In most places around the world, wildlife is restricted to fenced or well-defined areas surrounded by human-dominated landscapes. Conflicts tend to arise when local people encroach on these protected areas to obtain resources (wood, fruits, bushmeat) and graze their cattle (as the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence). The Pantanal is system apart; over 97% of the 210,000 km2 is privately owned. But unlike other "farmlands", it has been left intact for the most part, because of the seasonal flooding which makes it difficult to do anything other than cattle herding and also due to the sheer size of the properties. Conflicts here are on people's properties; they look wild except for the fences criss-crossing the land dividing it into large parcels. While the cows stay primly in the plot they have been designated for the day, giant anteaters, rheas, jaguars, ocelots, gray brocket deer roam the land which to them is divided into their natural territories marked not by fences but by scent and scratch markings and other visual or olfactory cues.
It has got to be among the top five weirdest wildlife sights I’ve encountered so far- an Indian looking cow, hyacinth macaws flying noisily overhead, a capybara emerging from the lake, a rhea bobbing awkwardly past, all sharing the same landscape.
It all began in 1868 when the Brazilians discovered a breed of cow that would do well in their wetlands. That year, a pair of Nelore cows on a ship bound for the UK, caught the eye of a merchant in Salvador, Bahia and were sold to him. Ten years later in 1878, a breeder from Rio acquired another pair of the same species, this time from a zoo in Hamburg. The merits of the Nelore breed became known and by the 1960’s, a hundred animals were imported to begin populating farms across Brazil. The Nelore breed originates from what used to be a district in the old Presidency of Madras, today found in the State of Andhra Pradesh in South India. A studbook or a herd book records founders of a specific breed; the first herd book for the Nelore breed was compiled in 1938 and continues to be maintained. Hardiness combined with a notable physical strength, heat and insect resistance, metabolic efficiency, high quality of their meat and reproductive efficiency are some of the attributes that made them a popular breed, so much so that today, Brazil is one of the largest breeder of Nelore cattle.
The Pantanal way of life is deeply linked with cattle and cattle herding. The Pantaneiro culture is intricately linked with the wildlife they share their lands with. But it’s not just about the animals, it is also about food, music and proving ones’ self in society through shows of strength and skill, previously by killing animals like jaguars but today in more wildlife-friendly competitions.
The Pantanal was designated a Brazilian National Heritage in 1988 but received little global attention until recently. The earliest representations of the Pantanal date back to 1598 shown as a lake "Eupana Lacus" on a map by Jodocus Hondius based on Sir Walter Raleigh's explorations. There are two theories, the first that the vast flooding was mistaken for a lake and the second that a lake did exist but was drained into a bedrock fault following an earthquake. The area was mostly ignored but by 1730, gold was discovered in Cuíaba and led to big changes in the region. Fortifications cropped up to protect the gold and its transport, and the land was carved up into large estates some as large as 50,000 km2. When the gold trickled out, it was replaced by cattle farming, an ideal activity in this vast grassland.
Fences and cows play an important role in maintaining the ecosystem. These fences are used just like in any other part of the world, to keep the cows grazing in one plot until they are rotated to another plot to avoid overgrazing and destroying the grassland. Managed grazing like this maintains the grassland and gives little chance to woody plants to take over, keeping the Pantanal an open habitat. Remove the cows and the landscape would be very different- it would most certainly follow the natural vegetation succession with bushes and trees colonising the area subsequently being taken over by evergreen trees.
Today, it is a common sight to see domestic cows using the same resources and space as caiman, capybara, giant anteaters and other typical Pantanal wildlife.
This unique landscape has got to be one of the biggest arenas of human-wildlife coexistence and while it is not without its problems, people here are trying more and more to see the positive value of wild animals. Ecotourism is the main reason jaguars are being protected on farmlands and wildlife populations are increasing locally. Places like Porto Jofre have become a poster child for ecotourism- jaguar sightings have exploded over the past ten years. In the beginning, baits were used to lure jaguars out into the open, along the river banks so tourists could observe and photograph them. Today, no bait is required; a three hour cruise on the river will often to sightings of five or more different individuals. All this in an area which is not even formally protected!
With a nearly 100% chance of good observations of jaguars and giant river otters alongside a phenomenal birdlife and landscape, the Pantanal is rapidly gaining popularity as a wildlife destination, giving Brazil and additional source of advertisement and income.