Eco-tourism in Brazil's Pantanal poses environmental dilemma

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The jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas, is a top tourist attraction on the shores of the Pantanal of Brazil. JOHN RIOLO

We have been hearing about the current fires in the Amazon of Brazil. It's a true environmental tragedy. However, a lesser known area in Brazil, the Pantanal, southwest of the Amazon, also faces ecological challenges.

The Pantanal (Portuguese for "wetlands or swamp") is a region encompassing the world's largest tropical wetland area. It is located mostly within Brazil, an area estimated at between 140,000 and 195,000 square kilometers (54,000 and 75,000 square miles).

Approximately 80% of the area is flooded during the rainy season. This means that the window for tourists is short during the dry season.

There are several eco-lodges catering to tourists in the dry season. Some are former private hunting lodges, and some are working cattle ranches that augment their business by serving the eco-tourist.

For the bird and nature lover, it is a virtual paradise. Just about every bird species that can be seen in the Lowcountry can be found in the Pantanal.

The Pantanal ecosystem is thought to be home to some 1,000 bird species, 400 fish species, 300 mammalian species, plus a variety of reptiles and invertebrates. Herons of every kind and size, plus egrets, roseate spoonbills, storks, parrots, toucans and a variety of macaws can be seen.

There are many exotic mammals in the Pantanal from the capybara (the world's largest rodent), great and lesser anteaters, tapirs, ocelots and - most majestic - the jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas. The jaguar is this area's biggest attraction.

Whether in the Pantanal, the Amazon, or our fantastic Lowcountry, tourism is both a blessing and a curse.

Consider, for instance, the magnificent jaguar. It holds our fascination, and tourists flock to see one. In the Pantanal, you are likely to get your wish and view these engangered cats as they go about their daily lives in the wild.

At Porto Jofre, located on the Cuiabá River, one can go out on any number of open boats with a guide and explore the river. The bird and mammal life along the river is abundant.

The playful giant river otter can be spotted swimming and fishing along the banks. Hundreds of cayman (Central and South American reptiles that are related to alligators) sun themselves on the shore.

But it is the jaguar that most come to see. The boats go out at early dawn and patrol the river banks. Generally, wherever cayman can be found, skilled captains and guides will often find a jaguar. Jaguars hunt cayman, a staple in their diet. They will also take a capybara or marsh deer.

At any given time, there might be some 20 boats on the river, each containing 10 to 15 tourists. Once a jaguar is spotted by one boat, the call goes out. "Onca," Portuguese for "jaguar," is sounded on the captain's radio and all the boats in the region race at full throttle to the spot.

Tourists with cameras that range from cell phones to lenses the size of small cannons take a barrage of pictures and watch and wait to see what the jaguar will do. Will it hunt? Will it mate with another jaguar? Or will it do what cats do best and take a nap?

Here is the problem: It's one thing to spot a jaguar and "ooh" and "ah," take a few pictures and move on. However, to stalk the cat like paparazzi to see what it will do next impedes the animal doing what it needs to do, and that is hunt, eat, mate and care for the young. Twenty boats within 20 yards of the shoreline will drive all the cayman - its prey - underwater.

It's a cunundrum. Without the tourist dollars there will be increased pressure to develop this beautiful landscape. Cattle ranchers who now see jaguars as an income source because of tourism will be tempted to shoot them as a danger to their cattle.

However, tourists must recognize that the very act of observing is interfering with the animal's natural behavior.

There is no easy solution. There will always be that delicate balance.

John Riolo lives in Moss Creek and is past president of the Nature Club of Moss Creek. john.a.riolo@gmail.com

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