Greg Heavens' Diary
Conserving the Pantanal

Wednesday, May 19, 2004 Tuesday, May 18, 2004
Monday, May 17, 2004 Sunday, May 16, 2004
Saturday, May 15, 2004 Thursday, May 13, 2004
Wednesday, May 12, 2004 Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Monday, May 10, 2004 Sunday, May 9, 2004
Saturday, May 8, 2004 Wednesday, May 5, 2004
Tuesday, May 4, 2004 Friday, April 30, 2004
Thursday, April 29, 2004 Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Related Sites

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Got up early this morning. Not that I needed to, but I knew that this would be the last chance to get out with my camera and track down a toucan! Almost to prove that all good things come to those who wait, and after picking a good spot to observe the grove of trees behind the fazenda, I was rewarded after a short while by a toucan flying almost overhead. Deciding that any ideas the others had about my sanity were dispensable, I ran after the toucan, determined to track it down on foot.

With bemused looks from the farm workers and scaring off at least a dozen other equally attractive birds (!), I followed the toucan until he landed in a tree several hundred meters from the starting point. I stopped running, walked, crouched, and then crawled into a position where I had a good enough view. Thankfully, I managed to zoom, focus, and get three shots before he flew off. One of them was worth it.

I had been dreading leaving the fazenda—not because I was sad to go and say goodbye to the others and not because of the flight in the small plane or even getting back to reality. No, I had been harboring a toothache for several days, and yesterday it reached a point where the painkillers I had weren't enough. I realized that I had to see a dentist, and waiting till I got home wasn't an option.

The staff at the fazenda sorted out an appointment for me with a reputable dentist in Campo Grande. As he didn't speak English, I was glad that Michela came along to help translate. After a bit of confusion (we had thought he wanted to just pull my entire tooth out—I'm sure that even my pupils turned white with fear), I was informed that I had damaged the nerve in my front left incisor and that it would need to be extracted.

Three separate injections of anesthetic later, it still hurt to touch the tooth (the explanation for this didn't make much sense to me), and we had to go ahead anyway. I cannot describe what happened next.

I was told that any residual pain would stop in four to five hours time, yet I felt perfect for the first time in days less than two hours later. If you're ever in Campo Grande, I can really recommend a dentist named Dr Villa.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Last day in the Pantanal, and the team got to spend time relaxing after the long slog! The girls went horse riding in the morning—joining the local gauchos (cowboys) trying to round up the cattle—but I wasn't up for more equine embarrassment. I took a canoe down the river, trying to get some elusive pictures (still no toucan) and getting a really good close-up shot of a caiman.

In a traditional Brazilian way, we had a send off party, which started early and ended late. To get in the mood, we took a cooler of beer and canoed out to a "beach" on the river (actually, it was more of a mud bank!). I'd previously said a few loose words over dinner at the start of the expedition, something about the water not being too cold, and I'd be happy to swim in it. Needless to say, they came back to haunt me.

It wasn't so bad, though, once you got used to it. The water was pleasantly warm, and at least it was one place the mosquitoes leave you alone! (And the caiman and piranhas, too, thankfully!)

Monday, May 17, 2004

The Pantanal is definitely a nocturnal environment, and things really start to get funky when the sun goes down. Thanks to Vitor, my roommate and principle investigator, I got to experience nighttime in the Pantanal in a much more vivid way than I would have chosen....

We had finished all the work we signed up for by lunchtime today, and maybe I should have taken Michela's lead and just chilled out sunbathing in the afternoon. I didn't, however, and foolishly headed out with Vitor and his research assistant Maya one last time! We opened up a new trail for Vitor's next project and then decided to go to a nearby scenic salina (saltwater lake) to get some pictures of the sunset. It was perhaps inevitable that driving back with Vitor after dark would lead us to getting the 4x4 bogged down, but we managed it with such style—ending up lurched more than 45 degrees to the right!

Just like in a horror film, everyone starts out relaxed and happy. We were taking photos, teasing Vitor over his driving (and reputation for getting stuck), and telling jokes and horror stories to try and scare Maya. About an hour later when the call came through on the radio that our rescue team had also gotten bogged down, the mood sobered with the realization that we were in for a long wait in the dark.

