and years of many trips I find myself writing about all the new lessons I have learnt on this Brazil trip. Of course I shared phenomenal, intimate encounters with wildlife. But I also got myself into a potentially devastating situation from a photography point of view, endured a heart-stopping moment and broke some small but important equipment. One major lesson I take away from this trip is that from now on I will have to establish a better routine of preparation before departure.
And then there remains one big question: When I look at the images of the two young ocelots I spent about 10 nights looking for at Pousada Aguapé I wonder if I will one day regret not having taken along the PhaseOne medium format camera system which I had been testing in the Swiss summer months. Some of the results I managed to get on this trip are very special and I can only imagine what these images would look like in 16-Bit colour depth at 60 megapixel, captured through a huge and heavy prime lens by Schneider Kreuznach. But this is theory. In reality I have been extremely privileged to be in the presence of these animals with a Elinchrom flash setup and my Canon EOS 1DX and 1Ds Mk III cameras. Definitely no complaints from my side.
It all started nice and easy. I was booked on the Swiss flight from Zurich to São Paulo on Saturday, 23 August. This meant that I had plenty of time finishing up all the office stuff, pack my bags and get ready for departure. All the equipment was there: Three camera bodies with plenty of spare batteries, lenses from 16mm to 600mm plus extender, flash guns, filters, two tripods, the Elinchrom Ranger flash systems with its powerful battery packs, flash stands and soft boxes, the remote release cables, the card readers, the Mac for backups and the external disks for redundant backups. I had even packed a TrailMaster camera trap with accessories. But what I found out while unpacking at Aguapé was that I had left behind the charger for my camera batteries. The days before I left had been extremely hectic and I never got around to do what I usually do: Charge all the batteries I take along and then pack the stuff. For some reason I simply forgot to throw the charger into my camera bag.
I would be fine for 3 – 4 days of battery power but after that the cameras would remain silent if no solution could be found. But here I was at Pousada Aguapé, far from any place with a camera shop. Let alone one that would stock a charger for the EOS 1D system. To my great luck I could get in touch via Facebook with Guilherme Gallo Ortiz in São Paulo. He was due to arrive later that week to check the camera traps we had deployed on the Fazenda. (We are attempting to track movements of ocelots, pumas and jaguars and to count individuals resident on the beautiful 2’500ha farm along Rio Aquidauana.) Every major photography shop in Campinas was contacted and Guilherme eventually called Canon Brazil. A charger for 1D X cameras was not available in the country. Literally last minute rescue came from a fellow Canon photographer who was prepared to sell a 2nd hand charger for an older 1D model. It would work with my batteries. This was one of the moments when an item of very little use in one place suddenly becomes highly valuable and expensive to obtain in another place. Nevertheless my problem was solved (and a huge thank you again to Guilherme for this big save).
At Pousada Aguapé the mammals and birdlife sightings were once again phenomenal. But the Pantanal looked unusual. It was the end of the dry winter months. Most trees should have shed their leaves and grassland should have been as blond as a finalist in a Scandinavian beauty pageant by now. Instead the forests were green, steaming hot and moist. The pastures and meadows looked like the plains of the Okavango in flood and many farm roads were inaccessible due to water levels. In the middle of the dry season parts of the Pantanal had seen rainfall of an intensity never before recorded. For me this meant that the riverine forest between Rio Aquidauana and one of the big lagoons, where we would go to night after night looking for the ocelots would be darker, greener, more slippery and full of mosquitoes and ticks. However, it was all worth it a thousand times. With the help of Fabiano Vargas I managed to capture some of the best images yet in my portfolio.
The setup is ready: Waiting for the ocelots to show up, with Fabiano Vargas
Carrying the heavy and bulky flash set down into this forest night after night required a bit of effort. Some nights there were no cats. Sometimes one showed up but stayed hidden barely visible in an area of dense undergrowth. Sometimes there were too many coatis in the area and once there was a Giant anteater just meters from where I was to arrange my setup. But there were some nights on which pure magic happened: Fascinating encounters with two of the approximately 10 ocelots in the wider area.
Flash and remote release camera setup in forest along Rio Aquidauana
The extremely rare moments when a technically elaborate photography setup was closely inspected from a tree by a wild living ocelot, or when one of the stunningly beautiful 15kg cats appeared less than a metre in front of my wide-angle lens as lay am down on the forest ground were what I carried all this photographic equipment to the Pantanal for. I hope the results speak for themselves.
