GUIDE TO BRAZIL
The name Brazil conjures romantic thoughts of sandy beaches and sweaty tropical forests. And the country lives up to the stereotype – boasting an incredible variety of landscapes and an abundance of flora and fauna. Brazil is home to the world’s largest rain forest, as well as some of the greatest wetlands and most beautiful beaches. The sleek predatory jaguar dwells here as does the gentle pink river dolphin, and plants range from the mighty mahogany to the delicate orchid.
Brazil has more known species of plants (over 55,000), freshwater fish (around 3000) and mammals (over 520) than any other country in the world. It ranks second for the number of amphibians (517), third for birds (over 1600) and fifth for reptiles (468). Around 10 to 15 million insect species inhabit the country. Some 131 of the mammals, 294 of the amphibians and 172 of the reptiles are unique to Brazil and new species are being discovered all the time, including several previously unknown small primates and amphibians.
Unfortunately, Brazil is also renowned for the destruction of its natural environment. Amazonia , which holds most of the country’s biological diversity, has long been in a state of environmental crisis. Less widely known is that all of Brazil’s other major ecosystems are also threatened. Even as new species are being discovered, others are becoming extinct. More than 100 Brazilian birds and 70 mammals are considered endangered.
This relentless human assault on natural Brazil has gone on since Europeans first arrived in 1500. But since the international environmental movement in the 1990s, an awakening of environmental consciousness among Brazilians – and even among some of the country’s politicians – means that attitudes are at last slowly starting to change. One aspect of the increased environmental consciousness is an awareness that pristine nature attract tourists (and their dollars). International accessibility to Brazil’s natural wonders is increasing quickly. This chapter serves as an introduction to the Brazilian natural environment, including current conservation efforts and the best places to see the country’s fascinating wildlife for yourself.
Brazil has five principal ecosystems: Amazonian rain forest, Atlantic rain forest, the caatinga (semiarid land), the central cerrado (savanna) and the wetlands of the Pantanal.
Amazonian Rain Forest
Blanketing nearly all of Brazil’s northern region plus parts of Mato Grosso and Maranhao states – a total of 3.6 million sq km, about 42% of Brazil – and a further 2.4 million sq km in neighboring countries, the Amazon rain forest is the largest tropical forest in the world, and the planet’s most biologically diverse ecosystem. The Amazon is home to around 20% of the world’s bird species, 20% of plant species, 10% of mammal species and some 2000 to 3000 species of fish (in contrast, Europe has about 200). The forest still keeps many of its secrets: to this day, major tributaries of the Amazon river are unexplored, thousands of species have not yet been classified and it is possible that some human communities have still avoided contact with the outside world.
Unfortunately, humanity has been destroying the Amazon forests so quickly that countless animal and plant species are likely to be extinguished before they’re even know to us. Rain forests can occur in areas that receive more than 2000mm of rain falls annually and where this rainfall is spread over the whole year. In the Amazon, half the rain comes from the Atlantic Ocean and the rest results from vapor released by Amazonia’s own soil and trees – much of which is recycled rain. Humidity is always
greater than 80%, and temperatures range fairly constantly between 22°C
(72°F) by night and 31°C (88°F) by day.
FLOODPLAIN & DRY LAND
Seasonal rainfall patterns mean that the water levels of the Amazon river and its hundreds of tributaries rise and fall at different points in the year. This produces dramatic alterations in the region’s geography. Water levels routinely vary between low and high by 10m to 15m; during high-water periods, areas totaling at least 150,000 sq km (about the size of England and Wales together) are flooded. The high waters link rivers, creeks and lakes that are otherwise unconnected, providing river travelers with numerous shortcuts. The seasons are not the same everywhere in the Amazon Basin : High water on the Amazon itself and its major ~ northern tributary, the Rio Negro , is in June; while high water on the southern tributaries such as the Madeira , Araguaia and Tocantins takes place in March.
