Published: August 2005

Brazil's Wild Wet

Caiman Head

The Wild Wet

Cowboys, caimans, and mud come together in the Pantanal, where modern pressures threaten one of the world's largest wetlands.

By Susan McGrath
Photograph by Joel Sartore

The cowhands who make their living in the Pantanal wetland have an unparalleled lexicon for mud. Plain old mud is just lama—or barro or lodo—as it is anywhere else in Brazil. But here in the Pantanal, the bare mud where cattle gather around a gate has its own name: maiad�. And so does deeply hoof-pocked mud with sharp ridges between the pocks: That's brocotó. Even the season that gives rise to all this mud has its own Pantanal name. The cheia, they call it, the "full," when this whole grand wetland floods knee-deep—hip-deep, waist-deep—with water.

The mud that underlies Beatriz Rondon's ranch, the Santa Sophia, is high in clay, and though her land rolls out like a glorious tallgrass prairie in the dry season, it turns into a diabolical, hoof-sucking bog called brejo in the full. Dawn finds our horses postholing through it, withers deep in gray-brown water. There are no cattle in sight, only jabiru storks and wood storks and roseate spoonbills and snail kites and, idling at the water's surface among chartreuse grasses, the ubiquitous crocodilians called caimans. My mare stumbles over one but, unlike me, shows no alarm, and the caiman simply glides away with a sidelong stare.

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