With no flashlights and unable to have the headlights on in case of draining the battery, we had to sit in the open jeep listening as things started to wake up around us. With the open swamp to our right and the jungle on our left, we were treated to all sorts of noises. You can almost make out where the large birds (storks, vultures?) are when they fly close to you because of the slow bass rhythmic beating of their wings.

As we remained still and silent, it seemed that we were a magnet as all sorts of animals came to investigate—only signifying their presence with the sound of footfalls in the marsh or a gentle rustling in the trees and long grass. I suppose it is what we didn't hear that would have been most alarming. We did manage to get a glimpse of a puma when we used the headlights once, though, but it didn't stick around to pose for our cameras!

After what seemed like an age and when my thoughts had turned to safe ways to sleep, the distant sound of diesel engines broke up the animals' fun. It took less than a minute to free us, and what followed was a surreal nighttime journey back to the ranch with all three 4x4's leapfrogging to assist each other! Still, at least it gave me another chance to impress upon Vitor the need to carry a couple planks of wood and a length of stout rope in the back. I think he is reluctantly starting to agree with me.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Breakfast at five this morning as we are back on the trail of the manduvi trees today. In order to understand if the toucan really is the only method of seed dispersal this tree has in its arsenal, Camilla, Michela, and I were tasked with searching the area around old established manduvi trees. We were looking for seedlings, saplings, and other adults that have been parented by the elder tree. This obviously called for getting involved with the undergrowth on a very personal level. Since we weren't clearing a trail, we had to cause as little lasting damage to the jungle as possible, so I had to leave the bromelia well alone and un-macheted. If plant life could speak, they'd have been taunting me behind my back. As it was, they stuck to their tried and tested method—stabbing ones shins!

We collected data from three trees thoroughly. It was a whole afternoon's work, but, according to Camilla, at least 30 will need to be sampled before any meaningful theories can start to be formulated. After the problems over the last few days, Michela really seemed to be able to get to grips with this task, but I'm actually quite glad that I won't be doing this again.

Heard at least four separate toucan calls while working out today, but they were only teasing and didn't show themselves through the foliage. I'm really hoping to see a toucan as they've always been a favorite bird of mine (would have been a lovely day for it), and to see one in the wild would be special. Obviously, I'd be happy to see any wildlife at the moment, as we've only had fleeting glimpses since we've been working. I've been lugging around my camera and associated equipment (i.e., the tripod) all the time, and it makes for a heavy bag. It would be a real shame to return home not only without any interesting wildlife pictures, but without having a few good sightings. As I mentioned before, though, the wildlife seems both well-dispersed and well-camouflaged here. Even insect life seems to be rare in these climes.

One group that doesn't appear to be underrepresented are arachnids, though. There are spiders in the jungle, spiders in the grass, spiders in the fields, spiders in the rooms, spiders in the jeeps, and today, as I borrowed a guitar from one of the farm workers (the science station runs a small farm to be as self-supporting as possible—flying in supplies is expensive and the road is closed at the moment), there is a spider in the sound hole.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

There is a major fashion fad going around the rodents of Brazil at the moment. They all want their ears pierced! Obviously, this is a service we are more than happy to perform for free when they are captured for the small mammals project, and I got to pierce my first ear yesterday!

It is believed that the small rodents are an important group of organisms to study when looking at an ecosystem. They have short life cycles and respond rapidly to environmental alterations. They are important prey for the majority of the predators in the Pantanal and are disease reservoirs (meaning they carry but are not affected by the diseases) for many viruses that can be transmitted to other creatures, including livestock.

The ear piercings are important to the capture, measure, release, and recapture program, which is being used to keep track of both the type and variety of the small mammals in the Pantanal, and also the diseases they carry.

There has been a growing concern among the other volunteers here about the danger that capturing and collecting the feces of small mammals presents to us as well as the justification and methodology of this project as a whole. This has had a very negative impact on morale, compounded by the conditions we are experiencing and possibly a lack of preparation.

Personally, I'm coping okay, though my arms and legs are now like pincushions from both the adverse undergrowth and the unavoidable mosquitoes! Also, I'm in for a rare treat tomorrow morning. I'll be able to start tomorrow's hiking with dry socks for the first time in over three days (haven't had dry boots since day one!). With the rain and humidity, drying clothes has been a challenge. Also, the showers—which run off solar panels—have not been the most pleasant with the completely unseasonable overcast sky!

