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Natural Causes: the greatest wildlife show on earth



Nine years ago science writer, film producer, and former Field Museum exhibit designer Vic Banks took a break from Chicago. He visited and fell in love with a place that sounds a bit like the rural midwest: a flat, sunny grassland disdained by east-coast sophisticates. But this landscape--the Pantanal--is in semitropical southwestern Brazil. And it is still lush with a quantity and variety of wildlife long gone from our part of the world.

The Pantanal is one of three major ecosystems singled out for protection in Brazil's new constitution (the others are the Amazon and the Atlantic forest). But it gets little attention and less respect from the outside world. Just before Banks first visited the area in 1983, Jacques Cousteau's crew was there filming wildlife--but planning to pretend that the animals they filmed were in the Amazon. As Banks writes in his new book The Pantanal: Brazil's Forgotten Wilderness, "The film crew had been frustrated trying to find animals in the Amazon's dark forests. The Pantanal's bright light and easy-to-see animals proved a blessing. The wildlife footage was incorporated into Cousteau's Amazon River documentary series. . . . [which] showed Pantanal footage and talked mostly about the Amazon, giving the distinct impression that the Pantanal lies within the Amazon basin. This further perpetuated the Pantanal's obscurity at a time when international pressure could have helped deter its exploitation."

Biologically, the Pantanal ("swampland" in Portuguese) is the gigantic floodplain of the Paraguay River and its tributaries. Like most ecosystems that alternate between flood and drought, it is rich in life--one of the last great unexploited freshwater fisheries on earth, according to R.L. Wellcome of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

"I couldn't believe there were all these animals next to the road," Banks says of his first trip there. "You had to pinch yourself to make sure you weren't on some safari. The Pantanal is not a physically beautiful place. It's not British Columbia or the Amazon with those tall trees. But it has a sense of discovery, a sense of 'What's around the next corner?'"--as when he came across the last marks made by a snake crossing a dirt road. "There were just two talon prints, a drop of blood, and no more wiggle."

Among his other surprises: chasing a fast-moving teju lizard away from a host's chickens, seeing 30 snail kites at once ("just finding one in the Everglades is a life experience"), photographing a row of caimans feeding in the rapids beneath a waterfall, flying low over an enormous rookery of perhaps 10,000 American wood storks, and finding dozens of his favorite Pantanal creature, the striking blue hyacinth macaw. "Like the Pantanal itself, it's the largest of its kind, very threatened, and poorly understood."

Culturally, the Pantanal is Brazil's wild west--a ranching and mining area where cowboys on horseback still round up semiwild cattle, and where the mayor of the gold-mining village of Pocone rejects Banks's ideas about tourism by pulling a gold chain and cross from beneath his shirt and saying, "This is our future."

Pantaneiros, says Banks with a half-humorous shrug, don't really appreciate what they have. (He urged Pocone's mayor to see some of the rest of the world in order to realize how pristine the Pantanal is by comparison.) "They eat beef all the time," he says, even though they live in the midst of one of the world's great freshwater fisheries. "They've been brought up on sun-dried beef, boiled beef, fresh-butchered beef. Fish is only a supplement.

Banks believes that the Pantanal and its creatures need to be protected:

from careless farming (soil erosion is already turning some area streams into the cafe-au-lait color found in the midwest)

from pollution by agricultural chemicals (some of them banned in the U.S.)

from excessive fencing by small ranches, which he says can cause more damage than the big semifeudal estates

from the low-tech mining of gold and the resulting mercury pollution

and most of all from the market hunting and illicit sale of all kinds of animals, including parrots, owls, jaguars, anteaters, caimans, and monkeys (his book ends with a gruesome visit to an illegal wildlife market outside Rio de Janeiro).

As an alternative, he is promoting what has come to be known as ecotourism: if Brazil is to nature what Saudi Arabia is to oil, then the country should aim to make money off the gringos who want to come see it, and use the revenue to enforce laws that will keep the environment clean and the wildlife flourishing.

"I know these two cowboys on a small ranch in the Pantanal--they have Amazon parrots, hyacinth macaws, howler monkeys all over. They don't care. They just milk the cows. But for a northerner, visiting that ranch is a world-class experience. They have to be taught that foreigners will value that."

Brazilians are not particularly anxious to be taught their ecological manners by the perpetrators of Love Canal and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Banks interviewed Brazilian interior minister Jose Carlos Mello, who observed that in Brazil the annual energy consumption per capita averages the equivalent of 800 kilos of carbon burned, and in the U.S. it's 9,600 kilos--12 times as much. "It's the United States and the First World rich countries that are ruining the environment. In Europe there is not one living first-growth tree left. Yet the First World wants our best wood. . . . I'm telling you it's egotistical for them to come and tell us how to handle our environment. It will be decided by Brazilians."

"He has a hell of a good argument," acknowledges Banks. "But part of growth is that you learn from others' mistakes. I say, fine--charge the foreigners to visit the Pantanal and use the money to bring in better enforcement and let people know about their great precious resources."

Just how precious are they? Banks remembers talking with the Associated Press bureau chief in Rio, who asked quizzically, "You don't think this place could disappear, do you?"

Banks thought to himself, "This is the greatest wildlife show you can see. It's a lot like a Las Vegas chorus line: it would still be a chorus line with only five dancers, but not like it was with a hundred. No, the Pantanal is not going to disappear. No one is going to come along and roll it up or pave it all for parking lots. But slowly and surely it will become less and less. When the fish are gone and the animals are shot out, it will be a lesser place."

A combination party, environmental fund-raiser, book signing, and silent auction--hosted by Bill Kurtis of Channel Two--will feature Banks and his photographs of the Pantanal, along with Brazilian music and hors d'oeuvres, from 7 to 11 Friday, February 21, at Ancient Echoes, 1800 N. Clybourn. Admission is free, but the food, T-shirts, signed copies of the book, raffle tickets, psychic readings, and lambada lessons are extra. Call 337-7733.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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