Although the ocelots certainly are one of the highlights of Pousada Aguapé the place has a lot more to offer. Excursions on foot, by safari vehicle, on horseback, by boat, by light aircraft and soon on the lagoons by paddleboat open a window into the fascinating arrangement farm animals and wildlife find here. I love boats on rivers, so I was looking forward to heading out at first light one morning on the Rio Aquidauana. This brown sandy river was still holding a lot of water now. However it was nothing compared to the green season where levels rise by 5m and more, resulting in vast tracts of land getting flooded.
We had been about half an hour out downstream when Fabiano pulled up to the shore at a wildlife crossing, leading away from the river towards a lagoon. The channel connecting river and lagoon when water levels were high enough was completely dry now. The muddy underground covered by pale yellow sand soon showed very fresh tracks of a jaguar. The cat must have moved through there probably no more than two hours before we did and we soon decided to relocate one of the camera traps there the next day.
There is one golden rule regarding big lenses on tripods and boats: Never leave the tripod standing in the boat without holding on to it. Northern Pantanal rivers such as the Cuiabà, the Piquiri or the Tres Irmãos are littered with Canon and Nikon sets worth thousands of Dollars each because the rigs went over board when boats hit tree trunks or a sand bank. I had already fallen over twice on the slippery forest ground with the huge 600mm lens mounted to its heavy tripod and understandably as we got ready to leave I first put the camera into the boat. But then I was called back and we looked at some more tracks and eventually my friend and guide stepped onto the boat before I did, slipped, brought the boat to shake from side to side nearly capsizing it and the 1D X and the 600 f/4 II including Gitzo tripod and Wimberley head went into the murky Rio Aquidauana. Luckily the gear went over board on the shore side where the river was just knee deep. Right on the other side of the boat was a spot several metres deep. Camera, lens and tripod got fully submerged but survived without lasting damage and by the end of the afternoon everything was dry and clean. I must admit though that it was quite shocking to see the set full on disappear in the flowing river. Note to self: In future stick again to golden rule regarding camera gear and boats :-).
Where my equipment nosedived into the river
The magic of Aguapé
So what is it that makes the Pantanal in general and places such as Pousada Aguapé and Fazenda Barranco Alto in particular so special? – In a sentence: The owners of these farms belong to a small but growing community of farmers who support and protect rather than merely tolerate or even bother and poach wildlife on their farms.
Pantaneiro hospitality at Pousada Aguapé
Tolerating wildlife such as capybaras, anteaters, caiman, peccaries, feral pigs and deer means that sooner or later large predators such as pumas and jaguars will follow. Their presence will result in a conflict of interest, as the large cats will sometimes go after livestock. On Fazenda Sao Jose (the farm on which Pousada Aguapé is actually situated) pumas will take up to 20 calves each year. At approximately 400 Brazilian Reais per calf the presence of pumas leads to a loss of up to 10’000 Reais per year. Of course today the Aguapé guest lodge will more than compensate such losses. But this clearly shows why large predators in particular are considered pests and are illegally killed on many other farms still today.
In the early days of colonial farming this was simply a battle between man and beast and the loss of a single cow could result in tragedy for a family who had just built a cottage and cleared a couple of square meters of forest. The situation in fact was identical throughout Europe and in alpine Switzerland until very recently. (Political discussions about if and how large carnivores are to be tolerated go on as intensively as ever.) Equally this is how things have been on Brazilian farms ever since European settlers started cutting and burning the vast forests of Mato Grosso to convert and farm this land.
What changed? What made the family who owns Aguapé start to protect its wildlife? When I discussed these questions with Joana Tatoni she could not pinpoint a particular year but confirmed that her parents just had always appreciated wildlife and at some stage decades ago decided to join and support species conservation programs on their farm and they got farm workers to respect this. First was the Arara Azul project to protect the critically endangered Hyacinth macaws. Then followed the Projeto Tamandua, a project addressed at conserving Giant anteater and Southern tamandua populations. And now through our camera trap project we are looking at the ocelots and through newly obtained insight we are gaining knowledge about the presence and movements of pumas and jaguars on the farm.