Still, I like roughing it now and again. It's the others I feel sorry for.
Tuesday, May 13, 2004

We had thunderstorms last night and what seemed like six inches (15 centimeters) of rain in one go! Turns out the girls' room has several leaks in the roof, which led to all sorts of night-time shenanigans. One result of this, though, is that I've found out how the frogs, mosquitoes, and spiders are gaining entry to my room even though all the windows are properly netted and sealed. There's a gaping ¼-inch (6 millimeter) hole at the bottom of the door which, metaphorically, lets the team down!

The Pantanal region has a very constant, shallow gradient of 35 centimeters (one foot) in one kilometer (.6 miles), running from east to west. With the water level being so very high (it's a marsh land, after all!), the rain has changed the nature of the site. Trails that were passable yesterday are now closed.

Camila gave us some additional background about the Frugivores project today as she has been assigned a new task by her research director in Sao Paulo. The fruiting trees in the Pantanal evolved to have their seeds dispersed by megafauna (animals over 100 pounds), such as the giant sloth and the mammoth. With the extinction of the original megafauna of the Pantanal (only the tapir remains as a seed disperser), the question that arises is-how have these plants survived?

In addition to the work already planned, which was census of the fruit-dispersing animal and bird population, Camila has been tasked to start observations of a tree species (manduvi) that has lost all of its seed dispersers other than the toco toucan.

Tuesday, May 12, 2004

I worked on the Frugivores project today, performing pretty much the same task as yesterday but in a different area of the research site. Camila has organized us pretty well to get the most ground covered as quickly as possible. Louise notes Camila's observations of the marked trees (700 trees were selected to be studied, and we have to ensure that each is observed monthly) while I lead the way, opening up the trail with the machete.

The job is made much more difficult by the kit that we have to carry. The best example of this is a seven-foot (two-meter) pole with a cutting device on one end used to collect leaf and fruit samples. It takes a bit of getting used to-cutting through the undergrowth with one hand and carrying this is the other!

Every story needs a master villain, and mine goes by the names bromelia, gavatá, or caraguatá! This plant looks quite unassuming, and it is virtually undetectable in the grass until you stand on or next to it. Then you will get caught by the sharp thorns on its leaves. To my cost, I've found that these will easily rip and dig into you through your trousers and will even penetrate leather gloves should you try to move the plants out of the way or catch your hand while cutting them with the machete. The worst part is that these darling plants are widespread in the forest, swamp, and grass regions of the Pantanal....

But tonight I've got another concern. I saw a cobweb under my bed earlier, so I'm off to find the culprit before it gets too dark. Ate logo (so long)!

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Louise and I had a change of scene (and pace!) today and worked with Camila Donatti, the principle investigator for the Frugivores project. The aim of the Frugivores team is to understand how the fruit food chain/seed dispersal systems are linked within the Pantanal.

Our task today was to observe the state of various fruiting trees in two areas. We drove as close to our first patch as we could, then, true to form, we had to wade through the swamp. This isn't quite as unnerving as you might think-even when a caiman or two get a bit bold and come within a few meters of you.

We had left the machete in the 4x4 on the first trek, and I had to resort to using my pocket knife to cut our way through the swamp. This wasn't too bad as a path had been cleared the month before, but it's not a mistake I'd wish to repeat again. At least the machete keeps you at arm's length from any nasties that might be lurking behind the next leaf!!!

Monday, May 10, 2004

An early start this morning (pre-five o'clock) to get back to the trails and see if we had caught anything. Three mice, a rat and an opossum might not be everyone's idea of a successful hunt, but it was the result we were after.

After collecting the traps, we weighed and measured the animals' vital statistics, collected the feces, and released them back in the vicinity that we trapped them in. It is worth noting that all the animals we captured were infected with ectoparasites. Due to the risk of infection from the diseases the animals carry, we had to work wearing enclosed face masks with air filters. And to think I thought it was hot enough already in the jungle!

