Earthwatch Institute Brazil Adventures – Araguaia River Wildlife Corridor
The sun was just setting as we left by boat from the little river town of Luis Alves and motored around sandbanks and dead trees downstream to the mouth of a backwater lake to begin the evening caiman census. When it was dark enough we switched on spotlights in order to spot their eyes along the shore. A few red eyes appeared, I marked them on the GPS and another Earthwatch volunteer took notes of the times and numbers, when all of a sudden the air was filled with leaping fish, many of them landing in the boat! They were mostly silvery and different shapes and sizes from about 3 to 12 inches in length! Many caiman began to appear as we were throwing fish out of the boat, so we abandoned noting times and numbers and I just made a GPS mark for each caiman seen! About two hours later as we finished our circuit of the lake I had marked 268 caiman and we had thrown out countless fish! It was pretty evident why the caiman were there!
This was the Earthwatch Institute volunteer expedition MONITORING CORRIDORS with a rendezvous at Goiania and a long bus ride to one of five research sites along the Araguaia River that runs 1300 miles north to the Amazon from a three-way watershed in the Cerrado grasslands of central Brazil. The Parana River runs east and south and the Paraguay River runs south through the Pantanal from the same area. It was the first year of a three-year project to map the distribution of five focal species and their food resources, and to make recommendations for the protection of their habitat and the biodiversity corridor. The major species include the jaguar, giant river otter, Amazon river dolphin, black caiman and the piraiba catfish, but the project is interested in many others such as peccaries, tapirs, capybaras and howler monkeys.
The caiman we were counting were mostly the smaller brown ones, which are one food source for jaguars. We did evening surveys of two other lakes where we saw many of the larger black caiman and were treated to great sunsets and a spectacular moonrise on the river! The pink Amazon river dolphins were present all along the river and we did several boat surveys recording sightings, number of animals, GPS locations, date and time. On these trips we also counted sightings of giant river otters, capybaras and howler monkeys and recorded the location of any permanent human structures on the river bank. We were not doing any studies on birds, but the river banks and sandbars were great for viewing wading, diving, and other shore birds. These included cormorants, anhingas, jacanas, buff-necked and green ibis, roseate spoonbills, kingfishers, muscovy ducks, helmeted screamers, and the spectacular wood and jabiru storks! And the bushes along the banks were loaded with flocks of the primitive-appearing hoatzin!
Our other task was hiking local trails and along sandbars with a scat-sniffing dog looking for signs of jaguar, puma and ocelot. When the dog located scat he would sit by it until the research scientist gave him an OK and threw a ball for him to chase! The Earthwatch volunteers would mark the GPS location with date and time, and collect the scat for later analysis of the food contents and possible DNA. This part of the research was quite physically demanding on rough trails in high heat and humidity so I elected not to go on the longer hikes!
After the project and long bus ride back to Goiania three of us flew on to Rio de Janeiro, stayed in a nice B&B and had a nice tour of that interesting city. However, it rained much of the time so we never did see Sugarloaf!
Most of the work on this expedition included strenuous hiking or long hours sitting in a flat river boat in the sun and sometimes heavy rain, so I wouldn’t recommend it for those who are not in very good physical shape. For people who are fit and want a challenge this is a fascinating area with wonderful wildlife all around you! And, you have an opportunity to participate in saving this still relatively unspoiled river corridor while volunteering for Earthwatch Institute!