The regularly inundated floodplains of the ‘white-water’ (actually creamy-brown) rivers flowing down from the Andes are known as varzea and generally sustain forests no more than 20m tall. Many of the trees have elevated roots. lgapo, a name used for a flooded forest, more often refers to areas flooded by the darker waters of the Rio Negro . It’s particularly fascinating to boat through a flooded forest because you move along at treetop level and can get closer to the wildlife.
Forests on terra firme (higher land, not subject to flooding) typically grow to 30m in height. Here are found the Brazil nut tree and valuable hardwoods, such as mahogany, all of which prefer a drier environment.
On the waters themselves live aquatic plants, such as the giant Victoria amazonica water lilies (named after Britain’s Queen Victoria) and even floating islands made of amphibious grasses.
The rain forest is stratified into layers of plant and animal life. Most of the animal activity takes place in the canopy layer, 20m to 30m above ground, where trees compete for sunshine, and butterflies, sloths and the majority of birds and monkeys live. Here hummingbirds hover for pollen, and macaws and parrots seek out nuts and tender shoots. The dense foliage of the canopy layer blots out the sunlight at lower levels. A few tall trees reaching up to 40m, even 50m, poke above the canopy and dominate the forest skyline. These ’emergent trees’ are inhabited by birds such as the harpy eagle and toucan and, unlike most other rain forest plants, disperse their seeds by wind.
Below the canopy is the understory. Epiphytes (air plants) hang at mid-levels and below them are bushes, saplings and shrubs that grow up to 5m in height. Last is a ground cover of ferns, seedlings and herbs – plants adapted to very little light. Down here live ants and termites, the so-called social insects. The saubas (leaf-cutter ants) use leaves to build underground nests for raising fungus gardens, while army ants swarm through the jungle in huge masses, eating everything that happens to be in their path. Insects, fungi and roots fight for access to nutrients, keeping the forest floor quite tidy. At ground level it’s cooler than in the canopy, averaging about 28°C (82°F), but humidity is higher, at about 90%.
The forest’s soils are typically shallow. Many trees have buttress roots that spread over wide patches of ground to gather more nutrients.
Atlantic Rain Forest
The ‘other’ tropical rain forest, the Mata Atlantica (Atlantic rain forest) once extended right along the country’s southeast-facing coast, from Rio Grande do Norte to Rio Grande do Sul. It formed a band that gradually widened toward the south, where it reached a width of up to 800km. The Atlantic rain forest covered about 1 million sq km in all at its peak when the Portuguese arrived.
If you travel along the coast, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experience the Mata Atlantica, even though no more than 7% of the original forest remains. Today three-quarters of Brazil’s population and all its main industrial cities are located in what used to be the Mata Atlanttca. Brazilwood extraction, sugarcane and coffee cultivation, farming, ranching, logging, fires and acid rain have also taken their toll of the forest.
Nevertheless, what remains of the Atlantic rain forest – dozens of separate fragments – is incredibly luxuriant, and some areas boast what may be the highest biodiversity levels on earth. The Mata Atlantica is older than the Amazon forest and has evolved independently. Though it shares many animal and plant families with other Brazilian ecosystems, it also contains many unique species – 17 of its 21 primate types are found only here, as are more than 900 of its 2000-pius kinds of butterflies, and many of its more than 600 bird species.
Many species are also endangered, including the four types of lion tamarin (brightly maned small monkeys) and the woolly spider monkey (the largest primate in the Americas ).
The Atlantic rain forest’s distinctive flora – more than half of its tree species exist nowhere else – includes many large trees such as brazilwood, ironwood, Bahian jacaranda and cedar, as well as a number of rare tree ferns.
The conservation effort received a boost in 1999 when Unesco placed 33 separate areas in Yarana, Sao Paulo , Espirito Santo and Bahia states, totaling 5820 sq km, on the World Heritage list.
