Pantanal Region in Brazil
Home to the world’s largest tropical wetland area, Brazil’s Pantanal gets little press compared to the well-known Amazon, despite offering a competitively impressive roster of flora and fauna. Open marshes enable barely obstructed views of jaguars, storks, caiman, and monkeys, in contrast the dense foliage of the rainforest. Visitors in search of untamed wildlife and fewer tourists should put the Pantanal at the top of their lists, and hurry before everyone else finds out. Here’s everything you need to know about the Pantanal, and the amazing species that reside within it.
Located within the states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Mato Grosso in Brazil (with a little crossing over into Bolivia and Paraguay), the Pantanal is a rich marshland that sprawls over approximately 195,000 square kilometers (75,000 square miles). That’s ten times the size of the Florida Everglades. This landlocked river delta sits in the center of the South American continent, south of the Amazon basin and east of the Andes. Overflowing with birds, vibrant vegetation, and exotic animals lurking in the marshes, it’s a remarkable natural wonder that few know about.
The name “Pantanal” comes from the Portuguese word pantano, which refers to a wetland, swamp or marsh. It is home to a variety of sub-regional ecosystems, each possessing distinct hydrological, geological and ecological characteristics. During the rainy season, the Pantanals floodplains are completely submerged as water levels rise between two and five meters (six to sixteen feet), which helps nurture a remarkably diverse array of aquatic plants and animals species. During the dry season the plains drain, and the floodplains become grasslands, providing more space for a different set of species.
The Pantanal is home to 3,500 known plant species, a unique combination of plant communities typical for the surrounding (yet wildly different) biome regions. This includes tropical rainforest plants of the Amazon, woodland plants typical of the northeast of Brazil, and savanna plants native to the Chaco region in Bolivia and Paraguay. Grasslands typically cover the floodplains during the dry season, whereas forests occur at higher altitudes.
What is so remarkable about this blend is that you can see all of this vegetation in one place, rather than traveling the great distances between the regions they are better known for. In the Pantanal, the combination of vegetation makes for a fascinating collection of ecosystems that, despite great differences, work successfully in harmony.
Even greater than the variety of vegetation found here are the animal species: 1,000 species of birds, 400 species of fish, 300 mammals, 480 reptiles, and more than 9,000 subspecies of invertebrates. Amongst them are several unique species that enable the environment to smoothly transition between the flooded and dry period, as well as many rare and endangered animals.
The rare and endangered species found in the Pantanal include marsh deer, the giant river otter, the hyacinth macaw, the crowned solitary eagle, the maned wolf, the bush dog, the South American tapir, the giant anteater, and the capybara. Notable (yet not endangered) reptiles can be found here, such as the gold tegu, red-footed tortoise, green iguana, and yellow anaconda.
A 1996 study revealed that there were 10 million caimans living in the Pantanal, making it the highest concentration of crocodiles in the world. Likewise, it is also home to one of the largest and healthiest jaguar populations on the planet.
Impressive as this remarkable variety of species may be, some wonder how it rivals the Amazon. But what makes the Pantanal such a favorite amongst those interested in spotting wildlife is the increased visibility. In the marshlands it is much easier to spot wildlife than it is through the dense foliage of the rainforest, and many travelers return home having spotted some of the most remarkable species in the Pantanal. Additionally, the choreographed roles of each plant species in helping the seasonal shifts are very different from those of the Amazon, and offer a look at one of nature’s greatest feats.
Threats to the Pantanal
Unfortunately, like many of the world’s natural environments, the Pantanal is currently threatened by a variety of human activity, both intentional and unintentional.
Commercial fishing focused on just a few species is highly unsustainable, as is the sport fishing taking place in the Paraguay river.
Almost 99% of the land in the Pantanal is privately owned for the purpose of agriculture and ranching, with up to 8 million cattle living within it. This is leading to erosion and sedimentation that disrupt the flood-plain ecosystems, consequently threatening native species. Pollution from the agriculture and gold mining industries is also harming native flora and fauna, making it difficult for the Pantanal’s natural water treatment system to function properly.
And most unfortunately, the threat of hunters, poachers and smugglers interested in illegal species continues, with reptiles, wild cats and parrots holding a high value on the black market.
How to Explore the Pantanal
The best way to experience the natural wonder of the Pantanal is through a naturalist-guided tour, especially with one committed to preservation of the natural environment. We recommend the Peralta Pantanal Cruise. Contact us about tours available in the Pantanal, and how to combine this with another destination in the region.