Iris Berger / Austria / August 2019

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My two and a half months at Instituto Araguaia were truly otterwordly. What immediately struck me was how abrupt the border between the Cerrado savannah and the Amazon flooded forest is: merely a river separates these two incredibly diverse and beautiful biomes. Most of my work was based in the Cerrado where I did the ecological mapping of the area and surveyed mammals. This should help us determine the habitat preferences of the different mammal species, and consequently ascertain the areas of high conservation priority. 

The Cerrado is one of the most biodiverse savannahs on earth, but it is severely under-protected and its deforestation rate is higher than that of the Amazon. I find this really upsetting since the Cerrado is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I have conducted research in African savannahs before where it is relatively easy to spot wildlife, including the characteristic megafauna. The Cerrado is also home to some very iconic species, such as giant anteaters, giant armadillos, jaguars, and maned wolves. However, actually coming face to face with these animals is very tricky. Nevertheless, footprints of tapirs and anteaters, jaguar roars, and camera trap photos of pumas are a reminder how wild and biologically rich this place is. I will never forget the excitement of hearing a jaguar kill a peccary during a night transect or getting a brief glimpse of a tapir. The trails in the Cerrado go through stunning landscapes – ranging from grasslands with parrots and toucans flying overhead, to tall forest canopies with wild bananas growing in the understorey. 

However, even after a long day in the field, you will be able to get a good rest at the research base. It is the fanciest research station I have ever been to - it even has a flushing toilet (which you will share with some adorable frogs). Moreover, the staff of the Instituto are some of the kindest and most warm-hearted people I have ever met (despite a significant language barrier). If you are lucky enough to celebrate your birthday there, then you will get an amazing party with pizza and cake. In general, the food is excellent and involves a lot of cake (so expect to return home with some extra kilos). Nevertheless, despite the comforts of the station, you’re still in the middle of the Amazon forest and you can watch capuchin monkeys and river dolphins from your bedroom window. 

SARAH GRISWOLD / USA / NOVEMBER 2018

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The six months I spent at Instituto Araguaia (from June 2018 to November 2018) were absolutely amazing. I can honestly say that coming here was the best decision I have ever made. It was a once in a lifetime experience. One word that comes to mind when describing my time spent here is: peaceful. It was so surreal being immersed in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, surrounded by the various plants and animals. Seeing all of the exotic animals and birds was an experience all on its own. I still remember the first time I saw a giant otter. He was relaxing on the riverbank and dashed into the water when he saw us approaching. I was overcome with such joy seeing a giant otter in person. It was an experience I will never forget.

I was lucky enough to have caught a glimpse of the changing environment between the wet and dry season. Cantao, Brazil is a beautiful place to visit and see. The stunning foliage, tall trees, dense undergrowth, downed trees and high cliffs are a special sight to see. It looks like something out of a storybook. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time in this magical place.

Instituto Araguaia will always hold a very special place in my heart.

NILS KACSMAREK / GERMANY / OCTOBER 2017

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I spent three and a half months in Cantão to study the giant otters and it was one of the biggest adventures I had so far. 

Cantão is a very wild place, but it quickly started to feel like a home for me. I enjoyed every dinner with the group, when we all sit together, ate tasty food and listened to the Hoatzins right outside the house. 

To spent time outside in the forest and on the lakes in the canoe with the excellent guides, that soon became very good friends, always was a great time. Every day there was something new happening, some new animals or things I haven’t seen that nice in the past days. Some of my animal sightings I will never forget. To look at a wild tapir from just a few meters of distance was already giving me goosebumps. To see the jaguar out there in such a wild place will give me goosebumps every time I will think about it. And to spend the morning hours in the canoe with the river dolphins following and the parrots flying from one side of the lake to the other always was the best start of the day I can imagine. And of course, I had many fantastic experiences with the giant otters. To have the chance to be out there in Cantão, spending hours and hours studying these animals was a like a dream come true. 

For all this I must thank every member of Instituto Araguaia. Thank you, Silvana and George, for giving me this great opportunity. And I thank all of you that you made my time at Cantão as good as it was! I want to return as soon as possible not just to a very beautiful and wild place with a great animal diversity, but also to all my new good friends and the one and only Florzinha! 

