My Top 5 Wildlife Sightings in Brazil

Tristan Whitworth

16 Oct 2017

Wildlife of the amazon and pantanal wetlands

When it comes to wildlife in Brazil, there is much more to see than just the jaguar, although the third largest big cat in the world will make the headlines and is worth the trip alone. I was lucky enough to see several, in different habitats and exuding different behaviours, and each of these sightings was more thrilling than the last! The point I’d like to make though, is that whether you are an experienced bird watcher, passionate about large mammals or just an overall nature and wildlife enthusiast like myself, Brazil’s colourful and diverse wildlife will blow you away. 

Without further ado, here is are my top 5 wildlife sightings in the Amazon and Pantanal regions of Brazil. These are all animals that I was fortunate enough to see and are not ranked in any particular order of preference, although I must admit that I was this close to adopting my first candidate…

1. Giant River Otter

If this image makes you wonder where this affection is coming from, you’re not alone. The giant river otter doesn’t leave anyone feeling indifferent, and you’re never quite sure whether to find it menacing or the most endearing creature on the river banks. Weighing up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) and measuring up to 1.8 meters (5ft 9), the giant river otter was the most fascinating animal I saw in the rivers of the Amazon and Pantanal. I was looking forward to my first sighting of the giant otter, and when it occurred I quickly learned there was more to it than just it’s imposing size. On our small boat on the Cristalino River – in the southern Amazon – we followed a family of five otters all the way back to our lodge as the sun set. It was captivating to observe them hunting for fish, methodically and relentlessly skimming the river banks and trapping their prey in the shallower waters. There was something graceful about how they moved their long bodies in the water while on the prowl. To my amusement, every time a fish was caught, the otter would stop – often under overhanging vine branches or hidden behind a water plant – to fully enjoy its meal, before promptly resuming the hunt and catching up with the rest of the group. 

Much like a Frenchman and his steak-frites, the giant river otter doesn’t like to be rushed at the dinner table!

I was also amazed to learn that the giant river otter is a very social animal that doesn’t cope too well with solitude, as the high-pitched calls coming from a cub that had been separated from the group echoed on the water for kilometres. Each family has their own “dialect”, which helps the local guides and their superhuman hearing abilities locate them. After a few days on the water you will also be able to recognise the sound of an otter coming up for air, as well as the distinct crunch of a catfish being torn apart in the distance.

Where I saw giant river otters: Cristalino Lodge, Southwild Jaguar Flotel, Refugio Ecologico Ararauna.

Best time: Year round.

2. Ocelot

When talking about this small feline, it is important that expectations are correctly set. The ocelot is a very elusive nocturnal animal, a master of camouflage and stealth, usually not one to stick around for social bonding around the fireplace. My point is, it is not easy to spot them in the wild and I have spoken to travellers who have been to Brazil a handful of times without ever seeing one. With this in mind, you can imagine how surprised and fortunate I felt after seeing an ocelot on three different occasions while in the southern Pantanal. All three sightings displayed different behaviours. One was sleeping on the side of a dirt road near a pond that this year’s unforgiving dry season had not yet completely forsaken. The other scampered across another path at lightning speed as our vehicle approached, only to take shelter just under the treeline where we had come to a stop, allowing us to admire it from about four metres away until it later decided to return to more tranquil forest dwellings. The third ocelot was hunting in the shallow waters of a caiman-infested pond, seemingly unaware of the presence of several very large caiman less than two metres away. Or maybe the ocelot just wasn’t disturbed, and that’s what struck me about this cat. Despite its small and definitely unimposing build, and the presence of a much bigger rival – the mighty jaguar – the ocelot only exudes confidence and skill. 

Where I saw ocelots: Caiman Ecological Refuge (Cordilheira Lodge/Baiazinha Lodge).

Best time: Dry season, June to October, but very elusive throughout the year.

3. Tapir

In the excitement of my first day in the Amazon, buzzing about all that I had seen within the first 30 minutes on the waters of the Cristalino, by the time my first tapir sighting occurred I had completely forgotten that we might see one. How could I?! This only made this first sighting all the more thrilling! A mother and baby cooling down, water about mid-waist. The Brazilian tapir is the largest land mammal found in South America and can measure up to two metres in length and weigh up to 250kg. This large build doesn’t prevent it from being an excellent swimmer, which certainly helps when sharing a habitat with jaguars. A few of our sightings did dive and stay under water for a relatively long time, an ability that the tapir shares with another item commonly on the jaguar menu, the endearing capybara. On the other hand, what the tapir doesn’t have working for him is very good eyesight. In fact, the tapir is essentially blind. As if surviving in the Amazon and Pantanal wasn’t already challenging enough! This does mean that it is relatively easy to observe the tapir from quite close, since as long as you tread quietly it will be none the wiser about your presence. Being a herbivore, the tapir spends most of its time snout down looking for leaves, fruit and twigs, making hikes in the forest the easiest way to approach one without startling it. 

