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Stretching out between Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay is the Pantanal - a vast and often impregnable swathe of wetlands, forests and rivers and one of the last frontiers. Teeming with brightly-coloured birds, tapir, caiman and jaguar, the landscape is a living, breathing David Attenborough documentary.
It was the land of fishermen and cattle ranchers. Humid, vast and loved by mosquitos, the Pantanal was seen as the wild west of South America. But that was until Brazilian ecologist Roberto Klabin inherited a slab of land and he turned his former family home into the Caiman Ecological Refuge - an eco-lodge and nature sanctuary.
The scion of paper barons and ranchers was often decried for green washing by his fellow environmentalists, but this soon fell by the wayside in his youth as he campaigned to help stop Rio De Janeiro’s international airport being built on important headwaters, and he also helped shame local states by giving them the awards for losing chunks of their forest.
Sporting a neatly clipped beard, checked shirt and understated watch, the rancher is more CEO than pantaneiro. And while he lives in San Paolo, his heart seems to be forever in the Pantanal. He remembers seeing it for the first time as a 10-year-old boy after his family had bought a 250,000 hectare farm from British investors. “Hyacinth macaws flew around the landing strip, and I still remember the scent of a pungent flower that filled the air,” says Klabin.
It was the perfect playground for a young boy. “In the city, my parents were always warning me about things, but in the Pantanal I was given so many liberties,” says Klabin. “I would go on horse rides across the countryside and ride in the back of a Jeep on safari for hours.”
When Klabin inherited the manor house and its land, he wanted to let others experience the Pantanal. He spent the next year travelling around the world looking at other eco-lodges and taking inspiration for his own.
He admits he made mistakes, including copying the idea of launching multiple camps. “I opened three lodges that were so far away from each other it became a nightmare for logistics, but you learn,” he laughs.
However, he also made plenty of smart decisions, including inviting scientists from the University of Sao Paolo to choose an area within his land where he could build an eco reserve. While his eco lodge was set in a working cattle ranch, the reserve would remain untouched and left to nature to run. He banned dogs from the resort and he also banned hunting, which was a popular pursuit in the Pantanal. This meant that while he was starting to welcome visitors, he also started to welcome more wildlife.
His interest in helping to save the Pantanal had started to catch people’s attention and while the scientists from Sao Paolo left, others asked if they could work with him. Dr Neiva Guedes from Uniderp explained to him how hyacinth macaw numbers were dropping as ranchers were cutting down one of the two trees they nested in as the seeds from the trees poisoned the cattle. Klabin let her open her research base on his land and she set about filling the trees with nesting boxes and speaking to ranchers on how they should help protect this bird of the Pantanal. Her hard work was worth it as the population rose from 80 to 500 on the farm and from 1,500 to 6,000 in the Pantanal.
The Onçafari Project group also asked if they could use his land to study the habits of the elusive jaguar. They were keen to follow the example of the Londolozi Camp in Africa that had trained leopards to be comfortable around Jeeps, and they wanted to do the same with jaguars. While this would be helping with their research, the side effect would be for Klabin that it would also increase the chance for his guests to see jaguars when on Jeep safari.
But when he agreed to let them use his land, he could never have expected his lodge to become such an important part of jaguar research. In 2014, animal welfare in Corumbá turned to Project Onçafari and Caiman Lodge when they found two orphaned cubs in the city. After nursing them at their centre, they then used the research centre at Klabin’s lodge to reintroduce them to the wild. If they managed to do this, it would be the first time in Brazil that a jaguar had been successfully reintroduced to the wild. The stakes were so high that the story became part of a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. But even with the eyes of the world upon them, the team from Project Onçafari managed to do it and Klabin is happy to report that the jaguar siblings are now fully grown with their own cubs.
Green he may be, but his magnate heritage encourages him to think on a scale grander than most. “I want to build a Noah’s Ark,” says Klabin. He has also encouraged other ranchers to build their own ‘Noah’s Ark’ and now there are research camps based on his neighbours’ land studying otters, tapir and armadillos.
His plans have even stretched to hosting environmental summits at his lodge, which have been attended by the environmental secretary and also the president of Brazil.
He has also taken steps to make sure that any progress he and his team have achieved will be protected. Klabin and his wife are about to make their eco reserve twice the size and have turned it into an institution of its own so that it can never be sold, lived or worked on. “This will be our legacy,” he explains.
Now Klabin is looking for researchers to help him discover more about the flora and insects that live in the Pantanal. “My focus is now on the habitat and what’s living on the land, which we don’t know about,” says Klabin. “I feel as if I’m still scratching the surface.”
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