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Trip Report:

Maned Wolves and 'Einstein' Monkeys
The Cerrado of central Brazil

This was my second visit to the Cerrado, a beautiful upland savannah that hosts a variety of wildlife more easily seen here than in the Pantanal. Although Maned Wolves, an ungainly long-legged and world's tallest canine can be found in the Pantanal, it is more easily filmed at a ranch here. In this area, the Capuchin Monkeys, a species found from Central America south to southern Brazil, have developed a particular culture, using rocks and anvil boulders to smash hard-shelled palm nuts. For this reason the monkeys have been nicknamed 'Einstein' monkeys, and their tool use is extensive. Some populations have now been found to use special sticks that they specifically shape to fish for termites, as chimpanzees have done in Africa, in addition to the stone use.

The following is my day-to-day journal:

Day 1. Arrival.

Several of us continued from our first Jaguar and the Wildlife of the Pantanal Tour 1 to travel east into the Cerrado. Everyone met without hassle at the Brazilla airport, with 6 people travelling with me and 4 arriving from Sao Paulo. All luggage arrived and we proceeded to our hotel without incident, except that only one vehicle was sent, so that all of our luggage, camera bags, computers, and extra cushions that were shipped along with us all were crammed into the vehicle, making us into human sardines. I was really annoyed, as this is not the type of first impression I wished to make and as soon as I reached our hotel I skyped Mary and together we emailed the Brazilian office with our concerns. It would be fixed for future transfers.

Day 2. To the Wolves.

We had two vehicles for our airport transfer this morning, making for a more comfortable and professional trip. And our outfitter apologized profusely for the oversight. Now we had a new worry.....
Our biggest concern leaving Brazillia was charges for luggage, and worries about weight limits for our carry-ons. Everyone packed their backpacks into checked luggage, and most of us carried most of our equipment in photo vests, with our long lenses over our shoulders, as well as our computer bags. There was supposed to be a 10 or 11 pound weight limit here, and I did see some people having gear weighed and approved, but after our check-in girl dealt with all of our luggage and tickets, she simply asked me how many tags I needed for carry-on and she handed them over. Fortunately we did check our camera bags in our luggage as the overhead bins, although potentially large enough to accommodate a Keboko bag, would do so only if that was the first bag in the bin. With our vests, computers, and carry-on lens, we all had plenty of space.
landscapeThe drive towards the wolf camp was long, on fairly decent paved roads. En route we stopped at a very busy truck/bus stop where we had a buffet lunch, then continued along the rolling, dry, scrub landscape. Three hours later we reached the tiny hamlet where we transferred to our open truck for the final 30 minute drive to camp.
Camp was just as I remembered it from two years earlier. We headed to the Hyacinth Macaw blind soon after settling in, but fires in this dry deciduous tropical forest have lured most of the macaws away, where they feed upon newly exposed palm nuts. Only three or four birds arrived, and the lighting was tough, and shooting angles from the blind very compromised. In truth, however, the macaws are truly a side-line for this shoot; it is, instead, the maned wolf and the tool-using Capuchin Monkeys that is the reason why we come.
We shot to dusk and returned back to camp in the half-light of an early nightfall, and fed well about 45 minutes later.

Day 3.

white woodpeckerBirds started calling around 5, but the generator didn’t start so all of us prepared for the morning under the rustic, but feeble, glow of a single candle. It was cold during the night and I could have used an extra blanket, which our guide told us that they finally removed last week as the cold was over. Not for me!
The group spent the morning at the Hyacinth Macaw blind but not a single bird visited. Fires in the area have, apparently, kept the birds busy elsewhere. Since there were not enough holes or room for all of us, I decided to stay behind, as did Tom and Doris. We spent the morning at the bird feeder, which proved to be quite productive.
Several good species visited, including blond-crested woodpeckers (shy), White Woodpeckers (shy at first, but cooperative in the end), Red-Margined Guans (tame, but on the feeding tray), Chalky-browed Mockingbirds, three Tanager species, Scaled Doves, Planato Woodnymph (a hummingbird), a large blue hummer (perhaps a swallow-tailed), and a Campo Troupial, a black-headed version of the orange-backed troupial we see in the Pantanal.


guanPeople started arriving back at 10:30, and since Steve, Angus, and Richard walked back, I went out to intercept them and do a little puma scare, hiding in the brush and making a bit of a roar as I came dashing into the track. Scared everyone – it was cruel but funny, and I was treated to some great Aussie language.
During and after lunch the camp ran the generator, giving all of us a final chance to charge batteries or to download before heading off to the wolf camp where we hope to photograph Maned Wolves, and to overnight in very rustic conditions.

