22 January 2009


In October 2008, I went to Brazil for three weeks with Allen Hershkowitz, senior NRDC scientist, on a fact finding mission to explore some of the vital, but less-known, ecological “Hot Spots.” (Brazil might be the most important place in the world from a biodiversity standpoint.) Some examples: The Atlantic Forest is one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, even after having been 90 percent deforested. The Cerrado, the central plateau, is also rated as one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots. Emas National Park is an oasis, rich in a plethora of species, sandwiched between sugar cane and cattle ranches. The Pantanal “swamps” (funny how negative the connotation, and, am I being repetitive here?) let’s just say it’s the place where the knowledgeable wildlife watchers come.

Being south of the Equator, springtime, the rainy season in much of the area we would see, was just beginning. As “Yanquis,” we went armed with the best western vaccines and preventatives known to “man,” which usually turned out to be detrimental to our salvation. One thing that amazes me is the ubiquity of the modern electronic realm; the world is shrinking, especially the “great unknown.” Ironic that western man and his religions spent so long “subjugating the beast,” and suddenly we realize that our vanquish is our own detriment. The “beast” is what gives us our clean air, clean water, and more important, though entirely ethereal, our spirit.

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Our flight from New York to Sao Paulo was uneventful and, after a cautionary check on our luggage, we went on to Campo Grande, capitol of Mato Grosso do Sul, a booming ranching state. Since the time zone is the same as New York, we had minimal travel weariness.

The next day we connected with Sandro Menezes, Pantanal program manager for Conservation International. It's always a joy to meet people that are experts in their field and can give you the nitty gritty on the ground, and we would meet many on this trip; dedicated, experienced, knowledgeable people working on the issues. Sandro took us to meet with Neo Tropica Foundation at its office in Bonito; this is a group that is working to save the Pantanal (largest swamp in the world), which stretches across three countries: Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil. They are doing good work, but due to the lack of a donor base, must accept money from corporations whose activities might conflict with the goals of the foundation.

We stayed at the Hotel de Cabanas, a delightful eco-tourism lodge with a friendly, dynamic staff. That afternoon, we did their Canopy tour, essentially a Marine Corps obstacle course, 30 feet off the ground. Imagine tight-rope walking through the trees. It's quite a thrill to be in the tree-tops, but not for the faint of heart, and the end is a zip ride into the water, a finale we all declined as it was late and cold.


Distances are long in Brazil, prompting an early departure the next morning for the drive to Jardim. The cowboy culture created in Hollywood and revered around the world actually exists in The Pantanal. Cattle-raising has been the main industry in the region for hundreds of years.

The Cabecira do Prata Cattle Ranch was inherited by a maverick son with a passion for the environment, and an obstinate will. In spite of the protests of his family, he created Rio de Prata Eco tours, the main attraction being a snorkeling tour down the Olho Dágua River to the Prata River. Visitors are outfitted with a wetsuit, mask and snorkels, introduced to their very knowledgeable guide, and then take a walk through the remaining cattle operation down to the river, during which a history of the ranch, and the local environment is imparted. By the time one gets to the river, a bit of perspiration has developed (wetsuits don't breathe well), so the water is a welcome refreshment. Strict rules are in place so as not to disturb the river ecosystem, and off you go. The experience is like flying in a dream: the river takes you, passing over an amazing variety fish, underwater springs resembling volcanoes of sand, under fallen trees, and through rapids. Afterwards, there was a delicious lunch, much home-grown organic fare, and the joyous camaraderie of having experienced a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Our guide, Marcos, urged us to go to Buraco das araras (hole of the Macaws), a limestone sinkhole which is a haven for red and green macaws; what an amazing site, a pair of macaws, who mate for life, alighting on a tree just in front of us and engaging in a wonderful display of play and grooming behavior. We also saw a toco toucan and a peach-fronted parakeet.

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