We managed to get the 4x4 (truck) stuck in the mud on the route between trails. Though we worked hard to free it, we had no choice but to radio the fazenda and await help. This ate into our time, and we were lucky to finish baiting the remaining trails before sundown.
I'm finding out that no matter how well you seal your clothes, it is impossible to stop insects from getting inside them. I managed to get two ticks today-one on either leg. You have to show respect to these crafty little creatures. I had tucked both trouser legs into my socks and then sealed them around with tape!

Sunday, May 9, 2004

First day of participating with the work today, and managed to get a nice cushy introduction by helping identify various snakes, lizards, and frogs in the laboratory. As the new boy, though, I really only got to observe Ellen ponder over the various species and then enter them into the computer.

This afternoon, however, I finally got out into the Pantanal. Working with Vitor, the principle investigator for the Small Mammals project, and Louise, we went to plant various traps in the jungle to collect animals for census. After a short horse trek, we entered the forest, placing the traps at predetermined points.

It was strange being inside the forest. Apart from the omnipresent mosquitoes, the wildlife is much more sparse than expected. This, coupled with the darkness caused by the thick canopy, creates a very quiet, relaxed atmosphere. We only managed to walk and plant traps on two of the four trails we had hoped to this afternoon. This was due to the water level being so high that even our horses were not able to move through the marsh. We will try again in the morning.

I turned on the tap in my room to wash last night and found that a tiny frog, which had managed to get itself up the spout, was forced out into my hands. This gave me quite a scare until I worked out what it was—it could have been much worse!

Saturday, May 8, 2004

Arrived in the Pantanal today, and the first impressions of this place are really good. We've already seen a great abundance of bird life, including vultures swooping over the meadow by the edge of the farmhouse and a hummingbird that started drinking from a flower next to where we sat.

The trip here was smooth and pleasantly uneventful. Even the flight on the small aircraft was less bumpy and erratic than I'd been lead to believe. The four in our group met up yesterday and spent the afternoon exploring the rustic charms of Campo Grande. We met our principle investigators (PIs) today, and tomorrow we start work for real. But for the rest of today, we are free to recuperate after all our long flights by taking a boat trip around the site.

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

It never rains—it pours, both in troubles and the weather. Firstly, I had a good result at the dentist's today. He might not be a miracle worker, but he's gone over and above what can be expected. I'm now in possession of a newly sculpted set of front teeth, which look very similar to, but not exactly like, my original set. He informs me that they should last several months, and he'll fix up permanent replacements when I get back.

However, no sooner do I have my teeth fixed then the next hurdle appears! The surgery where I had my vaccinations performed (typhoid, yellow fever, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, diphtheria, polio, rabies, and tetanus!) has informed me that the batch of rabies vaccine I was given (three courses over a month) has been withdrawn as it's not been as effective as it should have been. They want to give me two more courses—one tomorrow and then three days later. Obviously, that's not possible, so we'll have to see what happens. (They are currently suggesting that I fly out with the booster course, keeping it chilled, to inject myself Saturday!)

Brought my packed bags in to work today and weighed them on the calibrated scales as I couldn't believe that they really were 11 kilograms (24 pounds). Turns out my home scales are woefully inaccurate, as the actual reading was 20 kilograms (44 pounds). I've now decided to leave the travel games set and wind-up radio, among other things, to get down to 18 kilograms (40 pounds).

Well, I leave tomorrow. After all the aggravation from the last couple of days, I'm feeling very relaxed about it. I mean, what more could possibly go wrong....

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Had the test pack over the weekend. Weighed in at just over 11 kilograms (24 pounds) for everything, which is a lot lighter than expected. Just to clarify from last week's entry, the 18-kilogram (40-pound) limit is for all luggage, both check-in and what would be carry-on for a normal flight.

I had a minor disaster over the weekend. On Saturday, I tripped up while walking with friends and fully kissed the concrete. I smashed three of my front teeth, and my bottom lip is now held together with stitches. Though none of these injuries is grievous or even likely to permanently scar, the timing is very awkward for me as I leave on Thursday. So, I won't be able to have full reconstructive dentistry before I go.

I'd like to thank Mark Powel and his girlfriend Emma. Any friend who is willing to wait around Accident and Emergency for three hours on a Saturday evening is worth an awful lot. And, as the adage goes "We always have time to help those who help others."

