Mato Grosso is a state in the Central West region of Brazil, being the 3rd largest of Brazil’s 27 states, covering an area of more than 903,000 km2. However, only some 3,000,000 people occupy this massive area, thus also making it one of the most sparsely inhabited states in the country. It stands to reason that any area of such a size would support a wide range of habitats and subsequently flora and fauna. The state hosts three major biomes, all of great interest to the naturalist: the famed Pantanal; the Cerrado; and Amazonian rainforest.
Pantanal ©Sara Jenner Wildfoot
The Pantanal is the world’s largest freshwater wetland, covering 195,000 km2 mostly in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, but also stretching into eastern Bolivia and parts of Paraguay. Most of the Pantanal is subject to seasonal flooding with the marked separation of the wet and dry seasons: a considerable proportion of the area (nearly 80%) remains inundated from December to May each year. The biome sits mostly between 75 and 200 metres above sea level. Permanent and temporal lakes, ponds, and oxbows dominate the lowest-lying areas, which host an extremely diverse community of floating aquatic plants. Non-flooded low areas and seasonally flooded grasslands host a high percentage of tolerant herbaceous plants well adapted to seasonal extremes of flooding and fire. The higher elevations hold a plant community similar to the Cerrado biome, which borders the Pantanal to the north and the east. This Cerrado-like habitat is diverse, covering a spectrum from open savannah with scattered bushes (similar to Campo Sujo Cerrado) to denser woodlands with a grass-dominated under storey. Along river courses one finds taller gallery and deciduous forests that are also found in the highest areas.
Capybara Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris ©Sara Jenner Wildfoot
The Cerrado is one of the floristically richest savannahs in the world. It is structurally diverse, ranging from open dry and humid grasslands to extremely dense forests. The ecosystem shows marked endemism; about half of the 10,000-plus vascular plant species found in the Cerrado are endemic. It is not only highly unique, but also very diverse. 837 bird species occur in the Cerrado, a number of which are endemic. There is a marked dry season from May to September. It is home to 60 vulnerable animal species, 20 endangered and 12 critically endangered, 44% of its plant species exist nowhere else on Earth, around 300 of its native plant species are used as food, medicine, handicrafts or for trade, nine out of ten Brazilians use electricity generated by water from Cerrado areas and, unfortunately, less than 3% of the total Cerrado area is strictly protected.
The state capital Cuiabá is well situated for the needs of the nature loving travelling. It is a large, modern capital city with many daily air connections from the major domestic hubs of Brasilia, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There are a number of modern hotels near the airport, and car rental is easy both at the airport and in the city centre. In less than a couple of hours, one can reach excellent areas representing each of the above-mentioned habitats.
Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus ©Sara Jenner Wildfoot
Large mammals include the vulnerable Giant Anteater, Marsh Deer, Maned Wolf (actually a large fox) and the Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo only re-discovered in the 1990s. Jaguar are also still present.
The Chapada dos Guimarães is a scenic plateau situated above the city of Cuiabá some 70 km to the northeast. The principal habitat here is Cerrado, where one can find such special birds as Horned Sungem, Rufous-sided Pygmy-Tyrant, Chapada Flycatcher and Coal-crested Finch. Along watercourses there is gallery forest where Band-tailed Manakin, Dot-eared Coquette and Saffron-billed Sparrow occur. The plateau and the national park offer a number of breath taking views and spectacular geologic formations; top attractions include the Véu de Noiva waterfall and the Cidade da Pedra rock formations. Red-and-green Macaws can be seen around the cliffs at the falls, and Yellow-faced Parrot is possible along the dirt road to Cidade da Pedra.
Ocelot Leopardus pardalis ©Sara Jenner Wildfoot
The town of Poconé, where the famous Transpantaneira ‘highway’ begins, is only 110 km southwest of Cuiabá. This dead-end dirt road is the traditional point of entry to the Pantanal. Most of the abundant bird, mammal and reptile life can be seen easily from the car along this road. The end of the dry season (September and October) is an excellent time to visit the Pantanal as the wildlife tends to concentrate in the few diminishing pools of water and drying-out wetlands to create an incredible spectacle. During the wet season, the birds and mammals spread out in this time of plenty, but are no more difficult to see.
Toco Toucan Ramphastos toco ©Sara Jenner Wildfoot
Increased investment in ecotourism in the Pantanal has seen a number of ranches convert some or all of their areas into wildlife reserves, and a number of comfortable accommodation options are now available from Poconé as far as Porto Jofre. The Pantanal is the best place in the world to see the endangered Hyacinth Macaw, and for many this flashy species is reason enough to come to Brazil. However, the incredible sight of a horizon dotted with Jabirus, Maguari and Wood Storks and stuffed with several species of ibises, herons, and waterfowl in all the spaces in between is a sight not soon forgotten. Several pousadas offer river trips and these offer chances for Agami Heron and Giant Otter. Spotlighting drives at night are excellent for mammal spotting; a Jaguar is always the top prize, but sightings of foxes, deer and tapirs are more frequent.
Giant Otter Pteronura brasiliensis ©Sara Jenner Wildfoot
Cuiabá is also the departure point for visitors heading to Alta Floresta in the extreme north of the state. There are two daily flights to Alta Floresta with the TRIP and Ocean Air airlines; it is possible to arrive in Alta Floresta on the same day you arrive in Brazil. A more economic alternative is a luxury overnight bus from the main bus station in Cuiabá. There are many departures daily with several different companies. The buses are all modern and comfortable with air-conditioning, on-board toilets, free bottled water and several stops for meals and snacks. The trip takes between 12 and 15 hours, depending on the state of the road (typically much worse during the rainy season December to April).
The city of Alta Floresta presents the most convenient access to world class Amazonian wildlife watching in Mato Grosso, including some 600 species of birds. This incredible avian diversity results from a wide range of microhabitats beyond the excellent tall terra firma forests found, for example, along the Cristalino River. Riverine habitats, vine tangles, Guadua bamboo stands, igapó and rocky outcroppings topped with deciduous forest are amongst the key habitats found in and around the tall forest. Slightly farther afield to both the north and south one encounters white-sand habitats ranging from extremely stunted campina-type vegetation to taller campinarana forest. The Teles Pires River basin is recognized as a contact zone between two regions of avian endemism: the Rondônia and Pará centres. This means that a wide range of specialties such as Crimson-bellied Parakeet, Bare-eyed Antbird and Snow-capped Manakin are easiest to find together in the good forests around Alta Floresta.
Bare-faced Curassow Crax fasciolata ©Sara Jenner Wildfoot
Unhappily, the forests around Alta Floresta and elsewhere in northern Mato Grosso are under significant pressure from logging, clearing for cattle pasture and expanding colonization. Alta Floresta itself was founded only in 1975, when the municipality had 100% forest cover – the present day number is around 35% that. Recent crackdowns on illegal and legal logging in the region and sagging beef and agricultural product export markets have led to a recent downturn in local economies in the region. Tourism, particularly birding tourism, is beginning to be seen as a potential source of revenue for the region. Following the long-standing example of the world-class Cristalino Jungle Lodge, a handful of fishing lodges in the region such as the Pousada Rio Azul have opened trails and welcomed general interest eco-tourists. The international recognition of the Cristalino River as an important biodiversity hotspot was instrumental in defeating a state government proposition to remove the protected status of a neighbouring state park in 2007.
Major Source: Fatbirder
Photo Source: Wildfoot
Map Source: Googlemaps™