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Saving Wildlife: From Houston to the Pantanal

DAY 7:  OCTOBER 3, 2019
I woke up early to listen to the birds one more time before departing Baia das Pedras.  Every day, we saw different, remarkable, colorful birds singing right outside the lodge doors. 

With all our gear packed up, we loaded into two trucks to head to another ranch nearby which has a bigger "runway" than the one tiny planes use at Baia das Pedras.
The drive there was one of the bumpiest we've experienced yet.  It lasted for one very long hour.  This place wasn't easy to get to nor was it easy to leave, but every bump was worth it. 

We arrived at the neighboring ranch to see a small plane waiting for us with two pilots. The plane had nine seats for passengers.  The runway is just grass with tires marking the edges. 

The flight took another hour and gave us a better view of the Pantanal.  We saw a few, small areas burning.  The region is coming out of the dry season. Soon the landscape we saw will be filled with water. 

The hot midday air created a bit of a bumpy descent, but the plane landed smoothly on another "runway" right next to the hotel where we're staying for the next two nights.  We're essentially in one of many duplexes, with the guys on one side and Trazanna and me on the other.  

We're right on the river, so immediately after lunch, our KPRC and Houston Zoo team headed to the boat dock for our first journey to find jaguars and giant otters. 

We have a guide and a boat driver who are both very familiar with the many different waterways and the animals.

Ecotourism is an industry that everyone benefits from, so the boat drivers work together. By radio, they communicate the location of animal sightings so other drivers can bring their passengers too.  We're told as many as 30 boats of people have congregated to watch one jaguar before.  

On our first boat ride, we got to see a yellow anaconda (or at least a small section of one slithering through some dense brush), we saw a family of otters swimming, many capybaras, and more beautiful birds.  

Then a call came over the boat radio.  Two jaguars were walking the river bank looking for food.  
Our boat driver took off.  These are not short boat rides. We drove for a LONG time before we saw several boats gathered with tourists holding up cameras and binoculars.
We had made it in time to see the pair of jaguars effortlessly and quietly walk, swim,  and climb as they made their way down the water's edge. 

It's unusual for two males to be together, but these are brothers who will work with each other and look out for each other until a female jaguar comes along someday.


We have two boat rides planned for tomorrow, including one with a woman who is working to save jaguars and otters in this area.

We're thrilled to have another chance to see more giants of the Pantanal with her tomorrow. 
 

Day Six: THURSDAY, OCTOBER, 2, 2019

We were out the door of the lodge by 4:45 a.m. hoping to see some animals roaming and feeding once the sun came up.

Mornings here are remarkable. The cool, clean air, the sky at dawn, and the energy of the birds starting their day to make it easy to be an early-riser.

We all piled into one pickup this morning, a few inside, a few in the bed. Arnaud hopped in the driver's seat and Danilo took a standing position in the back. We're told he has the best eyes for spotting wildlife as we drive through the Pantanal. There are no roads. Just sandy tracks where a truck has gone before and many times Arnaud stays creating a new path.

We're coming out of the dry season, so Arnaud heads to the watering holes where animals tend to gather. In a matter of weeks, most of the places we explored will be filled with water and impassible.

Among the animals we saw along the drive were a crab-eating fox, a pampus deer, and a tapir. Arnaud wasn't expecting us to see a tapir on this trip, so that was an exciting find.

I haven't mentioned it yet, but Arnaud's wife Pati runs a tapir conservation project and is considered the leading tapir researcher in the world. Since they have children, Arnaud and Pati take turns coming into the field to work. They overlap time at home in Campo Grande briefly after one returns and before the other heads out.

We're going to be heading out of Baia das Pedras tomorrow, so we packed in a lot on this final full day.

We visited areas where capybara, caiman, birds, cows, and horses all shared the land. It was stunning. Arnaud said the capys and caimans are not aggressive and will retreat into the water if they are uneasy. We were able to get incredible footage on the ground and thanks to Allen's drone work also overhead.

Back near the lodge, we drove past a tree trunk that had the top broken off at some point. Atop the trunk perched a beautiful pair of hyacinth macaws. Their faces make it look like they're always amused and happy to be in each other's company.

Just outside the lodge, toucans (which make noises that sound more like pigs than birds) take over a couple of trees in the morning.

After lunch, Arnaud took Andy, Allen, and me to meet the cowboy who is as much a part of this place as anything else. Seu Tiao was just a young boy when he somehow ended up at Baia das Pedras and the current owner Rita's father took him in, giving him shelter and work. He never left. No one knows how old he is, not even him. He lives in a small building with his partner Dona Katarina, who invited us to stay for coffee. We did. Seu Tiao doesn't say much, but his face gives away the pride he has in this place.

Seu Tiao and others we have met here are true Pantaneiros, they're people from the Pantanal who are truly in harmony with their surroundings. The Pantanal is more than their home. It's their soul.

It has been our privilege to experience the Pantanal in such a special way with our friends from the Houston Zoo over the last few days. We are excited to share even more videos, pictures, and stories in the coming months. We're boarding a small plane tomorrow to head to our second destination, a different kind of amazing adventure begins in the morning.