Caatinga is semiarid land, with hardy vegetation composed mainly of cacti and thorny shrubs adapted to lack of water and extreme heat. Rainfall (300mm to 800mm a year) is irregular, and often torrential when it comes. When it does rain, the trees break into leaf and the ground turns green. Caatinga is the natural environment of much of the interior of the Northeast region plus bits of Minas Gerais state, totaling some 11 % of Brazilian territory – although less than one-tenth of this is in its natural state.
Wildlife tends to be nocturnal or subterranean, and much of it – the anteater and armadillo, for example – has been severely depleted by hunting and habitat destruction. The handsome laughing falcon is a typical sight in caatinga skies, but the last known wild Spix’s macaw, a beautiful iridescentblue bird, disappeared from its haunts near Cura4a, Bahia , in 2000. The demise of the last Spix’s macaw leaves another caatinga dweller, the Lear’s macaw, as the world’s rarest macaw, with less than 150 left.
Wood and coal from the caatingas are a primary energy source for many of the region’s over 20 million inhabitants. Wood and coal also fuel 30% of the Northeast’s industries, generating many jobs and comprising 15% of rural incomes. Centuries of cattle ranching, and more recent illadvised attempts at irrigated, pesticide-aided agriculture, have devastated large areas of caatinga. Studies have predicted that continued destruction at the present rate will see the caatingas disappear in Paraiba in about 20 years, in Pernambuco in 30 years, in Ceara in 40 years and in Rio Grande do Norte in 55 years.
Typically the cerrado environment is open savanna grasslands dotted with trees, though it can edge into scrub, palm stands or even fairly thick forest. Plant diversity is great – an estimated 10,000 species, of which 44% are found nowhere else in the world – and many are used to produce cork, fibers, oils, handicrafts, medicines and food. Medicinal plants native to cerrado include arnica and golden trumpet. Cerrado covers the central high plains of Brazil – 2 million sq km in a rough triangle from southern Minas Gerais to Mato Grosso to southern Maranhao.
More than half the original cerrado vegetation has already been cleared, and less than 2% is under environmental protection. In the past the major problem was mining, which contaminated rivers with mercury and caused erosion and serious silting of streams. But, since the mid-20th century, intensive farming and cattle ranching, along with an accompanying wave of human settlement, have posed even greater dangers to the natural balance. Intensive farming over large areas, often done with single crops such as soybeans, rice, maize or wheat, has depleted soils and contaminated water and soils with pesticides and fertilizers.
From the cerrado, rivers flow north to Amazonia , south to the Pantanal and east to the coast, meaning that the agricultural toxins from here can have an effect over a very wide range of Brazilian regions. Proposals for hidrovias – aquatic freeways, for the export of products such as soybeans, made by dredging and straightening existing rivers so that they can take large river traffic year-round – threaten yet further ecological interference, including disruption to vital seasonal flood and drainage patterns.
None of this bodes well for such rare and mostly endangered cerrado inhabitants as the maned wolf, giant anteater, giant and three-banded armadillo, pampas deer and the largest bird in Brazil , the grounddwelling rhea.
The Pantanal is a vast swampy wetland in the center of South America . It is about half the size of France – 230,000 sq km spread across Brazil , Bolivia and Paraguay . It’s the largest inland wetland on earth, and 140,000 sq km of it lies in Brazil , in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.
During the rainy season, from October to March, the waters from the higher surrounding lands run into the Pantanal, inundating as much as two-thirds of it for half the year. The Pantanal, though 2000km upstream from the Atlantic Ocean , is only 100m to 200m above sea level and drains very slowly. Its chief outlet is the Rio Paraguai, which ultimately drains into the Atlantic Ocean via the Rio de la Plata . Waters reach their highest levels, up to 3m above dry-season levels, around March in the northern Pantanal, but not until about June in the south.
This seasonal flooding has made systematic farming impossible and severely limited human incursions into the area. The Pantanal is still one of Brazil’s wildest and least explored regions. It’s also an enormously rich feeding ground for wildlife, and, if your priority is viewing wildlife, the Pantanal offers greater visible numbers and at least as large a variety of creatures as Amazonia , with which it has many species in common.
