Occupying half of South America’s land mass, Brazil is the most biodiverse country in the world. It contains the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon and the world’s largest tropical wetland, the Pantanal. Together with the last remnants of the Atlantic rainforest, these ecosystems harbour an astonishing abundance and diversity of wildlife.
Did you know Brazil has its own ‘Big Five’? They are the giants of Brazilian jungle: Jaguar, Brazilian tapir, giant anteater, maned wolf and giant river otter.
Here is my list of top 10 Brazilian animals, including Brazil’s Big Five that you can encounter on your travels in Brazil, together with suggestions on where to find them in the wild.
In this post
Solitary and elusive jaguars are the largest wild cats in the Americas and the third largest big cats in the world (after tigers and lions). They once ranged from the southern United States to northern Argentina. Today, they occupy only about 50 percent of their historic range and are listed as “Near Threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
And this range keeps shrinking due to habitat destruction and degradation in the human-dominated world.
The jaguars are unique in that all across their 6-million sq. kilometre range, that spans 18 countries, they represent a single continuous population. There are no subspecies of jaguars. Taxonomically, it is the same cat that occurs over a very large range.
This poses unique challenges for the conservation of jaguars. Instead of protecting geographically isolated populations, the scientists now work to protect the connecting corridors of habitat that allow the jaguars to move between populations and maintain gene flow between these populations.
In late 2018, the United Nations Development Programme, initiated a jaguar conservation program Jaguar 2030, that aims to protect the jaguars across their entire geographic range.
Currently, there are two strongholds for the jaguars in Brazil. In the north of the country, the Amazon rainforest is home to the largest population of jaguars in the world. Further south, pretty much dab smack in the middle of the country, the Pantanal is home to the second largest population.
So what is the best place in the world to see a jaguar in the wild? The Brazilian Pantanal. Unlike the Amazon, the Pantanal is an open landscape where the wildlife can be seen much easier than in the dense jungle. The network of streams and ox-bow lakes, upstream from the small fishing community of Porto Jofre (250 km from Cuiaba) is the best place for watching jaguars in the wild.
Known through much of its range as the ‘river wolf’ the giant otter is one of South America’s top carnivores. Growing to up to 1.8 meters in length, it is the largest of the otter species.
Sadly, giant otters are also one of the most endangered animals in Brazil. Up until the 1970s, they were hunted for their valuable fur, and at present, they are threatened by habitat loss and pollution. Their habitat is being destroyed by mining, logging and damming of rivers.
As a result, the giant otter is listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
But if you do manage to find them in the wild, giant otters are the most entertaining animals to watch. They live in social groups, composed of a breeding pair and their offspring and they rest, play, fish and sleep together. They seem to exist in the constant state of motion of catching and eating fish.
The best place to see giant otters in the wild is the Brazilian Pantanal, on the banks of Cuiaba river, around Porto Jofre. Active during the daylight hours, the otters are not difficult to find here.
The Giant anteater is one of the oddest-looking animals in South America. With its tiny face, long snout, massive body and exceptionally bushy tail, it looks like Mother Nature couldn’t decide what animal it wanted to make.
Threatened by habitat destruction and modification, the giant anteater is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The experts estimate that there are approximately 5000 individuals left in the wild.
As the name suggests, the giant anteater is the largest of all anteaters and can grow up to two meters in length. It is equipped with sharp bear-like sharp and a very long tongue – the traits necessary for successfully raiding termite mounds and snatching up insects from their chambers. As the anteater feeds, its tongue shoots out up to 150 times every minute, allowing the animal to consume up to 30,000 insects in a day.
But despite their custom-built adaptations, giant anteaters only take a small number of insects from each nest before moving to the next one, to avoid overexploiting the food sources within their home ranges.
The best place to see giant anteaters in the wild is the Southern Pantanal in Brazil. The open savannah is their preferred habitat type and the abundance of termite mounds guarantees a renewable food supply for them.
Also known as a South American tapir, Brazilian tapir is one of five tapir species in the world, all of them are sadly in decline. The Brazilian tapir is threatened by poaching and habitat destruction and as result, it is listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
These gentle relatives of a rhinoceros are herbivores and use their long snout to grab leaves, shotts and fruit as they brows. They are mostly active at night, retiring under the cover of the forest during the day.
Tapirs are good swimmers and can often be found in or near water. Their feet are equipped with three large toes that help them walk through soggy terrain. In Costa Rica, you can even see the tapirs take a dip in the ocean, in Corcovado National Park.
In Brazil, the Pantanal is the best place to spot the tapir in the wild, particularly Pouso Alegre eco-lodge, where you can often watch them emerge out of the forest at sundown and wade into a watering hole for a long unhurried drink.
South America’s Maned wolf, is a wolf like no other. Looking like a fox on stilts, it is neither a fox nor a wolf. It is the only canid (a member of the wild dog family) of its kind. Which may mean that it is the only survivor of the Pleistocene extinction that wiped out the majority of the megafauna, including the Woolly mammoth.
Having survived for a million years, It is now listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and considered “Vulnerable” in Brazil.
The maned wolves are impressive-looking animals. They stand 90 centimetres tall at the shoulder, supported by exceptionally long legs, that are thought to have evolved for life in the tall grasslands – their prefers habitat.