Day Five: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2019

We woke up hopeful Arnaud and Gabriel had a successful night at the giant armadillo burrow. If they did, we were prepared to jump in the team's trucks and make the 30-minute drive to the burrow to witness them do their fieldwork with the animal.

The first thing I noticed when I walked out of the lodge was that one of the trucks was missing. I wondered if they were still out. I walked to the back patio where Danilo and Peter were talking a little ways out from the house.  Danilo, who has an armadillo tattoo on his arm, spotted me and gave me a thumbs up. Was that a "good morning" sign? Was it they got one?

I walked up and asked "success?"

Yes, he said. The guys are at the lab on the property. They're going to do the fieldwork here, he said.

I asked… They brought the armadillo back here?

Yes, Danilo said. Because they got a mom and baby, he added with a smile.

We were told it could take several days for a giant armadillo to enter the trap. Sometimes they won't come out at all until the trap is gone.

We also learned later that giant armadillos only have one baby every three years and it had been five years since the last time the research team had gotten a baby to study.

The research team was beyond excited. As were we. We were going to see animals very few people in the world had ever seen. They are not found in ANY zoos.

For the team, this is a unique opportunity to track mom and baby and see how they interact over time.

I could write several pages on the experience of seeing these impressive animals up close, but I'll save that for the show we'll produce after this trip.

For now, I'll tell you again that this was such a special experience that a cowboy who had been out here for twenty years saw his first giant armadillo with us.

There's a sign in the lab to tally the number of people who've seen a giant armadillo at Baia das Pedras since 2010. The number was 217 when we arrived. The eco-tourists staying at the lodge with us, the cowboys who came by, and our group brought the number up to 233.

The team collected blood samples, fecal samples, and measurements from the rare creatures, and both mom and baby were equipped with GPS tracking devices.

For the animals' sake, we let the heat of the day pass before we all traveled back to the burrow spot and released the animals back into their home. The baby quickly darted into the hole. The mom slid down as well stopping only to kick up sand and close the hole behind her.

We only have one more full day here tomorrow before we move to our second destination of this trip. More giants of the Pantanal await us and we can't wait to share more pictures and stories with you.

Day Four: MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2018

There are a lot of similarities between Texas and this part of Brazil. Cattle ranches fill the landscape, feral hogs tear up land, and it's HOT.

We also both have armadillos. Except in Brazil, some armadillos aren't just large, they're giant and saving them is one of the key projects of the researchers here.

That's why on this morning, we all left the Baia das Pedras lodge early to find the burrow of one of the animals they've been studying.

This particular giant armadillo has a tracking device implanted, but it only sends a signal for four hours in the morning. They use a radio telemetry device but it can take a long time and effort before the device beeps indicating the animal is nearby. We were fortunate. Today we heard the beeping after just 90 minutes of searching.

The research team consisting of Arnaud, Gabriel, and Danilo parked the trucks we had been riding in and we walked until we saw what appeared to be a giant sand mound.  On the backside of it, there was a hole. Giant armadillos create one hole they use to enter and exit their burrow. They can build a new burrow quickly and move every few days. That leaves the used burrow open for other animals looking for a safe place to hide.

With the giant armadillo's burrow in front of us, the researchers grabbed a large cylinder-shaped trap and carefully positioned it at the burrow opening. While armadillos can't see well, they have an amazing sense of smell and may not emerge for several days if they sniff out trouble above. Since the KPRC and Houston Zoo team already had on sunscreen and bug spray, we couldn't get too close to the burrow. Even the sweat coming off the three researchers (which attracted many sweat bees to our skin) posed a problem they said. They are hopeful the armadillo will emerge within a few days, so they can put a GPS collar on it and be able to track its movements.

Arnaud and Gabriel will go out after dark tonight and wait several hours to see if the trap is successful.

On our trip back to the lodge for lunch, we spotted a couple of capybaras and a pampus deer.

In the afternoon, we interviewed Danilo who is the lead vet. He first connected with Arnaud's wife who works to save tapirs in the region. Ten years ago, Arnaud invited Danilo to join the giant armadillo project. They've been tracking and studying the amazing creatures ever since.

With an afternoon temp of 101 degrees and the feels like temp higher, we had a brief break indoors to cool off and hydrate before going out again at dusk to see a jabiru stork nest. Jabirus are the largest stork in the world. They come back to the same nest year after year. This year, mom and dad stork have four babies. We amazingly witnessed mom regurgitating an eel for her fledglings to eat. Danilo says he expects the young birds to begin flying in a week.

At dusk, one of the Baias das Pedras cowboys gathered the sheep and cattle and put them in their pens for the night. A few calves weren't familiar with the routine yet and needed a little extra coaxing.

Just before it got dark, a pair of red and green macaws landed nearby briefly before flying off toward the lodge.

That's where we headed too for dinner and planning.

If the armadillo trap is successful, we are told we need to be ready to roll by 6 a.m. so the team can complete their work before it gets too hot.

Fingers crossed we get good news when we wake up.

