Pantanal wildlife

The Pantanal in the southwest of Brazil is the country’s best wildlife watching region. While the Amazon may be hopping with birds and beasties, all that dense jungly coverage means they can be tricky to spot. This isn’t an issue in the Pantanal. It’s the largest tropical wetland in the world, covering an area the size of France. Its open landscapes make exploring easy and wildlife simple to spot, and the range of possible sightings is vast. Within the Pantanal’s vast footprint lies one of the richest ecosystems on earth, with around 1,000 species of birds and over 200 mammal species making their home here, many of them iconic and some just a little eccentric (we’re looking at you, tapirs).

There’s no chance you’ll come all the way to the Pantanal and not want to see a jaguar. These awesome predators, which sometimes kill their prey by biting through its skull – no hanging around waiting for it to suffocate like lions do – are the region’s most famous and charismatic species. Obviously, there are no guarantees, but sightings are more probable than possible, boosted by two factors: the Pantanal’s jaguars are semi-habituated, and don’t tend to scarper when humans appear; and the landscape here is open, with no huge trees of dense vegetation for them to hide in.
The jaguar is the most famous of the Pantanal’s residents, but there is a huge amount of other wildlife to enjoy. Capybara, the largest rodents in the world, are abundant and often seen with yellow cattle tyrant birds perched on them, while giant otters, measuring up to 1.7m, frolic and fish in the rivers. There are raccoons and armadillos, peccary and wild boar, caiman and amazing birdlife, including jabiru stork and metre-long hyacinth macaws.
Most of the Pantanal is privately owned, with only 1,350km² in the southwest of the region occupied by the national park (Parque Nacional do Pantanal Matogrossense), and its wildlife shares space with cattle reared here on enormous ranches, herded by cowboys on horseback. Unlike on traditional farmland, where wildlife and domestic herds are kept separate, here, caiman, giant anteaters and other Pantanal wildlife co-exist happily with the cattle, and it’s not uncommon to see capybaras and emu-like rhea walking around their feet as they graze.
The seasonal flooding of the Pantanal means it’s not suitable for anything other than cattle herding, and managed grazing maintains the grassland. Another unique detail of the Pantanal is the fact that its cattle have a distinctly Indian feel, because the Nelore breed you see here originated in Andhra Pradesh in southern India, but was found to cope perfectly with the wet landscape of southwestern Brazil.

How to see wildlife in the Pantanal

Boat trips are the chief way of spotting jaguars, with wildlife holidays here typically including two or three days navigating the rivers around Porto Jofre, often with two outings of over two hours each day. You might see them dozing in a pool of sunlight, tackling a staring competition with a caiman or prowling along the riverbanks looking for dinner. If you’re lucky, you might even catch one swimming – they do a mean doggy paddle.

Boat trips will also yield a smorgasbord of other amazing Pantanal wildlife sightings. Look out for the giant otters, another Pantanal superstar, that fish and splash in large groups, calling noisily to each other, and also the caiman that lurk in the shallows. Overhead, hyacinth macaws, a dazzling shade of International Klein Blue, swoop between the trees and herons wait to stab a fish.

Early morning and dusk is the best time for wildlife spotting and the Pantanal’s open landscapes mean there is more than one way to seek out wildlife. Walking safaris take place both by day and night, for a chance to see a host of creatures, from capybaras to tapir and caiman. In addition, some lodges have observation towers that give you a chance to look down on the riverbank or even directly into a nest of jabiru storks. It may also be possible to see wild ocelots up close, from the cover of a hide – a rare treat, since these small felines are incredibly elusive.

Night drives in safari trucks equipped with spotlights are also possible – watch out for the red eyes of a caiman. You might also get lucky and see elusive species like ocelot, puma, crab-eating fox, Brazilian tapir and raccoons. As well as classic river cruises, you can paddle around in a traditional canoe. This quiet mode of transport won’t scare away the wildlife and is a superb way to spot the Pantanal’s impressive birdlife. Horse riding is another great way to explore, with animals unfazed by the presence of horses, thanks to the cowboys who herd cattle on horseback here.
The best way to see the wildlife of the Pantanal is on an organised tour, either tailor made or small group, that employs experienced local guides. You can’t really explore a jaguar and caiman rich region alone, for obvious reasons, and while it’s possible to join a wildlife tour once you arrive, to guarantee the best guides, with the richest knowledge, it’s better and much easier to simply book onto a specialist wildlife holiday in advance that includes plenty of time in the Pantanal.
Dedicated Pantanal wildlife tours spend as much as 10 days here, while wider two-week Brazil wildlife tours might devote a week to the Pantanal. This ups the chances of seeing jaguar and also gives you time to enjoy all the other wildlife, and methods of seeing it. Even some Brazil two-week highlights tours include a couple of days in the Pantanal.
Specialist wildlife guides from the local community are your fast track to some amazing wildlife viewing. They can hear a family of giant river otters from far away, recognise the sound of an otter coming up for air, and can pick out the tell-tale crunch of a cat fish being ripped apart from metres away. They understand the daily habits of all the wildlife living in the Pantanal – when it feeds, sleeps and moves around – and can take you directly to the best spots for sightings.
In addition, using local guides keeps your tourist money within the local community, and throughout the Pantanal, cooperation between ecotourism and landowners (mostly cattle ranchers) has contributed to the sustainable conservation of the environment. Some organised wildlife tours give a portion of the cost of your holiday to a scheme that provides local ranchers with a small income, covering the shortfall created by the seasonal flooding of the area, which would otherwise be covered by more intensive (and hence more destructive) ranching efforts. In this way, local ranchers are encouraged to coexist with wildlife.

Our top Brazil wildlife Holiday

Brazil wildlife tour, jaguars and waterfalls

Brazil wildlife tour, jaguars and waterfalls

Jaguar spotting 100% success rate, Iguacu waterfalls & Rio.

From £4795 16 days inc UK flights
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This trip can be tailor made throughout the year to suit your requirements
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Practicalities

Both small group and tailor made holidays to Brazil take in the Pantanal, typically flying you into Cuiabá, from Rio or Manaus, and from there driving along the Transpantaneira Road. The Northern and the Southern Pantanal are divided by a river, with the Northern Pantanal a wildlife lover’s dream and the best place in the world to see jaguars, around Porto Jofre.
The cooler, dry winter months, May to November, offer the best combination of animal sightings and agreeable temperatures, and much more of the often flooded Pantanal is accessible now. This is the best time to see jaguars, when water levels are low and the animals bask on exposed riverbanks. In fact, the best place to see jaguars is near Porto Jofre, but this area is accessible only during the short dry season. In the wet season, 80 percent of the land is submerged by the overflowing rivers.
The wet season runs from November to April, when some areas of the Pantanal may become inaccessible. Low season is December to March when prices are at their very lowest but the heat, rain and humidity are unpleasant. Conditions on the Transpantaneira road are poor and mean that many companies in Cuiabá essentially close down at this time.
Don’t expect infinity pools and spas at your accommodation, as you can find in some African safari lodges. In the Pantanal, you’ll typically stay in locally owned accommodation including ranch houses which are existing buildings, not vast hotels built for tourists. There’s good food, a warm welcome and you’ll be surrounded by wildlife. Who needs chandeliers and roll-top baths, after all?
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tambako The Jaguar] [Tapir: Wolves201] [Horse riding: Patty Ho] [Giant otter: Bernard DUPONT]
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