Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Matto Grosso, Brazil.  6th December, 2008

The Cristalino Lodge has a large thatched dining hall cum verandah, complete with rustic tables and chairs and – for the indolent – hammocks and old-fashioned deck chairs.  Gradually, in the evening,  as groups of guests with their guides and interpreters straggle back from the forest or the river (or the sun loungers),  beers are ordered and news of the day’s excitements is exchanged and the day’s digital pictures flashed up on camera screens.

But there is never a time here when you should be looking inwards – half an eye should always be kept on the lawns and the shrubs and the forest edge just yards away – even when it’s pitch dark.  Because this outdoor dining hall  is an excellent spot to catch intimate views of the World’s largest living rodent – the capybara – without walking a step or even standing up.

Dining Hall at Christalino Jungle Lodge

Dining Hall at Christalino Jungle Lodge

So as I sat here earlier this evening, looking at a huge Amazon flat fish being barbecued on an open fire in preparation for an alfresco supper, somebody with sharper eyes than me detected two large and two not so large shapes dimly lit up by the fire.

I flashed on my spotlight revealing two chunky adult capybaras with their offspring.  The family had come to graze the Cristalino lawns for their favourite food – grass.

Capybaras, restricted in their distribution to the New World, like densely vegetated areas adjacent to bodies of water.  They probably reach their greatest population densities in the famous Brazilian Pantanal – some 350 miles South of Cristalino – a region of natural open grassland and gallery forest with numerous lakes, ponds and swamps.  But they’re common here too.

They feed on aquatic vegetation as well as grass and are proficient swimmers, keeping all but nostrils, eyes and ears below the waterline.  With their partially webbed feet, they can swim underwater for long distances.  Adults grow up to 3 to 4 feet long and are a foot and a half at shoulder level.  I frit one in the shrubbery as I arrived at the verandah early yesterday morning – and it was certainly big enough and noisy enough to frit me back.

That encounter wasn’t planned but I had arrived early hoping to see another of Cristalino’s verandah specialities. First out onto the lawns, however, were a couple of agoutis, all energy and nerves, racing around in the early morning light.  Rodents again, relatives of the familiar guinea pig, but larger, longer-legged and slenderer.  These are true forest dwellers, adapted for life in the undergrowth with their special physique – head and front part of body quite slender and low to the ground for pushing through  dense vegetation, bulkier at the rear, but, for the moment, finding life easier on the lawn.

Five minutes later, I was facing the wrong way again.

‘Here they are’ said Bill.  And I turned round to see a bird (or rather two) which were right near the top of my Cristalino wish list.  Just emerging from the interior of the forest, but only yards away, were a stunning pair of Bare-faced Curassows, ground-dwelling birds the size of turkeys – and amongst the most vulnerable of all rainforest dwellers.  Stately, unsuspicious and slow-moving, these birds and other species in the family disappear from the forest under the slightest hunting pressure.  But this pair at Cristalino, Bill told me, had a nest site close to the Lodge and paraded the lawns on many an early sunlit morning, still truly wild but with no reason to fear.

The male is a formally attired bird, black with white trimmings and a curly crest but the female is a truly beautiful bird, lusciously and finely barred black and white on her uppers and tail and beautifully decorated in cinnamons and blacks below, her black curls tipped white.

And these were not the only curassows we saw, a testament to the pristine, undisturbed condition of the Cristalino Private Forest Reserve and its crucial wildlife value..  The day before yesterday on a trail (or rather off a trail) some kilometers from the Lodge, Jorge stopped me and pointed ahead.  Eventually some thirty yards further on, on the other side of a stream, I saw two large black shapes, heads hidden for the moment as they bent down to feed quietly on the forest floor.  Patience!  The shapes moved slowly and unconcernedly, still somehow keeping their heads out of view. Stand still, Rog! Be patient! Their camouflage is terrific considering how big they are, I thought.

And then,  finally one emerged into an opening in the understory.  Nearly 3 feet from bill to tail tip, resplendent in black and chestnut with a broad white tail tip and a spectacular red and yellow bill,  a birdwatcher’s dream!  A Razor-billed curassow! The pair fed quietly together, moving gently away from us before disappearing into the forest again.  We saw four more that day – a pair drinking at the edge of the Rio Cristalino and another pair deep in the forest.

They all belong to one of the most endangered bird families on the planet!

And in the next Cristalino blog, the mastermind behind this wonderful Reserve.

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5 thoughts on “In the company of Capybaras

  1. Tim Key says:

    Capybaras…funny how a single word triggers memories from way back. I find the same when I turn to a fieldguide; I can’t remember that I was meant to buy a litre of milk and a pot of peanut butter when I am in Asda, but each page of a fieldguide takes me to an exact location somewhere in the world, usually with memories of the weather and the company as well as the bird. A great way to spend winter evenings in England.

