Can an area be classified as a wilderness area and still have domestic animals, such as cattle, roaming around? Prior to this trip I would have said NO. After one week at Caiman Ecological Refuge in the Pantanal of Brazil, I have changed my mind. An unwavering YES!
I had always thought that an area was not truly wild if it has had cattle roaming through it at some stage in the past. Cattle in South Africa have a reputation of destroying pristine areas by overgrazing, causing the woody trees to dominate and thickets to develop. I had heard that cattle had been in the Pantanal for almost 250 years, and was interested to see if the same would hold true in the Pantanal.
My first impressions, driving from Campo Grande to Caiman Ecological Refuge, in the late afternoon, were all positive. We saw Rheas, Capybaras and Peccaries feeding in between the cattle and the fences. Maybe it was just the excitement, but I was positive.
On our first morning game drive, I was surprised to find myself actually enjoying seeing cattle on game drive. Not only are they pretty cattle, but they appear to have improved the wildlife viewing potential of the area. Large clearings have been created in between the forested areas, allowing you to view the wildlife much easier than one would were it thicker. The ultimate contrast to the Amazon Basin, found just to the north. Here you hear incredible sounds, but simply cannot see anything due to the dense nature of the vegetation restricting visibility to a mere few meters.
At Caiman there is over 50 000 hectares of land. This land has been divided into ‘plots’ (for lack of a better word), that range in size from hundreds to thousands of hectares in size. The ‘plots’ are used to house the cattle, allowing them to be rotated ensuring great grazing all year round. The cattle are moved around by real life cowboys. Incredible horse riders, working in small groups, round up the cattle and steer them through gates in the fences.
I was concerned, at first, to hear that fences criss-crossed the landscape. I went in for a closer look and started to observe more closely how the animals reacted to and treated the fences. I was delighted to see that the only animal that the fence restricted was in fact the cattle. Every other animal simply passed through the widely spaced wires. Note: barb wire fences are not allowed in the Pantanal for exactly this reason. The fences thus offer no restriction to any wild animal. My concerns drifted away as I watched a Giant Anteater skip though a cattle fence nearby to the camp.
There is also the major contributing factor of food… the cattle are an essential component of the diet of the much sort after Jaguar. The owner of Caiman Ecological Refuge has come to terms that a number of the cattle will fall prey to the claws of the stealthy spotted cat. He is well aware that if he is to create a wildlife area in which the Jaguar can happily roam and breed, and where people will come to view this majestic cat, then he will loose cattle in the process. He is okay with that. In most other ranches this would not be acceptable and this is one of the main reasons that the Jaguar has been persectuted over the years. Caiman Ecological Refuge provides the unique situation and environment in which at last man and beast are starting to use the same land in harmony.
I surprised myself when I finally came to my own personal conclusion: the cattle and the cowboys actually added to the whole experience! They have been a part of this landscape for the last 250 years and are unlikely to ever be removed. As the owner of Caiman Ecological Refuge said ” cattle are deeply embedded in the culture of the Pantanal. People live amongst them, they eat them, they wear clothes made from them…they even sit around the fire and sing songs about them”. Isn’t it wonderful and refreshing to see a place where they are attempting to provide space and protection for wild animals in an area that is still worked for other uses.
Written by Sean Carter and Adam Bannister
Photography by Adam Bannister and Sean Carter