Mammals of Central Brazil: A safari in search of South American “Big Five”

Mammals of Central Brazil: A safari in search of South American “Big Five”

In 1988 when we started working in the pantanal as tour guides, we were used to mini-expeditions and safari drives along the pantanal, both by river and by land. It was an adventure travelling around and so few we knew about the pantanal in those days. Twenty years later, we want to bring back those glorious days, we know where to find the wildlife, we know all bird species by ear, and what is even better, we know where to go to find them.


South America, like Africa, has a mammal “big five” that wildlife-watchers dream of seeing: jaguar, maned wolf, giant anteater, giant otter and Brazilian tapir. With effort, a judicious itinerary and a dose of luck, this safari offers a good chance of clapping eyes on the entire quintet. There is no better place to see four of them, and there are a couple of good sites for the fifth (maned wolf). But even without these five biggies, the Pantanal provides the continent’s best mammal-watching, with most visitors enjoying close views of a wide variety of species.


Giant otters tick all the boxes required to be part of that exclusive group, South America’s “Big Five”: they are undeniably big – up to 1.8m long and 35kg; they are impressive predators, all sleek muscularity underwater as they effortlessly catch their fishy prey; and they offer that irresistible blend of the elusive and the showy – hard to find (so raising the blood pressure) but consummate performers (so worth the effort). Finally, giant otters have rarity value, habitat destruction and persecution having caused populations to plummet so far that the species is classified as globally threatened.


By far the heaviest land mammal in South America, the Brazilian tapir would merit its place in the continent’s “big five” even without its rarity and bizarre looks. Due to incessant hunting and habitat destruction, this species is globally threatened, and seeing one is a near-impossible task – except in the pantanal, where is a regular feature on night drives. As for looks, the pony-sized tapir is in a class of its own, with an elongated proboscis of an upper lip and humped forehead that leads into a short, erect mane. The long snout is a boon for getting at vegetation and fruit, but the mane’s purpose is less clear.


Lumbering through grasslands on its daily trip to harvest termite mounds in its home range, a giant anteater evokes awe and amusement in equal measure. With a long snout, small eyes, strong claws and an extendable, sticky tongue instead of teeth, giant anteaters are supremely adapted for eating ants and termites. Seeing a giant anteater is an undoubted trip highlight.


The unmistakable maned wolf is South America’s largest canid. Routinely omnivorous, its diet is as likely to include fruit as rodents; wolf’s apple is a particular favourite. The best chance of seeing this globally threatened carnivore is in cerrado habitat at Emas NP.


The jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas and the third largest worldwide. The pantanal subspecies is the largest and heaviest – twice the size of those in Central America. Jaguars are primarily forest animals with a fondness for riverbanks. Glimpsing a jaguar may be the pantanal nirvana.

It is hard to say what experience is more impressive in the wild: see the elusive Jaguar along a riverbank, or the odd-looking Giant Anteater digging termite mounts with its long claws in an endless grassland environment, or a family of Giant Otters chasing fish in a pristine river; or the heavy weight Brazilian Tapir on its nocturnal routine, or even the long-legged Maned Wolf on its solitary hunt through the grasslands looking for food.

Now, imagine all these scenes in one single tour, the South American “Big Five”, the most sought after mammals in this continent dominated by birds. And birds will be seen as well, not just “little brown jobs” or skulkers, but huge Greater Rheas, odd-looking Red-legged Seriemas, world’s largest Hyacinth Macaw, flocks of Blues-and-yellow Macaw, colorful parrots, all three South American storks, all five South American kingfishers, Plumbeous, Buff-necked, Bare-faced and Green Ibis, Sunbittern, Bare-faced Curassow, Brazilian endemic Chesnut-bellied Guan, noisy Chaco Chachalaca, several kind of egrets, herons, raptors and many, many more.

We chose the best two places in South America to see wildlife in an easy way, not like the Amazonian experience where wildlife is there but is hard to be seen; we wanted something like the African safaris in the savannah. This safari takes place in the best two areas to spot wildlife in South America in a so called "easy way":

The Pantanal of Mato Grosso, a vast grassy lowland at the heart of South America that is home to the greatest concentration of wildlife on the continent is the world's largest freshwater wetland and, therefore, one of the world's best birding areas. The numbers of birds, especially in the dry season (July-September) has to be seen to be believed. A dead-end dirt road, known as the "Transpantaneira", pierces the Pantanal.

