The Big Five of South America

A play on the big five game animals of Africa, the Big Five of South America are the most wanted mammals on the continent – not by hunters, but wildlife enthusiasts. Unsurprisingly, given the country’s incredible size and diversity, all five can be found in Central Brazil, perhaps even on a single trip to the state of Mato Grosso. For hardcore birders seeing the Big Five is just one of the perks of birding in Brazil, not the main pursuit. Aimee and I were confident in our chances, having the luxury of time, and she finally completed the sweep on a recent trip to Bonito in Mato Grosso do Sul.

Jaguar, Panthera Onca: Pantanal, Mato Grosso

There’s no better place to see a Jaguar than in the Pantanal during the dry season. From July to October the largest fresh water wetlands in the world shrink to a few shallow pools and narrow rivers, resulting in incredible concentrations of wildlife, making for easy prey for Jaguars. We organized two full days of boat trips at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway to target these hulking felines, but also saw a few from the road itself and around our pousada. Their proximity actually put me on edge while I was birding. Who wants to get mauled while chasing down a bird?

Brazilian Tapir, Tapirus terrestris: Pantanal, Mato Grosso

The nocturnal Brazilian Tapir is relatively easy to find, and it’s not unusual to see them at the end of a long day of birding. I’ve even heard reports of them in Brasília National Park, just a few hundred meters from the mineral pools, where hundreds of Brasilienses gather on the weekends to swim. The trick is to go on a game drive at night, scanning the adjacent fields with a high-powered lantern. Aimee and I spotted this gentle giant sipping water during the day while we were on a boat excursion in the Pantanal.

Giant Otter, Pteronura brasiliensis: Pantanal, Mato Grosso

Giant Otters used to range all over the continent, but are now considered endangered with only fragmented and dwindling populations left in Amazonia and the Pantanal. Their fierce demeanor and comportment gives the impression that the struggle for survival in the waters of the neotropics is just as competitive as it is on land. We encountered several family groups of otters while on boat excursions in the Pantanal, their high pitched vocalizations betraying their presence well before we saw them.
Maned Wolf, Chrysocyon brachyurus: Emas National Park, Goiás

The Maned Wolf is almost certainly the most difficult of the Big Five to see in the wild. Once ranging across the savannas of Central Brazil, it’s now only rarely encountered in the larger national parks, such as Emas and Chapada dos Veadeiros. There is one site in Brazil where they are regularly seen: Santuario da Caraça in Minas Gerais, where they come each night to the steps of the old monastery to feed on table scrabs. In comparison, five full days of driving and birding in Emas yielded this single glimpse of one of the flagship animals of the Cerrado.

Giant Anteater, Myrmecophaga tridactyla: Serra da Canastra National Park, Minas Gerais

The Giant Anteater is by far the strangest animal of the Big Five with its long, tubular snout and massive shaggy tail. Expansive reserves, like Serra da Canastra National Park, that protect native grasslands should produce a few anteaters, as long as there are plenty of termite mounds around. Sadly, I’ve seen more dead Giant Anteaters along the highways than alive, as they are nocturnal, have poor vision and hearing, and are relatively slow moving, making them vulnerable to speeding semi-trailer trucks.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome!

    Might look at doing a trip in 2015! How easy would Harpy Eagle be?


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