A breeding pair of Hyacinth macaws enjoy an easy breakfast at Aguapé
The idea of setting up a guesthouse started roughly at the same time. 30 years ago friends and family would come out to the farm to go fishing on Rio Aquidauana. As the drive from Aquidauana could be quite a stretch depending on road conditions visitors started to ask to stay over. At first some family bedrooms were converted to occasional guest rooms and step-by-step Pousada Aguapé was built up. Today the guesthouse on this farm has 15 guest rooms and visitors stay 3 nights on average (although with some new activities my recommendation would be to spend 4 - 5 nights there at least).
The Ocelot Project
At the end of 2013 we had agreed to set up camera traps on the farm trying to establish the number of individual ocelots and to confirm which other cat species were resident on the farm. Puma tracks were spotted and sightings were recorded from time to time, but jaguars were believed to be absent from Aguapé and the area along Rio Aquidauana. I had organised 12 traps to be delivered to the farm and Guilherme Gallo Ortiz agreed to deploy the traps in February 2014, to check them in April, June and August and to do a final check and collect the traps in November. Already our first two checks showed the presence of about 15 individual ocelots, several pumas and at least two jaguars on the farm. The third check conducted while I was there in August confirmed ocelot and puma density / distribution and later on we found jaguar tracks in an area where no camera trap had been deployed.
Camera trap images showing ocelot, jaguar and puma on the farm
With the help of Malini Pittet (Conservation Biologist with the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group) we later relocated one of the traps to that spot and we are eagerly anticipating the moment when Guilherme will return to Aguapé and check the memory card on this and all the other traps in a final round. Thereafter results will be consolidated in a report, which Pousada Aguapé will be able to use in advertising and hopefully in gaining some support from neighbouring farms.
Pousada Aguapé is ideally situated to be included in Pantanal travel itineraries. For now there is no place other than this one where wild living ocelots that are used to seeing humans on foot can be observed on a regular basis. The cats as well as their prey base are very well protected here.
To Fazenda Barranco Alto
Following the time at Aguapé I had arranged 10 nights on a 110km2 farm about 85km north of Rio Aquidauana: Fazenda Barranco Alto. A Swiss Family living in Brazil has owned this farm for nearly 40 years now and ever since they took ownership wildlife on their property got respected and protected. As a result of this Barranco Alto today extends across a fantastically beautiful area with hundreds of forest- and grassland fringed lakes, pans and lagoons (saltwater and freshwater) along Rio Negro. This is a phenomenal destination and I recommend Barranco Alto to be included in any Pantanal travel plan. Activities include bush walks, safaris by vehicle and on horseback as well as boat and canoe trips on the river.
There is one absolutely fantastic fact: As I type these lines I sit in 41° C. afternoon heat at Kwara Camp in Botswana, overlooking a lagoon in the Okavango Delta. How great it would be if I could just stroll down ten steps and dip into this water… Unfortunately I would have little chances of surviving this as the waters around her, just like any other river in this area are home to rather huge Nile crocodiles and hippos. The Rio Negro at Fazenda Barranco Alto on the other hand is perfect for swimming. Yes there are lots of caiman and piranha but swimming is safe and paddling up a few hundred metres to one of the golden sand beaches, then dipping into the river makes one look forward to the midday heat day after day.
Perfect place for a swim in the Rio Negro during siesta
Jaguars are seen somewhat less often at Barranco Alto than along the rivers near Porto Jofre, about an hours flight . Besides a very healthy population of macaws (Hyacinth, Red-and-green, Blue-and-yellow, Golden-collared) the area is full of birds and wildlife. On the morning and afternoon game drives I also had excellent sightings of Giant anteater, Southern tamandua, marsh and pampas deer, Collared and White-lipped peccaries, Feral pigs, ocelot and tapir. The boat outings along Rio Negro provided some close up encounters with Neotropical otters, caiman and many of the birds that can be found along riverine forests. A highlight of my early-morning canoe trip down the river certainly was the opportunity of getting to within touching distance of a family of capybara in the day's first sunlight, the river covered by mists of condensation. Barranco Alto also holds a gruesome and extremely fascinating site: The old saw mill. Next to this mill there are ruins of farm cottages that had been abandoned after a murder among farm workers many years ago. These cottages have since become the home of two colonies of bats. One of the colonies is insectivorous; the other colony is one of Vampire bats. Visitors interested in seeing the animals may approach the cottages. Through a window shutter, which can be opened from outside one will be able to observe and photograph the bats. The Vampire Bats are truly out of this world and Hollywood could not have created a scarier mob. I managed to hold my breath for a few moments and capture some very cool images of South America’s bloodiest bathroom.