En route to the wolf camp we stopped at a Burrowing Owl nest mound where three birds frequented, two regularly on the mound and a third, when disturbed, that perched there. Two years ago, when we were last here, the birds were shy and the shooting was merely snaps. Now the birds are much tamer and by circling the nest mound and a tree stump where the birds had perched we had near frame-filling portraits of all three birds.
palmsArriving at camp I found the location little changed from before. Extremely rustic, but in a way in better condition than I had remembered it. Still, the doorknob was a key, requiring a twist to unlock the door. On the inside I closed the door by bracing my backpack against it. In many ways the location reminds me of a Eastwood movie set, with dusty lanes, decrepit small houses, and scattered pieces of implements.
A breeze had kicked up, cooling the afternoon, and we wolfwere hoping that the wolves would come in early, while we still had light and indeed one young wolf did. It was a bit shy, and as we sat waiting we missed some nice shots of the back-lighted wolf as it circled us. Later, after sunset but while there was still enough light to shoot, the wolf moved closer and we had some good shooting. The wolf is huge, a gigantic fox on steroids with long, lanky black legs. It moves, at times, almost in a colt-like gait or a loping, hoping jog. The crew tossed pieces of bananas, trying to draw the wolf into our shooting arena but this one moved off.
Another one came into our shooting location after dark, which required our using flash and using our flash lights to focus and frame. Last time I was here I’d suggested to the tour operator that he install some flood lights that would bathe that area, making focus much easier. He hadn’t, although I discovered there was a generator which was started for our dinner long after dark. The generator would have solved the problem, powering a couple of flood lights, but so would have a small investment in three 5-cell Mag lights for the camp staff to handle.

Our guide posing where we expected to have the wolf. The animal is surprisingly tall, almost like a little pony, and having Raphael as a framing device was very helpful.



Day 4. Wolf Camp back to main camp.

We had hoped for star trails or star shots but a half-moon lightened the sky too much. At 5, when I awoke, the sun had set and the stars were brilliant, but in the time I took to dress, change lenses and rearrange my Wimberley to accommodate a camera body, the eastern sky was beginning to lighten. I managed some shots, aiming both east and west, but as the sky lightened further the stars began to disappear.
vultureAfter breakfast we headed to a cow’s head that was placed for vultures, and five King Vultures, the largest and most spectacular of America’s vultures, were perched in trees surrounding the bait. King Vultures are large, basically white birds with weird, colorful growths on their face, giving them an almost turkey-like appearance, but much prettier. The birds took off at our approach but they did several passes overhead and we had a few fly and circle close, giving us some nice flight shots.
We headed back to the main camp, and returned to the owls en route. Although the light was high the shooting was still good, with the birds perhaps even more tolerant than before.
We arrived at camp by 1, and the majority of people went back to the macaw blind, hopefully with better luck. Several of us stayed behind at camp, editing and talking, as there were not enough portholes for all the lenses. Five macaws came in, and flew to the ground, so everyone was very happy with the shoot.
The evening was capped with a birthday party, for Romaine and for me, R’s and my monumental 6oth! One of the daughters of the owner of the camp has a bake shop, and prepared a huge sheet cake decorated with the head of a Hyacinth Macaw. The cake, too, was delicious. The only thing that could have improved the evening was Mary, who was home, recovering from her knee replacement surgery.

Our Hyacinth Macaw cake and Romaine and me at our Birthday celebration. I don't look 60, do I? Say it ain't so!

Day 5. Einstein Monkeys.

