Water birds by the million flourish in the Pantanal – a watery world of lagoons and pastures in the centre of South America, mainly in Brazil. The air resounds to their calls, and huge flocks on the wing are like clouds in the sky, while on the ground ostrich-like rheas graze and the deer. Many kinds of animals live in the Pantanal – Jacre (Brazillian alligators), furry capybaras (also known as water pigs), giant otters and shy jaguars, all part of perhaps the largest wildlife concentration found outside Africa.
Between November and March each year there is 80-120 (2000-3000mm) of rain, at its heaviest in February. Gradually the River Paraguay and its many tributaries overflow their banks to flood the surrounding plain that covers an area slightly larger than Great Britain.
The water can be 10 ft (3m) deep or more, and the land becomes a vast expanse of water dotted with small islands where palms and small trees flourish. Many animals and birds move south to drier ground, but some, such as deer, are marooned on the islands – easy prey for hunting jaguars.
In April, as the rains cease and the floods start to drain away, rich, tree-scattered grassland is revealed around thousands of pools teem with trapped fish and other water creatures, providing a rich source of food for many flesh-eating birds and animals.
The harsh, piercing cries of goose-like created screamers compete with the screeches of the many kinds of jewel-coloured parrots, and long-toed acanas step lightly over the water lilies as they forage for snails and insects. Egrets feed alongside roseate spoonbills and Muscovy ducks, and cormorants and waders such as sandpipers and finfoots abound.
The most striking of all is the Pantanal birds are shoulder-high to a man and glide on wings that span 10ft (3m). It has a bald black head and neck with a red dog collar above cream-coloured body plumage. The Tupi-Guarani, the earliest Pantanal inhabitants, called it the Tuiuiu, which means ‘driven by the wind’.
More sinister inhabitants are the crocodile-like caymans that sun themselves beside the pools, and the anacondas – 20 ft (6m) long snakes that lurk submerged in the swampy shallows and squeeze their prey to death.
For centuries the Tupi- Guarani thrived by farming (growing maize and cassava), hunting and fishing. When Spanish and Portuguese explorers and settlers arrived in the 17th century, they intermixed with the local people. A century later came the cattle ranchers, ready to exploit the Pantanal’s rich pastures. Now herds of cattle graze alongside the deer, and much of the area is taken up with extensive ranches that are known as ‘Fazendas’.
There is one national park covering about 500sq miles (1300 sq km) in the north of the area. One of the first people to plead for the protection of these wetlands was former US President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited the Pantanal in 1913-14. He said it offered ‘extraordinary opportunities for the study of the life histories of birds. Today the Pantanal is opening up to tourists. Hunting is forbidden, but fishing with a rod is allowed. The Pantanal is not easy to reach; its inaccessibility may be its greatest protection.