I was able to get an appointment with my dentist tomorrow (yesterday was a bank holiday), and I should be fixed up with something temporary to see me through the trip. Still, I don't think anyone in the Pantanal will mind if I look a little rugged—and I can't imagine the anaconda even batting an eyelid over it.

Friday, April 30, 2004

Received an e-mail this morning from Earthwatch:

Dear Greg:

Not long until you are off on your Earthwatch project to the Pantanal!

The Principle Investigator for your project has asked whether you would be willing to bring one or two rolls of duct tape (or as much as you feel comfortable carrying/providing) as a donation? Apparently duct tape is difficult to come by in the Pantanal. Any help would be much appreciated.

Let me know if you have any questions before you leave.

Have a wonderful trip! I look forward to hearing about your experiences when you return.

All the best.

Arrh, yes, just when I was starting to think of myself along the lines of Greg Heavens, international man of mystery! But then, whenever we get above ourselves, reality steps back up to the crease, hits you for six, and reminds us that it should be more like:

Greg Heavens, international errand boy.
No job too small, insignificant, or trivial.
Also makes a great cup of tea!

Joking aside, obviously I'm happy to help out and have managed to get two rolls of duct tape and (thanks to a colleague—credit to Mr. Mordak) a roll of Alcoa tape to take along. I would take more, but these three already weigh over a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and will seriously eat into my packing allowance.

Another cold day here in Britain, and the weather forecast for the weekend reads cold, windy, and rainy (so what's new, I hear you ask!). Might be in for a slight temperature shock going between the two climates. Today's weather: Swindon—light rain, high of 8° Celsius, low of 7° Celsius (48° Fahrenheit to 46° Fahrenheit); Campo Grande—partially cloudy, high 30° Celsius, low of 24° Celsius (86° Fahrenheit to 76° Fahrenheit). This is slightly cooler than expected for this time of year in both regions.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

We fly out a week today. Though I think I've got everything organized, I'll spend the weekend going through it all. A test pack and weigh-in of the luggage will be important since the weight limit on the small plane is 18 kilograms (40 pounds). As we have been given a large, comprehensive kit list, I think I might have to carefully decide what will really be needed.

Over the past few months, I've been attempting to prepare physically, but I don't know how much good it has done me! The biggest concern I have with this trip is the heat and humidity. Though I've been out hiking during the weekends and evenings, the United Kingdom has had one of its coldest springs this decade. I've been trudging along trying to avoid freezing up!

I've got in contact with the other three members of the team: Michela from Italy, the other Alcoan going; Wendy from Seal Beach, California; and Louise, a fellow Brit. None of us has done anything like this before, but everyone is eager. I'm sure we'll all get out there and find the going isn't nearly as tough as the briefing makes out!

We've all tied up our travel plans as best we can. We have to arrive in Campo Grande the day previous to flying into the Pantanal, so none of us should be left alone trying to kill time in a strange town!

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Brazil: land of samba and Carnival, the sprawling jungle of the Amazon basin, the sprawling metropolises of Rio and Sao Paulo, possibly the greatest football-ing (soccer) nation ever!

I'll admit that I'd never even heard of the Pantanal before I was gifted this trip. In fact, I'd never heard of Earthwatch before I had the chance to apply. Now I've read, and learned, a lot about what a remarkable concept and organization the Earthwatch institute is and even how special the Pantanal is; the idea of a swamp larger than the mainland of Britain seems almost incredible to me.

I think I preferred the feelings I had a month or two ago when the trip seemed abstract; the feeling that the time between then and now would never pass. Now faced with the very real date of travel—a week tomorrow—a little bit of anticipation has set in. The butterflies have landed in my stomach, so maybe it's time to start writing this journal!

Related Sites

World Conference on Preservation and Sustainable Development in the Pantanal
Find out what is being done to confront threats to the world's largest wetlands—home to exotic birds, monkeys, jaguars, anacondas, tapirs, and giant river otters.

Living Lakes Partnership
The biology and human history of the Pantanal by The Living Lakes Partnership, an environmental organization that protects lakes and wetlands around the world.

Pantanal Bird Club
Facts about the region's natural wonders.

Photo Gallery

View the images from Greg Heavens' diary.

Earthwatch Institute

Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.

Conserving the Pantanal

Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.