Here is my special tapir tip just for you: if you can, position yourself upwind, so not only can the tapir not see, it also won’t be able to smell you!

Where I saw tapirs: Cristalino Lodge, Southwild Jaguar Flotel, Caiman Ecological Refuge (Cordilheira Lodge/Baiazinha Lodge), Refugio Ecologico Ararauna.

Best time: Dry season, as they come to cool down on the river banks, or spring, when overripe fruit falls from the trees in abundance.

4. Birdlife

I wanted to make sure I included a bird in this list and many could have had the honour, such was the abundance of birdlife in the Amazon and Pantanal. Before Brazil, I never paid that much attention to our feathery friends from the sky (not out of disinterest, but there’s only so much excitement a European city pigeon can spark right?). I saw and learnt so much about birdlife during my recent visit that it’s impossible for me to narrow it down to just one species, nor can I list every single one I saw. The colours were stunning: from the usual suspects like the toco toucan with its’ bright orange bill and the playful and gorgeous hyacinth macaw to the chestnut-eared aracari or red-crested cardinal. You also had the proud-standing Amazon kingfisher, or the larger birds of prey such as the great black hawk, laughing falcon (so many hawks and falcons!) and even a king vulture. With the help of our expert guides, I was also amazed at how some masters of camouflage blend in so well, most notably the great potoo and the pygmy owl. 

I can’t fail to mention the bigger specimens like the clumsy-looking greater rhea or the enormous jabiru stork. I was absolutely in awe at the size of the latter. With an average wingspan of two metres (6ft 5!), I cannot fathom how these things manage to take off and fly, and it looks like even they are surprised when, after a dozen heavy lunges to gain momentum, they finally reach lift off. I get the same feeling when sitting on a packed Airbus A380 trying to pick up speed on the runway. What an absolutely fascinating sight, and they were absolutely everywhere. Many lodges in the Amazon and Pantanal feature observation towers, some towering over the canopy, 50 metres above ground. I recommend an early morning or sunset climb whenever you can. Not only will you see and hear a tremendous amount of birdlife, but the landscapes draped in early morning or evening light will make for everlasting memories.

Where I saw birdlife: Everywhere! The Amazon is home to 1294 bird species, the Pantanal 600.

Best time: Year round.

5. Jaguar

Nothing in life is guaranteed, except death, taxes and jaguar ruling the Pantanal. To most, the number one highlight of any wildlife safari to Brazil, and rightfully so.

The third largest big cat in the world is majestic, beautiful, awe-inspiring… the superlatives run dry before you manage to accurately describe the apex predator of the Amazon and Pantanal.

The excitement leading up to my first sighting was visible, as I just couldn’t get that grin off my face, before heading out on the banks of the Cuiaba River in the northern Pantanal. You know the jaguars are there - this region boasts the highest concentration of them in Brazil - so as long as you are here at the right time of year, it’s just a matter of when you will see one and what it will be doing. I wasn’t picky, and over the course of 16 days I was treated to 15 sightings. Whether the jaguar was sleeping in golden sunlight, losing a staring competition with a caiman, mating (kids look away) or hunting on the river banks, each sighting produced moments of true unfiltered amazement.

Every sighting was special for me, but my favourite one may also have been the one where the jaguar was the most hidden by vegetation. At the Caiman Ecological Refuge, a 53,000 acre ranch teaming with wildlife in the southern Pantanal, a young female in need of privacy left the pond where she was hunting for caiman and ran for the treeline as we approached in our truck. We came to a halt and observed her for a little while, as we could only make her head and a few rosettes from behind the bushes. What made this particular sighting special was that the treeline section of forest she entered was part of a restricted protected national reserve. Off-limits to everyone: no traveller, biologist or local cattle farmer is allowed beyond this treeline, as decided by the federal government to ensure the protection of certain wildlife-rich areas across the country. I had the funny feeling that this jaguar knew this, and was telling us something along the lines of “ok you may see me, but this is MY land, MY primary rainforest”. Or maybe she was playing a game of seduction, trying carefully to not reveal too much and entertain the mystery. Either way, it worked, and left us baffled.

Where I saw jaguar: Southwild Jaguar Flotel, Caiman Ecological Refuge (Cordilheira Lodge/Baiazinha Lodge).

Best time: June to October (dry season in the Pantanal).

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