Latin America Specialist Simon had been hankering to visit Brazil’s wildlife wonderland, the Pantanal, for a long time. Here, he tells us about the trip that made this dream a reality – and the jewel in the crown, for him – Caiman Ecological Refuge.
Each year wildlife fanatics from far and wide, much like the animals and birds they’re yearning to see, flock to Brazil’s wetland paradise, the Pantanal. For the wildlife, the floodplains created by the heavy rainfall provide an abundance of habitats, food sources and mating opportunities in which to thrive. For the fanatics, it brings the possibility to immerse their senses in one of the most biodiverse regions of the Latin American continent and to get up close to some of the most iconic and fascinating species on the planet. Birders are treated to an array of herons, hawks, woodpeckers, lapwings, cormorants, parakeets and macaws. Herpetologists marvel at the dense congregations of caiman that lurk below the water’s surface or the deafening croaks of frogs and toads after dark. Mammal-lovers can keep their eyes peeled for monkeys, giant anteaters, tapirs and of course the holy grail – the elusive jaguar.
The threat to this precious biome is highlighted by the fact that less than 5% is protected, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), with the overwhelming majority dedicated to cattle-grazing, one of the most traditional occupations in Brazil. Habitat loss from the clearing of land for cattle and the conflict this creates between humans and the inhabiting wild species is the largest hurdle conservationists must overcome, in their efforts to protect the Pantanal. Nevertheless, one corner in the south is leading the way in the conservation of the Pantanal’s biodiversity, while protecting the opportunity for traditional, cattle-grazing families – Caiman Ecological Refuge.
The refuge, spanning an incredible 53,000 hectares, is comprised of privately-owned land dedicated to cattle, still a key foundation of the business today. However, it was clear that the staggering level of biodiversity needed to be protected and so in 1985, it became the first operator of ecotourism in the southern Pantanal, following in the footsteps of the famous African safari parks. Ever since, the lodge has provided luxury accommodation and the highest levels of hospitality for visitors from across the globe, giving them the chance to discover the beauty of the wetlands and the species that inhabit them. In doing so, it has created new working opportunities to cattle farmers and their families, and the potential to drastically increase their income, while simultaneously protecting the vital ecosystems. So successful is this conservation and sustainability model that Caiman Ecological Refuge was named ‘Conservation Heroes’ in the Wanderlust Reader Travel Awards 2020.
Guests at Caiman Ecological Refuge immerse themselves in the surroundings by embarking on jeep and walking safaris, canoeing and night tours. They also can spend a half or full day with several dedicated conservation NGOs operating in the refuge. Projects include the Blue Fronted Parrot Project and the Hyacinth Macaw Project which track breeding populations aided by strategically placed nest-boxes. The outstanding experience, however, comes from a day spent with the Onçafari Project, tasked with the conservation of the largest cat in the Americas – the jaguar. Throughout the day, guests will be transported through the refuge by jeep as the team track collared cats to observe. After years of habituating the wild jaguars to the vehicle, guests can watch these notoriously elusive animals stroll metres in front of their eyes. Guests will also learn, directly from the scientists on site, about conservation strategies in practice, ranging from GPS collaring of jaguars, to camera traps and population studies.
For anyone with an interest in wildlife, biodiversity and conservation, a stay at Caiman Lodge is a truly eye-opening and triumphant example of how holistic approaches to conservation can bridge the gap between nature and human activities, in a way that enables the protection and flourishment of this beautiful and precious environment.