Emas NP is the largest remnant of cerrado left where wildlife is still present as it was for thousands of years before we decided to "develop" the area with agriculture. Pampas Deer, Giant Anteater, Maned Wolf, Brazilian Tapir, several species of armadillos including Giant Armadillo are still present and common!

During the course of this safari, we will give special emphasis looking for the “Big Five” and meanwhile we will be granted with other wildlife as well.

What is going to be seen in the course of this safari is the best selection of mastofauna in South America, from mammals to reptiles and amphibians and of course the best birds, some colorful other not much but equally impressive.

During previous safaris we saw: 05 species of cats (Pampas Cat, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, Puma and Jaguar) 04 species of mustelids (Tayra, Molina’s Skunk, Neotropical River Otter and Giant Otter); 04 species of deer (Brown brocket, Red brocket, Pampas and Marsh Deer) 05 species of armadillos (Yellow, Nine-banded, Seven-banded, Southern Naked-tailed and the rare Giant Armadillo); 03 species of canids (Crab-eating Fox, Hoary Fox and Maned Wolf); 04 species of monkeys (Black-and-Gold Howler, Black-striped Tufted Capuchin, Black-tailed Marmoset and Azara’s Night Monkey); 02 species of anteaters (Lesser Tamandua and Giant Anteater); 02 species of peccaries (White-lipped and Collared Peccary); 02 species of procyonids (Crab-eating Racoon and South American Coati); Brazilian Tapir; Capybara; Azara's Agouti; Brazilian Tapiti (rabbit), and several species of bats.

To maximise our chances to see wildlife, we are running this tour only between July to October, where roads and weather conditions allow us long days in the field without rains. Our fixed departures (dates below) are open to any participant, but you can request this tour in private basis for your party at any time.

Mammals of Central Brazil: In search of South American "Big Five", 12 days/11 nights itinerary


Tour will start at Hotel reception in Cuiaba at 06:30am. Immediate transfer to the PANTANAL, the first 100km of good paved road crosses a disturbed cerrado transition ecosystem, featuring examples of cerrado vegetation, gallery forests and a unique tall cerrado forest, we will stop for some birding when necessary. The pavement stops just after Pocone, and the Transpantaneira dirt road starts. A different habitat, birds all over, from Greater Rheas to tiny Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrants, the pantanal is full of life and is hard to don't see a bird in any bush we put our binoculars on! Big birds such as Jabiru, Wood Stork, Plumbeous, Bare-faced and Buff-necked Ibis, Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrettes, Roseate Spoonbill and many more will maintain us busy along the road. But, not only birds, there are hundreds of Yacare Caiman sharing ponds with Capybaras, the world´s largest rodent, while majestic Marsh Deer, the largest deer species in South America could be seen feeding in almost always in or near water on a wide range of plants, from water lilies to grass and legumes. Its large hooves can each spread more than 10cm (4 in) apart so the deer can walk and run more easily across mud and aquatic vegetation. Our goal is the Rio Pixaim river with its rich gallery forest and this time of the year the only remnant of water, we will get there for lunch. After lunch, we will be crossing the pantanal along the famous Transpantaneira road, all the way south, this road get wild every single kilometer we go ahead, along 83km we will cross 97 wood bridges! Capybaras are along the road and do not want to move. The road start to warm up and several reptiles are using it to warm their bodies, with luck we may see Yellow Anaconda, Black-and White Tegu Lizard (a kind of monitor lizard), Green Iguana, Amazonian Whiptail lizards and the Paraguayan Caiman Lizard (rare). Birds which could be seen along the road are Southern Screamer, Chaco Chachalaca, Chesnut-bellied Guan (Brazilian endemic), Bare-faced Curassow, Blue-throated Piping-Guan, Scarlet-headed Blackbird. By the end of the day, we will be along the Cuiaba river looking for the most elusive of all big cats in the world. At dusk, hundreds (if not thousands) of bats overfly the river catching insects. (B,L,D)