But despite their formidable size, maned wolves are very shy creatures, rarely encountered in the wild.
So where can you see a wild maned wolf in Brazil? They are occasionally spotted on night safaris at Fazenda San Francisco in the Southern Pantanal, but sightings are rare and brief.
For an almost guaranteed encounter, head to Santuário do Caraça in Minas Gerais. Thirty years ago, the monks at Caraça Monastery started leaving food scraps for a maned wolf that kept raiding their chicken pens. The tradition continued with future generations of wolves and today you can visit the monastery and watch a wild maned wolf come in for its evening meal.
At about twice the size of a domestic cat, Ocelot is the largest small cat in the Americas. It has a similar distribution range to the jaguar, from Texas and Arizona all the way to northern Argentina.
In the past, ocelots were heavily hunted for their beautiful coat, but today they are protected across most of their range. And while they are still threaded by the loss of habitat, ocelots are listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Curiously, ocelots, together with the other seven small spotted cats of South America, have 36 chromosomes rather than 38, like all other wild cats!
Spotting an ocelot in the wild is a challenging task unless you know where to look. The highest density of ocelots in the world is found on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. The island formed during the creation of the Panama Channel. As the countryside flooded, the animals moved to higher ground and many become trapped on what is now Barro Colorado Island.
However, the best place to see an ocelot in the wild is Fazenda San Francisco in Brazil’s southern Pantanal. The rice paddies of the fazenda attract a high number of rodents and the ocelots follow their prey.
On top of the rodents, the irrigation channels that bring water from the nearby river to the fields, are teeming with fish and other aquatic vertebrates. The ocelots have no shortage of food here and their relaxed attitude to safari vehicles allows for some close encounters.
Also known as the Southern tamandua, the lesser anteater is another odd creature of Brazilian savannah. Unlike their giant cousins, the lesser anteaters are active mainly at night, spending their days in hollow tree trunks or in the burrows of other animals, such as armadillos.
Like the giant anteater, the lesser anteaters possess long and sharp claws on their feet and walk on the outer surfaces of their front feet to avoid puncturing their palms with the claws. For a human, it would be like walking on your knuckles.
The lesser anteater has a wide distribution range throughout most of South America, and it is listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
However, despite their wide distribution the lesser anteater is shy and rarely encountered in the wild. The best place to look for it is Fazenda San Francisco in the Southern Pantanal in Brazil.
Brazil is home to more monkeys than any other country in the world. And most monkeys in Brazil live in the Amazon rainforest. There are so many monkeys in the Amazon, that the scientists are still discovering new species. Of course, just because there are many monkeys around, doesn’t mean that they are easy to see. The Amazon jungle is so thick, that most of its inhabitants remain hidden from view.
For the best chance of seeing the monkeys, visit the Pousada Rio Roosevelt lodge in the state of Amazonas. Lying deep inside the Amazon jungle and surrounded by virgin forest, the lodge is home to 12 species of primates.
The monkeys are not restricted to the Amazon, of course. You can spot marmosets, the adorable tiny primates, in such major tourist destinations as the coastal town of Paraty and the Botanical Gardens of Rio de Janeiro.
Another odd-looking creature, the Armadillo is protected from the dangers of the world by a thick leathery shell. There are 21 different species of armadillo, ranging in size from 150 centimetre-long Giant Armadillo to 15 centimetre-long Pink fairy armadillo.
The Giant Armadillo is very rarely seen in the wild in Brazil. But the smaller Yellow armadillo can be easily seen at Fazenda San Francisco in the Southern Pantanal. Most of the time they are seen on night safaris, but occasionally, they wander to the lodge during the daylight hours, attracted by the corn seed overflowing from the bird feeders.
Macaws are beautiful, brilliantly coloured members of the parrot family. The magnificent Hyacinth macaw is the largest macaw and the largest flying parrot in the world, reaching 100 centimetres in length.
Because of their striking looks, Hyacinth macaws are popular in the exotic pet trade. Capture of birds, together with habitat loss are the main causes of these magnificent birds’ decline. They are listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
However, despite the decreasing numbers, Hyacinth macaws can be easily spotted around Porto Jofre in the Northern Pantanal. They like to feed on the low-hanging fruit of palm trees, which means that you can often watch them at eye-level.
Another macaw that can be spotted in the Pantanal is the Blue and Yellow macaw. One of the best places to see this species is Fazenda San Francisco.
Bonus – Toucans and toucanets
As a bonus, here is another fascinating group of creatures that you will likely encounter on your travels in Brazil – toucans and aracaris, also known as toucanets. All birds in this family feature spectacularly oversized and often colourful beaks.
It is not known exactly why these birds evolved to have such an extravagant appendage, but one of its benefits is the all-important energy conservation. Feeding primarily on fruit, the toucans can park themselves in a fruiting tree and reach the faraway fruit from their perch without the need of hopping around.
The most common toucan in Brazil is the Toco toucan. It can be found in the Pantanal, at Iguazu Falls and along the eastern coast, near Rio and São Paulo.
One of the most striking members of the family is the Chestnut-eared araçari. It is also quite widespread, but the best place to see it is the Northern Pantanal