Against the glare of the afternoon sun, Turkey Vultures circle in the vast cloudless sky. I screw up my eyes to watch as their wings, from time to time, give way to a drunken wobble. (They soar majestically, but this distinct teetering marks their flight.)
It feels like a long way from Paraguay’s colonial-style capital, Asunción, as the endless straight road disappears into a mirage, in front and behind us. We’ve left behind the cool morning glow that swept across the palm savannas, and now hot air pummels us through the open windows of our vehicle as we drive into the Dry Chaco.
With every mile, the lowland scrubby forest becomes denser: impenetrable. It’s as though, with each minute that passes, the trees and plants sprout extra spikes – the bigger, the sharper, the better. The SatNav suddenly breaks the silence with a robotic voice: “Drive straight on for 411 kilometres.”
Strange, mythological and prehistoric
Along the dry, dirt roadside termite mounds crop up at regular intervals; they’ll be tonight’s fast food joints for Giant Anteaters. These bizarre looking creatures, with their long slender snout and huge bushy tail, have long captured people’s imagination in mythology and folklore.
As the forest gives way to grassland, suddenly a large flightless bird with immense, powerful legs clears the nearest fence – it’s a Lesser Rhea, looking like it’s just stepped out from a Jurassic Park film set.
Stopping at a water hole, we spot the eyes of a mother Caiman (a relatively small crocodylian) sitting motionlessly above the waterline as she protectively watches over her youngsters. We quietly approach the water’s edge, to take a closer look at the footprint of a Lowland Tapir, a pig-shaped mammal the size of a small pony, with a snout that looks like an underdeveloped elephant’s trunk. It doesn’t take long for the Caiman to decide that we’re quite close enough – she lunges at us with bared teeth and terrifying speed: a warning shot.
That night, our car headlights catch the reflection of two bright eyes and suddenly we’re veering onto the grass verge for a closer look. As we come to a stop just about 50 metres away, the creature’s strangely elongated body and long tail is motionless. With one short leg lifted above the grass, it stands frozen, staring at us. Its ears are alert, but small and round: teddy-bear like. Its golden coat lacks any distinctive markings. The length of its body is remarkable, along with the comical shortness of its legs. It’s unmistakably a cat, but not like any I’ve ever seen. Calmly, within seconds, it disappears into the darkness. We’ve just met a Jaguarundi, or the ‘otter cat’, nicknamed for being the strangest looking wild cat you’re ever likely to meet.
Biodiversity hotspot destroyed by deforestation
I’ve spent many months exploring the forests of Latin America, but I can’t get over the wildlife sightings in my short time in the Dry Chaco. While much attention is focused on conserving the tropical forests of South America, the Chaco, in the very heart of the continent, has been largely overlooked.
Yet this region, about the size of Poland, is a biodiversity hotspot and home to more large mammals than the Amazon, including top predators the Jaguar and Puma, as well as being home to the world’s greatest diversity of armadillos.
Regardless of this, on an average day here a forest area the size of 1,500 football pitches is destroyed – wiping out a teeming habitat, home to a wealth of diverse wildlife. Devastatingly, this is happening year on year, and explains why WLT is so committed to raising funds to protect the remaining wild habitat of the Chaco.
Bethan John was formerly WLT’s Assistant Editor. She visited the Chaco in September 2013 with John Burton, WLT’s Chief Executive, and Charlotte Beckham, WLT’s Conservation Development Assistant.
WLT supports conservation in Paraguay through the Keepers of the Wild programme, which funds rangers to protect and monitor reserves that WLT has helped create. You can help save wildlife and habitat in the Chaco of Paraguay by donating to Keepers of the Wild.