Encountering South America's Big Five

Desiree Michels

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The list of ‘Big Five’ species varies from continent to continent, as any wildlife lover will know. For example, in Africa it's the Lion, African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Leopard and Rhinoceros; in North America it's the Moose, Grizzly Bear, Grey Wolf, Bison and Polar Bear; and in the lush habitats of South America, the most sought after species to encounter are the Maned Wolf, Brazilian Tapir, Giant Anteater, Giant River Otter and, of course, the magnificent Jaguar.

The Jaguar

Mystery and intrigue have surrounded Panthera onca since the time of ancient Mesoamerican cultures, and our fascination with the big cat endures. Dedicated Jaguar safari tours take participants deep into the Brazilian Pantanal for a close encounter with the continent's apex predator - once an experience only afforded to researchers, and even then, rarely.

As well as day and night drives, the best Jaguar safari itineraries will include several nights’ stay in the renowned Jaguar Flotel, a floating hotel situated in the heart of prime habitat near the mouth of the Tres Irmãos River.

Giant River Otter

The labyrinth of river channels around the site of the Flotel is also the perfect place for a sighting of the Giant River Otter. On small-boat excursions in the early morning and late afternoon, this surprisingly agile and aggressive mammal can be seen hunting in familial packs, with their loud calls making them quite easy to track. The world's largest otter is a powerful and ferocious predator, with fish making up the bulk of its diet. Despite its size (reaching up to 1.7 metres) and hunting expertise, due to extensive poaching there are only a few thousand left in the world.

Brazilian Tapir

The Brazilian Tapir (aka the Lowland Tapir or the South American Tapir) is renowned for its shyness, so the most likely encounter with one is on a night drive through the wetlands of the Pantanal. Growing to a length of up to two metres, the tapir has an unusual appearance with sparse, short hair, a stiff mane, a very long nose and small eyes. As a herbivore, the tapir feeds on seeds, fruit, leaves and grasses. Unfortunately for them, they are a regular dish on the menu of Panthera onca and are also hunted by humans, leading their conservation status to be listed as vulnerable.

Giant Anteater

In the grasslands and tropical forests of Brazil, the Giant Anteater is one of the most iconic of South America's animals. Growing up to a length of more than two metres, the Giant Anteater's most interesting characteristic is that, for an animal that can consume huge amounts of food, they have no teeth! They most frequently dine on ants - up to 35,000 in one sitting - and use their elongated snout and extremely efficient tongue (which can stretch out to two feet) to gather up their quarry. Their impressive claws, which can be up to 10cm long, are used to gouge entry into an anthill, but also to successfully defend themselves against large predators – including big cats.

The Maned Wolf

While this unique species is often compared to a fox or a wolf, in fact, it is neither, as the sole species in the genus Chrysocyon. In the remote and unspoilt wilderness of the Parnaíba Headwaters National Park, in Brazil, wildlife lovers have the opportunity to catch sight of the world's largest canid in the Wolf Cliffs Camp. Standing up to 90cm at the shoulder, and with disproportionately long legs, a black mane and large, erect ears, the Maned Wolf is omnivorous, hunting for rodents, birds, rabbits and sometimes fish, and supplementing its diet with roots, fruits and vegetable matter. Unfortunately, this extremely beautiful canid is on the endangered species list, making a sighting of it a true experience of a lifetime.

For those who venture into the vast wetlands and tropical forests of Brazil on a Jaguar safari, not only will they have the opportunity for multiple sightings of the elusive spotted big cat, there's also a very good chance they'll catch sight of the other four members of the South American ‘big five’ as well.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led Jaguar safari itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.


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