We awoke at 4AM, had breakfast a half hour later, and were on the road at 5 for our 1.5 hour drive to the monkeys. The road, this year, is paved most of the way so we made great time, although we were bogged down at one point when our truck high-centered on the extremely sandy, deeply rutted track.
monkeyThe walk to the monkeys was about 1 km, to the same location where they were two years ago. The activity was slow at first, but over the course of the four or so hours we were there we had at least twenty visits as various monkeys came in, either for the pecans we offered, or to smash the palm nuts. The lighting was a bit harsh, and eventually most of us resorted to tele-flash fill-flash, which lightened up faces and improved the scene.
The monkeys, Brown Capuchins, are unique to this part of northeastern Brazil in being tool-users, employing a rock weighing a kilo and as big, or bigger, than their head. They raise this rock at least to head level before smashing it downward, aiming for a palm nut placed on ‘the anvil,’ a large boulder that, over time, has worn divots from constant use. Usually it requires multiple smashes before the nut breaks, whereupon the monkey gathers up the pieces, snacks on a few bites, and runs off to cover with the remainder. Often, the nut fires out from the ‘squeeze’ of the rock, and the monkey darts after it before returning to the anvil to repeat the procedure.
Monkeys gathered around us as well, and several of us got onto our backs to film monkeys as they hung from overhead branches, reaching down and finally dropping to the pecans placed below. By noon it was hot, and the monkeys seemed full, although most of us intended to try again in the afternoon after lunch.
Unfortunately, a wild fire blew in, almost hitting our ranch, and the fire continued in the direction of the monkey canyon. The monkeys fled before the smoke and fire, moving towards a swamp where shooting was impossible. While we waited to see if the monkeys were available, we photographed the ranch people making manioc flour. One part of the procedure was especially impressive, as the shaved root was placed in a press that was screwed tight via a huge, carved piece of wood in the shape of a screw. The screw was so thick that it was turned by inserting a baseball-thick post in a slot, and then turned a quarter turn before being removed, and then reinserted into a new slot and turned again. We also photographed at the ranch house, and did some beautiful work with a young girl and a mother, bathed in the Rembrandt-like light of an open window.
Since the fire eliminated the chance for monkeys, we intended to return to camp where some would photograph the macaws at the blind. As we drove to the restaurant for lunch my vehicle broke down, resulting in long delays after lunch. The bird shooters still had a crack at the macaws, while Tom, Steve, Angus, and I waited for our vehicle to be repaired. Shortly after the vehicle with the others had left our camp host returned with the repaired truck and we headed back to camp. We arrived back in camp about 40 minutes before sunset.

Day 6. Wolf Camp


Several photographers went to the macaw blind this morning, but the birds were few and it was a disappointment. After lunch we returned to Wolf Camp, early, hoping that the wolves would return again in the late afternoon light. The wolves did not return until after dark, near dinner time, although we did fairly well with some flash photographs after dark. Again, however, the focusing was an issue as there was not sufficient light provided at the camp for proper illumination.
The image on the right is a close up of what would have been a decent image of the maned wolf but it is out-of-focus. Several of us had missed images because of the lighting which I found very frustrating, and what could have been easily corrected prior to our arrival.

Day 7. To Barreras

We spent the morning at camp, leaving camp at 1PM for a 4 hour drive, arriving at the airport at 5. Check in went easily and we arrived at Brazila around 9, where we had a final dinner before our departures, either to home or back to Cuiaba for another Jaguar shoot.

Although the extension trip went well and we succeeded in photographing the Maned Wolves and Einstein Monkeys I was disappointed. Not because of the camp or food, which was adequate and wonderful, respectively, or the subjects, which cooperated well. Instead, I was disappointed because I'd made several sound and easy recommendations to make this good shoot into a truly world-class photographic opportunity. As it stands, the Macaw blind's portholes are too small and too thick to provide for anything but a straight on view with a longer lens, so a bird that isn't in that line of sight is, in effect, out of shooting range. The portholes are positioned somewhat inconveniently, too, for comfortable standing or sitting.

The vultures and the owls, although secondary subjects, could be great if a permanent blind was erected for both. It'd be easy to do, if it'd simply be done.

Most frustrating, however, was the wolf shoot. When I was there two years ago wasps were attracted to our focusing lights, stinging the camp staff that were holding flash lights. We resorted to using a truck's headlights for focusing to avoid the stings. This, at least, provided enough light to focus.

This year I was expecting some provisions for lighting, but there was nothing new. I must applaud the photographers with me who dealt with subpar conditions with good humor. I can't imagine dealing with a group of cranky photographers who were frustrated in their focusing and in their missing shots because of the poor light. Leading these photo tours, however, this is always a big concern for me, not just because of the personal grief this would cause but, far more importantly, because a quality shoot would be so easy to execute. True, I could have carried all of these lights myself but for one or two days of shooting, and the weight and hassle of transporting these lights, I felt that the operator should deal with this as this would also be a service to anyone else shooting here.

As it stands, I see the wolves as a tourist attraction and not a great photographic opportunity. The setup is 50% -- the wolves are there and the possibilities exist, but the shooting conditions are so lacking I find it distracting and disappointing.

Our schedule prevents us from returning there next year, but at this point I honestly don't know if I'll return until these concerns are met. I'd suggest anyone traveling for the wolves get this lighting issue hammered down, or prepare to bring your own lights, if you wish to avoid these frustrations.

Read about our Jaguars and the Wildlife of the Pantanal trips
One or Two for 2012
Refer to our BROCHURE to get an idea of next year's trip!

Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an even better idea of what our trips to the Pantanal are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.