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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trip to the Brazilian Cerrado and Pantanal

I’ll be blogging this week about my trip to the Brazilian Cerrado and Pantanal, where there is still a great deal of biodiversity left, although, how much longer it will be there, I can’t say. There’s an assortment of insects crawling across my computer screen as I type. I’ll be sticking random photos that I’ve taken while here into the posts.

Click on any image to initiate a higher-resolution slideshow.

And while I’m on the subject, I wonder if the proliferation of  affordable digital cameras, with their capacity to zoom in on distant objects as well as on very small ones, hasn’t reduced wildlife mortality from hunting? A camera with a powerful zoom lens makes a great substitute for a rifle with a scope.
Brazilian birders wielding cameras instead of rifles

I took the above photo of a group of Brazilian birders taking photos. Is the taking of photos instead of hunting scratching the same itch?

The Cerrado 

A small praying mantis found on our cabin wall staring right back at the camera

Our accommodations in the Cerrado at a twelve hectare former wildlife research station were somewhat rustic. One night we noticed a small praying mantis on our wall (among the many other insects and spiders). I thought, “Great, it’ll eat some of these other bugs.” Didn't work out that way (fell victim to a spider). Praying mantises are the only insects I'm aware of that can (and will) swivel their heads to look over their shoulders at you.

Large toad.

Tree frog with camouflage evolved to blend in with its forest environment sticks out like a sore thumb in the wrong environment (a bathroom).
Large cricket species (see index finger for scale) that hung out in the bathroom along with the tree frogs.
Our daughter let a toad stay in her cabin for a few days (good for hoovering-up spiders and insects on the floor). She also had tree frogs in her bathroom (because they are attracted to places with a water source, they're commonly called bathroom frogs in Brazil) which ate insects on the walls and ceiling. The large crickets (also often found in the bathrooms) were apparently too big for the tree frogs to eat.
Our water supply.
We drank from used, dust covered, soda bottles that had been filled with potable water from a communal well in the nearest small town. Not a bad way to recycle a few of the billions of water bottles.

Solar panel with (defunct) battery storage.
The ecological lodge had a solar panel connected to a defunct 12-volt lead-acid battery, likely powering 12-volt lights in one of the cabins (except at night). It's common for the ecologically minded to experiment with solar after reading the endless hype on the internet. I've certainly done my share of experimenting. It will be part of our future energy mix, but probably not as big as many solar enthusiasts imagine.

Meals were cooked with firewood.
Meals were cooked, like most meals by the rural poor all around the world, using biomass (wood) quite simply because it is the least expensive way to do it, not to mention the smoke keeps insects at bay. Each energy source has its advantages over others. Good luck cooking with solar panels.

It’s the dry season, hot (pushing 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a daily basis). Electricity, I suspect, is courtesy of some far-away hydro dam. No air conditioning, just a barely functioning table fan. The top of the fan guard was missing and I kept accidentally putting my fingers in the blades. I’m typing with small bruises on the tips of my fingers.

Livestock and its impact can be seen everywhere.
Cattle ranching provides most income in this region. It’s primarily a form of slash and burn agriculture. Unproductive pasture left alone long enough eventually begins to grow back into forest ...only to be bulldozed, burned, and converted back into pasture again. But sometimes, nature goes down fighting. I had asked our guide why there were so many partially burned piles of wood. Turns out that the trees here have evolved very effective fire resistance. The ranchers have to repeatedly set the piles on fire over a period of years to finally get rid of them.

The Pantanal

We left the Cerrado and drove for about eight hours mostly over bumpy dirt roads in 100 degree weather in a truck with no air conditioning to a ranch/tourist lodge in the Pantanal where the accommodations were much improved (air conditioning, effective screen wire in windows, hot showers, but still no internet or cell service).

Domestic pigs are largely free ranging and sometimes become feral (photo courtesy Nina Finley).

Our guide told us that there is no legal hunting in Brazil with the exception of permits to control the likes of feral pigs. This is, in theory, especially true in the Pantanal reserve (although something like 20% to 50% of this preserve, depending on study, is still used for livestock grazing).

Not really possible to eliminate feral pigs from a wildlife preserve when they are allowed to free range in it.

White-lipped peccary.
Is a peccary a pig? Depends on your definition of pig. They are very  "pig-like" in their appearance and behavior but are actually fairly distantly related to domestic pigs. A biologist (and my daughter) would tell you that they are not pigs, if by pig, you mean a feral version of a domestic one.
Peccaries are about as closely related to domestic pigs as whales are to hippos.

Some people think peccaries are a rodent, I suspect, because they often share the same habitat with a rodent of about the same size that can also act quite "pig-like."
Capybara (a rodent the size of a pig) taking a mud bath.

Some road signs had been shot up with high-powered rifles.

Jaguars are still sometimes (illegally) hunted in the Pantanal. Dogs are used to find and chase them until they go up a tree where they are subsequently shot out of the tree. Shockingly, some estimates suggest that there are only about 6,000 jaguars left in the Amazon, Cerrado, and Pantanal combined.

Not all poor farmers are going to passively tolerate a jaguar eating their goats and pigs. As a student of human nature, I'm going to hypothesize that some will covertly shoot the jaguar and bury its carcass rather than greatly increase the risk of being caught by trying to sell its hide. The decline in jaguar populations in preserves shared by farmers are, I suspect, being exacerbated by the discreet elimination of the big cats by farmers in these preserves. One analogy here in the States would be ranchers and wolves.

Several signs along the highway through the reserve asked drivers to watch out for wildlife. On the way in, the only roadkill we saw was a tapir. Ironically, on the way out, we ran right over a mature three-foot long tegu, creating the second road kill seen on this part of the trip. Roads continue to be one of the biggest sources of wildlife mortality. I have often used a road analogy to describe a wind turbine as the equivalent of three cars circling a racetrack in the sky at 150 mph.

Tegus in South America are an example of convergent evolution in that they fill the ecological niche taken by monitor lizards in Africa and Asia
Green iguanas are about the same size as the larger tegu species, however, being tree dwelling vegetarians as opposed to ground dwelling omnivores, they fill a different ecological niche.

My daughter caught on film another large tegu species in this combination wildlife preserve/farming community that the locals call the caiman lizard because it's skin looks so similar to that of a caiman. Part of the tail had recently been cleanly severed by what I  suspect was an angry, machete-wielding, chicken farmer.

Modern humans don't live in harmony with nature. We, as the Borg collective would say, assimilate it. Brazil gets about 70% of its electricity from dammed tropical rivers. Had they used nuclear energy instead, those river ecosystems would still be intact.

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