    The word “capybara” did the same. I recall sitting on a log by a pool in the Llanos, the flooded grasslands of Venezuela. Sunning themselves on the banks were several spectacled caiman, while – partly submerged – a family party of capybaras was doing what capybaras do, grazing, swimming, socialising.

    I was with a Venezuelan guide at the time, Otto, and I commmented on how calm the capybara were given the proximity of the caiman; Otto reassured me that caiman never took capybara. At that very moment a large caiman quietly slid in to the water and dived. Two jaws surfaced around a baby capybara, lagging behind the family party, and in slowmotion silence the caiman sunk beneath the surface with the baby, a trail of small bubbles in the brown water being the only reminder of the unhurried drama beneath the surface.

    Otto wiped a tear from his eye…You might remember this Roger?



  2. Roge says:

    Dear Tim,
    Now you have reminded me, I remember it well. Perhaps like you with your Asda shopping lists, Capybara don’t have great memories either – otherwise they might give caimans a rather wider berth. Mind you, if the whole of the natural world had good memories, nature red in tooth and claw wouldn’t work and Darwin wouldn’t have achieved World renown.
    For other blog readers, the caiman (of which there are several species) is a kind of South American alligator and is also one of the wildlife highlights of Cristalino Lodge.
    Tim and I, as I recall, were staying, as eco-tourists, at Hato Pinero, a huge LLanos cattle ranch, owned by an enlightened, conservation conscious South American family (just like the owners of Cristalino Lodge – of whom much more in the pre-Christmas Cristalino blog). It was very much a working ranch but it also was home to abundant and spectacular wildlife.
    And now you’ve jogged my memory! An amazing image comes back of a huge number of curassows materialising as if from nowhere in the late afternoon and feeding quietly along a levee between the surrounding wetlands. I don’t have my notebook to hand from the early 1990’s but perhaps you can remember the species. Another tribute, of course to far-sighting South American conservation pioneers!
    By the way, wasn’t Otto worried about the fact that he couldn’t find himself a girlfriend. Hato Pinero was very remote.
    Thankyou too for the delightful note about how the Harpy Eagle got its name. A touch of classical scholarship has raised the tone of the blog no end. And brought me a huge slice of luck at Alta Floresta with my fourth and far and away my best encounter with a Harpy Eagle – of which more in the blog.
    All the best

  3. Tim Key says:

    Hi Rog

    I turned to my notes after reading your blog, tucked away in a notebook smeared with beer, suncream and insect repellent (in that order). The day that capybara was eaten by the caiman was Saturday 9th April 1994 at Hato Pinero in Venzuela. The rest of my notes go like this:
    Yellow knobbed curassow. We saw about 50 of them; the majority were female or young, but a few had large yellow knobs. For breakfast we had melon, “ceso blanco”, arepas (?), corn flour cakes, scrambled eggs and tomatoes.

    Among other interesting birds seen that day were

    white-bearded flycatcher; yellow-rumped cacique; yellow headed parrot; crane hawk; bat falcon; white ibis; cattle tyrant; slate-headed tody flycatcher; buff-breatsed wren; black-collared hawk; glittering throated emeralds; boat-billed heron and hoatzins. Jabirus soared above the pools.

    100 caiman circled the pool. There were also yellow side necked turtles, and pecauri (peccary).

    We saw a red-capped cardinal and were told that it used to be called (in Spanish if you see what I mean) “cardinal German flag” because it is red, white and black.

    For lunch we had beef with peppers, corn cakes, and passion fruit steeped in sugar and cloves. We found ocelot and anteater tracks. A lesser yellow headed vulture was eating a piranha and we saw a huge ananconda mating under a bridge. We found a pauraque on a log, with chestnut cheeks and a grey crown. We found a turtle shell torn apart by a jaguar, and saw at night two ocelots and an oppossum.

    Dinner that night was pollo and rice and a “delicious” coconut flan.

    Do you remember how poor the road to Hato Pinero was after the town with the great name of “El sombrero”?

    Not a bad day, really…



  4. Roge says:

    Dear Tim,
    I’m glad I asked. Your diary entries for that day – detailing the wildlife extravaganza we were treated to – show just how much a few individuals in the right place at the right time can contribute to the preservation of the natural world – not to mention the ruination of our waist lines.
    And I certainly remember the road into Hato Pinero. You drove the car while I walked or pushed.
    As you say, what memories to help us through English winetr evenings.
    Happy New Year

  5. Roge says:

    Winetr looks like a Freudian slip

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