It was the biggest snake I'd ever seen: eight metres of sinuous muscle resting in the clear waters of the Cristalino River. Anacondas of such size are usually only found in more remote parts of the Amazon as the snakes tend to be killed by local people. As pleased as I was to have encountered such an impressive serpent, I quickly decided that now wasn't the right time for a refreshing dip. I would just have to live with the film of sweat that covered me.
Located in northern Mato Grosso, Cristalino State Park feels like untouched Amazon wilderness. However, the reality is that this important conservation area sits right on the so-called 'arc of deforestation', a 400-kilometre-wide, 3,000-kilometre-long strip of agricultural development that cuts across the southern half of Brazil.
The reserve was established in 2000, and although small by Brazilian standards at just 184,900 hectares, it's recognised as one of the most biologically diverse in the whole of the Brazilian Amazon. It was created after a visit by representatives from the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) who were setting up a project called ProEcotur, designed to assist with the development of ecotourism enterprises in Mato Grosso, as well as the protection of the resources on which these businesses depend.
The local communities, along with private land-owner Vitoria Da Riva Carvalho. lobbied the group for inclusion in the project. Da Riva Carvalho had been involved in ecotourism in the area since 1992, and her jungle lodge had already attracted internationally recognised scientists to the area. They, in turn, had confirmed the region's ecological significance. "A workshop on Amazonian geographic conservation priorities held in Macapa in 1999 placed this whole region within the highest priority category," explains eminent Brazilian field biologist Carlos Peres.
Armed with this information, the IDB convinced the state government to designate the park, and Da Riva Carvalho was appointed to be the project representative in northern Mato Grosso.
Strength in diversity
The secret of Cristalino's extraordinary biological richness lies in its location. The park is situated in the zone where the lush Amazon rainforest meets the woodland savannah of the Brazilian cerrado. The transition between the two has resulted in six distinct habitats in the park--including flooded, dry, semi-deciduous and white-sand forests--with each habitat supporting its own suite of animals and plants. So far, more than 570 species of bird have been seen in and around the park--roughly double the number of breeding species in the UK and one of the highest numbers ever recorded in a similar area.
The park's size, as well as its connection to even larger blocks of protected forest to the north, has also ensured the presence of a complete assemblage of larger so-called 'landscape' species--animals that require large areas over which to roam. There are herds of white-lipped peccaries, one of the key prey items for top predators such as the jaguar.
Twelve primate species have already been recorded from the area, despite the fact that only limited surveys have been carried out. And they can be found in quite phenomenal numbers. At certain times of year, fruit trees around the Cristalino River draw in large groups of white-whiskered spider monkeys, howlers, the ubiquitous brown capuchins and red-nosed bearded saki monkeys.
Then there are other classic Amazon animals, such as the anaconda and various poison dart frogs The toxicity of these tiny amphibians, which are used by indigenous hunters all over the Amazon to poison the tips of their arrows, should never be underestimated I once drank from a mug that had been used to capture one and then washed out with soap a dozen times. Within minutes I was having difficulty breathing. All I could think as I floated above myself was how stupid I was going to look--a supposed professional biologist snuffed out by a brightly coloured frog. …