My big hope for visiting Barranco Alto of course had been to find the Neotropical pumas. These beautiful cats, so I had been told by fellow safari enthusiast Mike Bailey, could be observed here from time to time. However I had no information regarding time of day and possible locations. Morning game drives and boat outings started around sunrise and ended at the brunch table. Afternoon game drives left the lodge between 15:00h and 16:00h, included a sundowner and ended at the dinner table around 19:00h (spotlighting on the way back). The outing on horseback and by canoe could be arranged individually. Being in the field on a horse is fantastic and I particularly enjoyed getting onto the river in a canoe before sunrise.
As opposed to some African safari camps Barranco Alto does not have trackers, but relies on naturalists and field guides to accompany visitors. Thus it was impossible to follow even the very fresh tracks as the guide driving understandably cannot track at the same time. Wonderful days passed and my time in the field came and went.
Cruising on the Rio Negro with Lucas Leuzinger
While I enjoyed all my activities at some stage I started to worry for my puma sightings. But then luck struck. We had been out for a churrasco in the field one night and were driving back to the lodge at 21:30h when about 400m from the lodge the German wildlife biologist Lydia Möcklinghoff called all vehicles on the radio confirming the sighting of a young male puma. My guide, Hugo, and I were in the vehicle right behind Lydia. Lucas was a few hundred metres behind us. Seconds after the radio call a very tall and slender puma appeared in our spotlight. The cat moved away from the vehicles towards a forest area and Lucas chose the best track to get close to the puma. Then, about 20m in front of Lucas’ vehicle the puma casually lay down on the road and observed what was happening around him. I thought that taking the long lens and tripod out of the vehicle would possibly not work out and I decided trying to approach as close as possible on foot. Two cars were shining their spotlights towards the cat. At a distance of probably not more than 15 – 20 metres I now had a very clear view and soon Lucas was standing behind me. The puma got up, casually turned its head to check us out and after a few seconds started to stroll off into the forest. These few seconds had been enough to make the most of what my camera and lens could offer technically. I managed to capture a beautiful, expressive photo that clearly places this magnificent cat in a subtropical environment.
To my surprise I then learnt that this puma had been seen hunting around the farm almost every night. But it would only show up in complete darkness and mostly after 21:00h. Would I have known this I would have asked the Barranco Alto team to swap my afternoon activity for night drives. I can only imagine what could have been with the female and cub whose tracks we had come across three times…
Neotropical puma (Puma concolor cabrerae) checking me out from the forest
For my next visit to Barranco Alto I will aim to arrange a private guided trip focussing on finding the pumas after dark. But for now I was packing my bags, getting ready to fly out to Campo Grande from where Gol Airlines and Swiss would take me back to Switzerland.
Although road transfer is possible, getting to and from these farms I again booked Marcelo Pantaneiro Barros with his Cessna 172. Air charter saves a lot of time as depending on road conditions the transfer from Aguapé to Barranco Alto may take up to 6 hours by car, but just 35 minutes by light aircraft. Marcelo knows the area very well and on the evening before my departure we did a low fly-over of Barranco Alto at sunset. What a phenomenal scenic flight. With both doors of the little plane removed I managed to get some very beautiful aerial shots of this farm.
Taking off for a sunset cruise in the Cessna 172
As I am sitting here in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta I compare the experiences of travelling in the Brazilian Pantanal and of visiting some leading safari destinations of the Southern African bush. There are so many fascinating smaller and bigger ideas these two destinations could adopt from each other. For my friends in Brazil I am busy compiling a list of additional ideas to possibly enhance visitor experiences. As for sharing Brazilian concepts with the African side: This will take a bit of time and eventually some open minds to achieve.
My Swiss Int. Airlines flight from Zurich to Sao Paulo was as comfortable as ever and the connection in the new international terminal at Guarulhos Airport worked perfectly. Onward travel was with Azul Airlines and the return flight from Campo Grande was arranged via Gol Airlines. There was a bearable surcharge for my excess luggage. Well worth the effort when I look at the photographic results.
Patrick Meier – October 2014