A full day search tracking the Jaguar by boat. The central pantanal is by far the best place to see a Jaguar, the largest of the American cats, subspecies palustris from the pantanal are reportedly some of the largest in South America. In the Brazilian Pantanal, where jaguars have been studied, females range over at least 25-38 sq km and males over an area more than twice as large. The range of females overlap, and the ranges of males include those of several females. However, it seems that the land tenure system of jaguars may vary with prey density. Jaguars are solitary except when females are in heat and when a female is accompanied by cubs. Jaguars are most active after dusk and before dawn, though they may be active throughout the day. We will devote this full day to look for jaguars, and as the road ends here we will use boats to cover bigger distances. During our jaguar search we will also encounter other mega target. Once occurred throughout Amazonian South America from Venezuela to northern Argentina, but it is now absent from most of this range. Its huge size (up to 2m, 6.5ft, and 34kg, 75lb) and noisy vocalisations in family groups make it easy to find. Its luxurious pelt makes it a target of intense persecution by people. It remains now only in isolated and highly protected patches of its former range. There are only a few places left in South America where you can still hear the haunting whistles, screams, and hums of a group of theses wondrous animals as they frolic in the water of pristine lakes or river just like the one we are in looking for Giant Otters! (B,L,D)


We are going to use the morning to continue looking for jaguar. After lunch, we will drive back the Transpantaneira road, our goal is the Fazenda Pouso Alegre where some walks and wildlife watching from our vehicle will be a routine here. A festival of parrots and raptors await for us here, there are Hyacinth macaws nesting in the near forest, Golden-collared Macaws, Blue-crowned, Monk & Golden-chevroned Parakeets, Turquoise-fronted & Orange-winged Amazons as well as Southern Crested & Yellow-headed Caracaras, Savanna, Black-collared, Great Black, Roadside & Crane Hawks, Pearl & Snail Kite, Laughing Falcon, American Kestrel, Black, Turkey & Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures. Also here we will find the best Pantanal bird specialties, among them Mato Grosso Antbird, White-lored Spinetail, Ashy-headed Greenlet, Gray-crested Cacholote, Helmeted Manakin, Red-billed Scythebill, Pale-crested Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Blue-crowned Trogon, Rufous-fronted Tody-Flycatcher to mention few. At night, Great Potoos and Great Horned Owls share with Pauraques our attention in our night outings. Our checklist will produces over 100 species of birds a day! (B,L,D)


Our attention will be focus on the three species of monkeys we could find in this rich area. Black-and-Gold Howler Monkeys are highly arboreal and rarely come to the ground; typically they spend most of their time in the upper reaches of the forest. In contrast to many other monkey species, howlers are relatively slow-moving and more deliberate in their canopy travels, they eat fruit and a lot of leafy material and due to this they are very inconspicuous, unless males let loose with their amazing lion-like roaring, which is amplified and modulated by a special bony plate over the throat. We will track their voices in the attemp to see them. Hooded Capuchin Monkeys are very active monkeys, spending 80% or more of daylight hours moving through the forest, they forage over all levels of the forest, from canopy to lower tree trunks, and they also occasionally come to the ground to feed. Their diet is broad, consisting mainly of ripe fruit and insects, but also bird eggs, young birds, baby squirrels, and small lizards. Troops maintain exclusive territories, aggressively defending their turf whenever they meet other troops of the same species at territorial boundaries. The last of the three species is also the smallest, Black-tailed Marmosets are small in size with long tails that are NOT prehensile. Their feet have claws instead of flattened nails. They travel in noisy troops giving chirps and twitters that sound more bird-like than primate-like.

Other interesting mammal species we may find while we look for the primates are the Azara’s Agouti and the South American Coati. And as soon as the light starts to dim, our spotlight will be spotting Brown Brocket Deer, Crab-eating Fox, Crab-eating Racoon, the heavy weight Brazilian Tapir or even an Ocelot. (B,L,D)


An early morning game driving and after breakfast we will move to the other side of the northern pantanal. The Barao de Melgaço pantanal has the “baias” (big lakes) and a closer mountains ridge. Babassu palm forests are incredible good for Southern Tamandua and also for its bigger relative, the Giant Anteater. Here we will look for both anteaters and also for the elusive Azara’s Night Monkey. Red Brocket Deer, Brazilian Tapiti (rabbit) and also several species of armadillos could be seen during our night drives.