Day Three: SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2019 

The Long Bumpy Ride that Led Us to Beyoncé 

We loaded up into two pickup trucks this morning eager to get to the Pantanal. 

We had been given warning that the journey there would start on paved roads, move to dirt roads, and then end on a long stretch with no road at all. 

The drive took us 7.5 hours. We're told normally it takes six, but we made a handful of stops to get a video of wild animals we spotted.  Among them were armadillos, capybaras, toucans, and jabiru storks. 

Sadly, we also saw a giant anteater and a tapir that had each been hit by vehicles on the paved highway.  That's one of the issues conservationists here are hoping to resolve, so neither people nor animals get hurt.

As we continued to drive,  the landscape changed. We went from the city, to rolling hills, to very flat land.  The flat area meant we had arrived in the Pantanal. 

In the wet season, the region fills with water.  We are here at the end of a brutal, dry season. The largest tropical wetlands in the world look more like a prairie at the moment.  That will change once they've had some regular, much-needed rainfall. 

Back to the drive … Andy Cerota was given a job for the final LONG leg of the drive-through ranch land.  He had to jump out of the truck to open 18 gates along the way. 

We finally made it to the lodge where we're staying for a few days and met some of the researchers working with Arnaud on conservation projects.  

They along with a sweet pup named "Beyoncé" showed us around the grounds where we saw even more wildlife, including caiman and many unique birds. 

After the tour, we headed back to the lodge for dinner and showers.  I'm bunking with Trazanna Moreno, the Vice President of Marketing for the Houston Zoo. Together we learned that creatures that live outside often sneak indoors.  There was a wolf spider next to Trazanna's bag. There were two little frogs also sharing our room and a pretty moth that made a surprising amount of noise as it fluttered around.   All species of insects and amphibians were safely moved outside before we settled in for the night.  

So far, so good already on our wildlife watch. Hopefully, we can check off more animal sightings tomorrow. 

DAY 2: SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2019

Five Wandering Texans Arrive in Brazil

We landed at the airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil this morning where we immediately got lost as we tried to navigate to our luggage, through customs, and to a different terminal.  Fortunately we had plenty of time between flights.  Coffee,  lunch, wandering about, and sitting around filled several hours.  Not much to write home about. 

Nearly a full day after we began traveling, we boarded another jet for Campo Grande – a city where we were set to spend the night. 

 The sunset flight above a soft blanket of clouds was beautiful.

The airport in Campo Grande is small.  You walk from the plane to the building housing baggage claim. It's a place which seems impossible for anyone or anything to get lost.

But Andy's suitcase didn't make it to this simple and quiet airport. It was sitting back in bustling Sao Paulo, where he had been asked to check it at the gate.  
I snapped one pic of Andy heading to baggage claim JUST before we got the news his bag never made it to the Campo Grande conveyer belt. 

With the help of Peter Riger from the Houston Zoo and a Brazilian man who had been sent to pick us up, the airline assured Andy his bag would come on the very next flight.  (Just before bedtime, it arrived and was delivered to our hotel which certainly was a relief to Andy.)

We met one of the Zoo's conservation partners this evening for dinner.  Arnaud Desbiez will be with us the next few days. 

By tomorrow afternoon, we'll be with Arnaud in the Pantanal. Most nature programs have months at a time to gather animal footage. We have just six days.

Our goal is to see as many of the animals we're learning about as possible. 

The clock starts ticking early in the morning with a six hour drive.  Arnaud says it's two hours on paved roads, two hours on dirt roads, and two hours on no roads. 

The adventure really begins tomorrow, so fique ligado  (stay tuned.)
 

 

DAY 1: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2019

It's 10 p.m. in Houston and I'm starting to write from the plane sitting at Bush Intercontinental Airport. A 10-hour flight is ahead of us and that's just the first leg of this journey. In the next nine days, we'll be on planes big and small. There will be cars and boats mixed in between.
Our final destination is a place where cowboys have worked family ranch land for generations and also is the home of the largest tropical wetlands in the world. 

The plane just lifted off and we're officially on our way to the Pantanal in Brazil.

The saying "everything's bigger in Texas" holds true until you visit this place… at least that's what I'm told and expect to see for myself soon.   

The Pantanal itself is primarily in Brazil but parts spill into two neighboring countries, Bolivia and Paraguay.

It's home to an incredibly diverse array of wildlife, many that have "giant" in their name.  There are giant otters, giant anteaters, anacondas (super sized snakes), capybaras (the world's largest rodent)  and jaguars.  Jaguars for the record are only the third largest cat species but I'm fairly certain their size will still be impressive when we see them in the wild.  

My traveling partners on this adventure from KPRC 2 are anchor Andy Cerota and photojournalist Allen Reid.  We're in good company with two members of the Houston Zoo team.  Once on the ground in Brazil, we'll meet with people who are working every day to save wildlife in the region and whose efforts are supported by the Houston Zoo.  It's a conservation partnership that benefits people and animals and we're grateful to be on this journey to share those stories.

For now, Boa noite (That's good night in Portuguese) and até breve! (See you soon.)