The flood waters replenish the soil’s nutrients, the waters teem with fish, and the ponds provide ecological niches for many animals and plants. Birds fly in flocks of thousands and six different species may nest on a single tree branch.
With cerrado to the east, Amazon rain forest to the north and spots of Atlantic rain forest to the south, Pantanal vegetation – 1700 plant species – is a mishmash of savanna, forest, meadow and even, on some of the highest points, caatinga. In the dry season the lagoons and marshes dry out and fresh grasses emerge on the savanna, while hawks and alligators compete for fish in the shrinking ponds.
The environment supports about 650 bird species – including kites, hawks, herons, woodpeckers, ibis, storks, kingfishers, hummingbirds, parakeets, toucans and macaws. The Pantanal’s substantial number of birds of prey reflects its abundance of food sources. Snails, insects and 260 fish species form the basis of their diet.
Words can’t do justice to the color of a flock of parakeets in flight or the awkwardness of the jabiru stork, the meter-high, black-hooded, scarlet-collared symbol of the Pantanal, nor can it suggest the beauty of nesting birds settling like snow in the trees, or the swiftness of a sprinting flock of rheas. Listen for the call of the southern lapwing, named queroquero (I want-I want) in Brazil for its distinctive cry. If you’re very lucky you’ll see the endangered hyacinth macaw.
The Pantanal is also a haven for some 50 reptile and 80 mammal species, including giant anacondas (though snakes on the whole are not common), iguanas, jaguars, ocelots, pumas, maned wolves, pampas and marsh deer, giant and collared anteaters, four species of armadillo, black howler and brown capuchin monkeys, tapirs, opossums, crab-eating raccoons, crab-eating foxes – and somewhere between 10 and 35 million alligators.
The capybara, the world’s largest rodent, is the most visible mammal in the Pantanal, with a population of about 600,000. This dog-sized, rabbitfaced animal is often seen in family groups or even large herds.
The giant river otter has been hunted almost out of existence here, although it still exists in some ponds. The marsh deer, down to about 35,000 in number, is also at risk. Both anteater species and the maned wolf are endangered and not easily seen: local people prize anteater meat. The killing of anteaters has led to an increase in ants and termites, and many fazendas (ranches) use strong pesticides to destroy the mounds.
With thousands of alligators sunning themselves on the edge of each and every body of water, it’s hard to believe that they are endangered by poachers. Alligators feed mainly on fish, and are the primary check on the growth of the piranha population, which has been growing rapidly as a result of alligator slaughter. The size of an adult alligator is determined by the availability of food: those on the river’s edge are often much bigger than those that feed in small ponds.
Cattle live pretty much in harmony with the wildlife, grazing during the dry season and gathering on the little islets that form during the wet. Though some jaguars eat only their natural prey, such as capybaras and tapirs, others will attack sick or injured cattle, and the occasional big cat goes on a rampage, killing healthy cattle. These rogue jaguars (and, unfortunately, sometimes others) are then killed by cattle ranchers. Jaguars are also killed for their valuable skins and are threatened with extinction in the Pantanal.
Other Environmental Zones
The mountainous regions of southern Brazil were once covered by coniferous forests that were dominated by the prehistoric-looking, 30m- to 40m-high araucaria ( Parana pine) tree. The araucaria forests have been decimated by timber cutters and now survive only in scattered areas such as the Aparados da Serra, Sao Joaquim and Serra da Bocaina national parks and the Parque Estadual Horto Florestal in Sao Paulo state, generally at altitudes above 500m.
Apart from the cerrado, grasslands occur chiefly in Brazil’s far north (northern Roraima) and far south ( Rio Grande do Sul). Unlike the cerrado, which has a consistent scattering of medium to tall trees, the Roraima grasslands have only low trees and bushes, while the campos do cul (southern fields), on the rolling southern pampas, generally have no trees except where interspersed with patches of woodland.