A pre-breakfast game drive will be our last chance to find any of the anteaters and other crepuscular mammals. After breakfast we will take a boat trip in the enormous lake and also along the tributary rivers looking for Southern River Otter and Giant Otters. Capybaras and Yacare caimans will be seen again. Golden-collared Macaw, Blue-and-yellow Macaw, Cream-colored Woodpecker are pretty common around here. After lunch, new habitat is waiting for us in our way to the Brazilian Central Plateau. We will go half the way to Emas NP, overnight in Rondonopolis. (B,L,D)


Today we will witness how the cerrado vegetation is being transformed into monocrops, and you will reflect if cattle ranching is really as bad as we heard while we eat our soybean products. But before arriving to Emas NP we will stop in our stakeout for Horned Screamer. Emas NP presents a vivid landscape of golden grasslands dotted with red termite mounds, and dissected by narrow green ribbons of gallery forest that follow the many clear, rushing streams. Here, spritely Cock-tailed Tyrants hover above the grass like so many toy helicopters, while flocks of Yellow-faced Parrots and Blue-and-yellow Macaws noisily commute between roosting sites and feeding sites in the nearby cerrado. We are scheduled to arrive in the park after lunch and as soon as we get there we will embark in our open safari vehicle. Giant anteaters, improbable in every respect, roam the grasslands, which resound with the songs of Red-winged Tinamous, Sharp-tailed Tyrants, Grass Wrens, and Black-masked Finches. Ephemeral marshes may host a mixed-species flock of migrant seedeaters, among them such prizes as Marsh, Chestnut, Rufous-rumped, and Black-bellied seedeaters. (B,L,D)

DAYS 09, 10 and 11 - EMAS NP

Three full days to explore one of the finest preserved examples of campo/cerrado habitats in central Brazil. Majestic Maned wolves, atop impossibly long legs, stalk tinamous in the grass, while Aplomado Falcons maintain watchful vigilance atop the termite mounds. The next bend in the road may reveal a group of huge Greater Rheas, or a herd of Pampas deer. Following a typical blazing sunset, the grasslands again come alive, as bioluminescent termites light up their mounds like so many Christmas trees, and elegant White-winged Nightjars hawk insects from atop their perches on the same termitaria. For its landscapes, ease of birding, and abundant mammal-viewing opportunities, Emas has been compared to the savannas of east Africa.

In addition, it is an excellent place to see the many specialties of Brazil's campo-cerrado habitats, including such prizes as Lesser Nothura, Red-legged Seriema. We have timed our tour to coincide with the best period for migrant seedeaters, many of which have extremely limited distributions. A major attraction is the opportunity to see the recently rediscovered Cone-billed Tanager, a bird that was long known from only a single specimen. Other rare or locally distributed birds that we hope to produce include Giant Snipe, Planalto Foliage-gleaner, White-striped Warbler, and Great-billed Seed-Finch.Most birding in-and-out of van, with short walks along roads, trails in gallery forest, or into grasslands; easy terrain; full mornings in the field, usually returning to lodge for lunch and midday break, followed by late afternoons back in the field; some night drives; moderate to warm temperatures and relatively dry climate. (B,L,D)


Today is a transfer day but we will stop for some birds we may not seen until now, maybe better views of the odd-looking Horned Screamer. We should arrive in Cuiaba by the end of the afternoon. Transfer to Cuiaba airport or city hotel. End of our services. (B,L)

INCLUDED: Our safari is all included: lodging, meals from lunch on day 01 to lunch on day 12, outings, ground transportation in our exclusive open safari vehicle during the Pantanal & Emas NP, and air-conditioning vehicle during the transfer days, professional English-speaking naturalist guide, fauna checklist, fees (except to any source of drinks, available to buy at lodge) and start and end in Cuiaba, Brazil.

NOT INCLUDED: Air tickets to Cuiabá, any kind of beverages at lodges and hotels, medical costs or hospitalization, insurance, personal expenses as laundry, phone calls.

ACCOMMODATION : The Pantanal lodges used are the Pouso Alegre Farm (for two nights), the Jaguar Camp, Porto Jofre Hotel or any of the boat hotels depending on availbility at the end of the Transpantaneira road in Porto Jofre (for two nights) and the Pousada Mutum or Pousada Tamandua (for two nights). All these lodges with private bathrooms and air-conditioning. In Emas NP we will use the Pousada do Gloria or Vitor's Hotel (for fours nights), the closest accommodation from the National Park. In Rondonopolis, we will use the Serra's Hotel (for one night).

RESERVATION : As this tour is only offered during July to October, book well in advance to confirm a room in the tour.

GROUP SIZE : Group Size is limited to 06 participants, unless special arrangements are made for private tours. Should only one space remain on a tour, our policy is to accept a couple traveling together, even at the risk of exceeding our stated tour limit.


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