Otterly Fascinating

Inquisitive, formidable and endangered, giant otters are luring tourists by the thousands to Brazil's unspoiled, biodiverse waterscape

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Bloodcurdling cries shatter the stillness of dusk in the Pantanal, in southern Brazil, as if a pack of wolves were gathering for a hunt. The urgent yelping silences all other wildlife: the squawking of hyacinth macaws, the grunting of caimans, the growl of an ever-elusive jaguar. Even my guide, Senhor Japão, cuts the outboard of our aluminum-hulled skiff, and we drift silently on the barely perceptible current of the Rio Negro.

Under the dome of fading sky, the river cuts a twisting avenue through the forest. And then we come upon what we have journeyed here to see: a mob of agile, seal-like animals, twisting and dodging through the water, leapfrogging one another, overtaking our boat easily and casting curious but hurried glances at us.

“Lobos de agua?” I whisper to Senhor Japão in Spanish, his and my second language. “Water wolves?”

“Sí, ariranhas,” he says, using their Portuguese name.

The giant river otters pass around the next bend in the river, and their caterwauling reaches a crescendo. There are violent splashes, followed by the sound of large bodies crashing through the undergrowth. Then, the droning of insects and the chatter of birds resume. With a casual slap, Senhor Japão dispatches the first mosquito of the evening. The ariranhas have crossed to an oxbow lake, he says; perhaps they have a den there. We, too, must return home to the ranch, or fazenda, also called the Rio Negro. He fires up the outboard and makes a swooping turn, racing the darkness.

This is my first day in the Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetlands, which spreads across 54,000 square miles of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. In Brazil alone, the Pantanal covers an area the size of Kansas—an Evergladeslike waterscape of oxbow lakes, woodlands and savannas— that harbors the highest concentration of tropical wildlife in all of South America.

The Fazenda Rio Negro is a cluster of terra-cotta-roofed structures built around a whitewashed 1920s mansion with spacious verandas and a tiny family chapel. The 19,400- acre fazenda is one of about 1,100 large cattle ranches spread across the Pantanal. Even with these livestock operations, this area of Brazil remained almost unknown until about a decade ago. Then, in 1994, the area became the setting for Pantanal, a Brazilian soap opera whose beautiful heroine had the curious habit of morphing into a female jaguar. Set against stunning vistas and a superabundance of wildlife, the program proved an instant hit, and the Pantanal was “discovered.” One by one, the fazendas became centers for a lucrative trade in ecotourism. In 2000, the onetime backwater welcomed a million such visitors, who came to view its rich biodiversity on Serengeti-style safaris. International environmental organizations also began to take note of the Pantanal. In May 1999, Conservation International (CI), a nonprofit Washington-based environmental group, bought the Fazenda Rio Negro and, with the help of Brazilian agencies, turned it into a reserve and research center for ecologists.

Here I meet 27-year-old Helen Waldemarin, an enthusiastic graduate student in ecology at Rio de JaneiroStateUniversity who is surveying the otter population for CI and is dressed in python-skin fatigues. She has invited me along on one of her excursions. “Ecotourism can be a doubleedged sword,” she tells me the day before we are to set out. “It can help conservation or disrupt it.”

With a footprint that is often bigger than a human hand, the giant river otter is the largest of the world’s 13 otter species, reaching six feet in length and weighing up to 70 pounds. A giant otter reclining on a riverside log, its powerful hind legs giving its body the shape of a sidelong question mark, is as regal, and as prepossessing, as any cheetah or tiger. After the jaguar, the giant otter is South America’s largest and most capable predator. But unlike the jaguar—and all other otters as well—it lives and hunts in groups of up to nine individuals. In 1978, a group of giant otters attacked a Brasília policeman at the city’s zoo. The off-duty sergeant tried to rescue a child who had fallen into an enclosure containing an otter family and pups. (He died of infections caused by their bites. The child survived.) The widely publicized incident led to a popular belief in Brazil that giant otters can attack and capsize a canoe and tear its occupants to pieces, though no such thing has ever happened.

Last year, the highly mobile otters built a den right across the river from the fazenda’s buildings, but the animals have since moved. Waldemarin is not sure whether activity at the ranch caused them to leave. In any case, they often come back, patrolling their territory. “We begin looking for their dens bright and early in the morning,” she briefs me. To maximize observation time and reduce disturbance, we will travel to our locations before dawn and return well after sundown. I learn that the job of an otter researcher involves coping with a great deal of sleep deprivation.


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