Exclusive: Brazil's new wildlife paradise revealed

Sarah Marshall
·4 min read
jaguar in brazil - jami tarris/getty images
jaguar in brazil - jami tarris/getty images

For the first time in Brazil a project has been revealed that will reshape the narrative of South America’s wild spaces

Curled up inside a fallen tree trunk, its roots splayed like sunbeams, Gaia blazed like a ball of flames in her distinctive rosette-patterned pelt – a wildlife moment that will forever be burned in my memory. It was my third sighting of a jaguar in just as many hours and, impressively, my guides knew the typically coy big cat by name.

Ten years ago, such sure-fire sightings in Brazil’s Pantanal would have been impossible. But thanks to the efforts of non-governmental organisation Oncafari, which borrowed a habituation technique from South Africa to familiarise animals with the sounds of engines, last year, 98 per cent of guests at Caiman Ecological Refuge saw at least one jaguar. Since 2011, sightings have increased from seven to 900 a year.

But clocking up predator encounters isn’t Oncafari’s only achievement to date. It has pioneered rewilding projects (the subject of a BBC Attenborough documentary), educated communities about the benefits of ecotourism and purchased tracts of forest purely for protection. Now its ambitions are growing, with a project to dwarf even collaborations with Sir David. In a year when conservation efforts have been dealt a hard blow by Covid-19 – resulting in dwindling funds, diverted attentions and a frustrating reversal of advances made in reducing waste – the team has done the unthinkable.

It has penned the preface for an environmental success story that will reshape the narrative of South America’s wild spaces for generations to come – a project revealed exclusively to The Daily Telegraph

By joining forces with like-minded neighbours and securing investors to purchase surrounding farmland, Caiman and Oncafari have secured an land the size of Luxembourg as a protected zone, never to be divided or sold. The aim is to increase it to almost 1.5 illion acres of pristine, untouched space, where rivers can flow, forests flourish and wildlife move freely.

Caiman Ecological Refuge - wolgang kaehler/getty images
Caiman Ecological Refuge - wolgang kaehler/getty images

“This is the first time in Brazil that a group of private people have come together with the idea of conservation,” says Mario Haberfeld, a former Formula One test driver who quit life on the tracks to found Oncafari. “It’s a game-changer. It will be the largest private conservation initiative in Brazil; who knows, perhaps in the world.”

Located in the heart of South America and shared between Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetlands and one of our most effective carbon sinks. 

“People think it’s hot and full of flies,” a Brazilian naturalist once lamented to me. Flies and 4,700 other species of plants and animals, making it one of the most biodiverse spots on our planet. On various visits, I’ve seen giant anteaters shuffle through the long grass, tapirs midnight-feast below mango trees, and roseate spoonbills paint rivers pink with their reflections.

Almost 95 per cent of the Brazilian Pantanal is privately owned by cattle ranchers. Fences disrupt wildlife corridors, new developments risk deforestation and the region is prone to wildfires – concerns demanding a need for better management, improved local legislation and joined-up thinking. 

Frustrated with a president who crushes the cries of conservationists and seeks to weaken environmental protection laws, Brazilian activists such as Haberfeld and Roberto Klabin, the owner of Caiman, have taken matters into their own hands.

To ensure their new project is self-sustaining, they have already certified areas to invest carbon credits and are in talks with various partners about potential new ecotourism ventures. Not that money was ever their core motivation. 

“This is a legacy we are leaving for the Pantanal,” says Haberfeld. “But it’s also a model of conservation for future generations. It proves there is a will for people to protect nature; we just have to provide them with the right tools.”

Essentials

Abercrombie & Kent (01242 547701; abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers three nights at Caiman and three nights at Cristalino Lodge from £6,500 per person based on two people sharing. Includes flights, accommodation and transfers.