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Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010

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Water wonder: Spray from the Iguassu Falls that span some 2.7 km on the Iguassu River, which marks Brazil's southern border with Argentina, produces constant rainbows by day — and truly astonishing, ghostly moonbows on moonlit nights. MARK BRAZIL PHOTOS

Brazil: the wild side


Special to The Japan Times

Statistics tell us one story of Brazil: It is the world's fifth-largest country and South America's largest by far, and it is an anomaly in being the only Portuguese-speaking nation on that continent.

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Spot on: Powerful and determined, the jaguar seems a perfect symbol of modern Brazil. Here, one of those elusive cats rests beside a river in the northern Pantanal.

Brazil is home to the largest tropical forest on Earth and, just pipped by the Nile, the second-longest river, the 6,570-km Amazon — which is by far the world's largest in terms of total discharge and accounts for around a fifth of the planet's total river flow.

Brazil was named after its first export, brasil a red dye made from a tree (and perhaps the origin of my own name). The country now conjures images ranging from those of the industrial and agricultural powerhouse it has become, to ones of costumed carnival revelers, scantily clad girls on bright sandy beaches and the seemingly endless horizons of the Amazon rain forest.

Whichever way you look at it — climatically, industrially, biologically, developmentally: Brazil is hot.

A federal republic with a federal constitution and a democratic process that requires everyone to vote, its civil systems can return the result of a national election within 24 hours — something that many of the world's other powerful democracies might benefit from emulating.

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Dining area: One of the caiman that abound in the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, where they mainly feed on fish but will take almost any other protein that comes their way.

The largely Roman Catholic population consists mainly of those with European, African and Amerindian ancestry unified by a common language — Brazilian Portuguese.

Personal experience tells another story. Between my first traverse of the country in 1986, and through almost annual visits since 2002, Brazil has developed in so many ways.

Yet, although its infrastructure and economy have changed beyond recognition, one aspect of the country has not changed — the people: They are still irrepressibly lively, fun-loving and friendly. Mornings start with a strong handshake, a hug and a thumbs-up bonhomie that makes almost any day feel like a good day.

I could write about social matters, about security concerns in Brazil's major cities or about environmental issues faced in so many of its biomes, but I'd rather reflect on Brazilians taking pride in their country, on the positives that this lively nation has to offer the world.

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Wildlife galore: Enormous hyacinth macaws engage in mutual preening.

With October's COP10 (10th Conference of the Parties) to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Nagoya still so fresh in the memory, it seems appropriate to view Brazil — through the eyes of a traveling naturalist — as a land of astounding biological diversity, where efforts are being made to conserve endangered species and habitats, and where rewards in terms of wildlife experiences are astounding.

I begin my journey through southern Brazil in its lively old capital (1763-1960) of Rio de Janeiro. Arriving there as I invariably do after a roughly 40-hour journey from my home in Hokkaido, and with a 12-hour time difference to boot, my impressions of the city necessarily tend to be blurred by jet lag.

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A tiny golden lion tamarin, a type of monkey that, like the macaw, is benefiting from conservation activities in Brazil.

On each visit, though, I never tire of visiting the splendid Jardim Botanico (Botanical Garden) established in 1808, which is now a beautifully preserved wooded park in the city.

There is no better way of immersing yourself immediately in the lush foliage of this tropical country and encountering the first colorful birds of this bird-rich land. Parrots and hummingbirds, tanagers and toucans are here, and so too are the tiny, squirrel-like marmoset monkeys unique to South America.

The iconic, nearly 40-meter-tall "Christ the Redeemer" statue towering in its Art Deco splendor atop 710-meter-high Corcovado mountain overlooking the city surely beckons, but I avoid its crowds and instead prefer to head for the perhaps equally popular granite-and-quartz monolith that is Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain).

The views from there are breathtaking, and there is no better time than sunset to grasp the extent of the city with its slope-crowding suburbs, its surrounding forests and the swarms of frigate birds gliding and swooping over it all.

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A maned wolf eats scraps left in the open to tempt it out of its dense forest habitat.

To the uninitiated, the best-known of Brazil's biomes is the Amazon, renowned for its rich tropical forest and the great river that flows through it from its source in the Peruvian Andes to the Atlantic. In its basin — which covers more than 7 million sq. km (approximately the area of Australia) — it would be easy to lose yourself for decades in exploration or in cataloging one fragment of its biodiversity.

Yet in southeast Brazil, there is another type of forest — one that predates the Amazon, is perhaps even more diverse in its species, and is certainly replete with endemic life forms found nowhere else on Earth. This is the Atlantic Forest.

Surviving only in tiny, mostly hilltop fragments, this forest type is like a Noah's Ark, supporting the last individuals of rare and critically endangered species such as the muriqui (woolly spider monkey) and the golden lion tamarin. Many more of its life forms have already been lost as coffee plantations have marched across the landscape, yet in pocket-sized sanctuaries such as those at Intervales in Sao Paulo State, or in Estacao Biologica de Caratinga in the state of Minas Gerais, rare species are being conserved. The latter, in particular, is a crucial home to the northern muriqui, of which perhaps no more than 800 individuals now survive in the world.

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A giant anteater in the mountain grasslands of a national park close to the town of Canastra.

On my first visit to South America, one of the creatures I most longed to see was the extraordinary giant anteater, which eluded me then and for several more visits. Finally, however, I went to western Minas Gerais State, where there is a raised, plateaulike mountain habitat that is protected as part of the Serra da Canastra National Park. There, the raised grasslands dotted with innumerable gray termite mounds are the perfect home for this strange creature.

As if designed as an alien monster by a sci-fi artist, from a distance one giant anteater can easily be confused for two — its enormous, plume tail seems detached and as big as the actual body, while the long narrow tubular snout could be mistaken for a tail and suggest a creature that is heading in two directions at once.

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Hanging on: A northern muriqui (woolly spider monkey) spotted in a part of the Atlantic Forest that is now one of the last places in the world where this critically endangered species is found. As well as being the largest (non-human) forest primates in South America, muriquis — with their enormously long tails that serve as a fifth limb — are also the most graceful.

Giant anteaters lumber, walking on their knuckles, snuffing and huffing as they scent out ants and termites. They probe quickly, slurp with their long sticky tongues and trundle on, perhaps with an offspring clinging to their backs, its flank stripes aligned with its parent's. Though poor of vision, giant anteaters respond quickly to vibration and can show a remarkable turn of speed once spooked.

The grasslands are home, too, to perhaps the most elegant of the world's dog tribe — the maned wolf. This rufous creature standing nearly a meter at the shoulder is like a large fox on stilts. Yet, though it is the largest canine in South America, sighting one takes dedication for it is shy and retiring. In most places, that is, except one.

An arduous eight-hour drive eastward in the same state delivers the traveler to the Caraca, a remarkable range of mountains, one side gouged by massive mines, one side protected as a natural park. In the latter zone nestles a church and a quaint cluster of buildings that once included a Catholic seminary but now serve as a remote retreat for folk from the city of Belo Horizonte.

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