 

Vlad Tchompalov / USA / July 2016

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I awake to the sound of birds outside my cabana. The air feels damp and cool: yet to be warmed by the sun hanging under the horizon. Back home, I'd snooze my alarm in about an hour or two… but here, rising before dawn somehow feels natural.

I brush my teeth with a glass of filtered river water, then begin to get dressed for field work. I listen to rustling leaves overhead as a troop of monkeys pass in the canopy above the roof. Just in the distance, I hear what sounds like dolphins. I walk out the cabin's protective netting: the water's edge is just down a few steps. A dense fog hangs over the water and I spot a pod of our neighborhood porpoises as they crest over the water's surface, taking breaths as they breach the dark river water. Just another day in Cantão. After three weeks, seeing these creatures set against the backdrop of the river and dense foliage still feels magical.

I smell bush coffee brewing as I walk to the staging area… The team is preparing for today's research. Research here has many flavors: it might be aerial drone surveys of dolphins, fish counts, checks on camera-traps or an excursion into the jungle. But, today’s activity is extra special: otter watch!

We set out by canoe, navigating the shallow sand banks, keeping the electric motor humming low. We cruise by a hundred birds along on the bank. We spot several river caiman -- their eyes poking just above the water's surface -- watching as we cruise by. As we navigate lake to lake, we hear a kind of barking far in the distance… Otters! They pop in and out of the water like prairie dogs. We cut the motor and coast downstream.

The giant otters rear out of the water as we approach, showing off their unique throat patches! We shoot off what must be a hundred photos to ID them back at base but already we recognize this local family. Thais, my guide and researcher extraordinaire, whispers to me their story as they scamper on to the shore and disappear into the jungle. Still endangered, these otters were saved by conservationists like the researchers here in Cantão. The ongoing work by Instituto Araguaia keeps a close eye on them in the national park.

I download the pictures to my laptop over lunch… after a full morning on the water, we take a break. As they say, "only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." Code: time for a siesta! 

In the afternoon, I work on whatever electronics I can get my hands on. I'm a technical volunteer, so I take the time to analyze the base's solar panels and batteries; configure routers and network antenna; repair broken camera traps. Several hours go by, we tinker and analyze.

Just at sunset, we carefully roll out the large reflecting telescope and set it in a clearing near our solar panels. The sky turns a peach orange and the night animals begin to stir. The team all huddles together over dinner: fish, rice, beans and jokes in Portuguese. Afterwards, I walk back to the telescope with George. The sky looks like a thousand glimmering diamonds tossed across a dark blanket. Cantão's remote location yields incredible views of the night.

George is excellent at finding obscure planetary nebulae or globular clusters. However, my favorites are planets: Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, Saturn… I read about them in textbooks as a kid… But when I see them through the telescope and track them across the sky, they feel real. My favorite is Andromeda: our closest galaxy. It's visible to the naked eye in Cantão's dark skies. After years of reading about it, I see it for the first time. Knowing what I know about it - how far it is, how vast it spans, how one day it will collide with our galaxy… I am in awe.

I stargaze until many of the features set over the horizon. Returning to the cabana, I keep a close watch for animals on the path. A pitch black night and sounds of the night creatures start to lull me to sleep. As I drift off, I wonder, what adventures will tomorrow hold?

 

JULIA FURSTENAU OLIVEIRA / Germany / MAY 2015

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My time of 6 months at Instituto Araguaia was a very valuable and unforgettable experience for me. I could not have had a better research for my master thesis than I had in Cantão, with a good supervision and working with the beautiful botos (river dolphins), proving that using a blimp is a good way to estimate Araguaian river dolphin population. My dream of being a wildlife field researcher had come true during my time in Cantão.

It was not easy, due to the very hot climate and at the same time not being able to bath in the rivers because of dangerous animals in the water, the remoteness, harsh conditions at excursions, misunderstandings and disagreements, but it was definitely worth it.

Every day I discovered a new animal species, especially many special birds which I enjoyed looking up in a field guide. I saw tapirs, otters, capybaras, toucans, makaws and parrots, caimans, many interesting fish, deers, turtles, coatis and many other species. And of course, everyday I had the pleasure to watch the botos, sometimes playing or hunting, sometimes with babys, sometimes following the boat. I enjoyed watching how the nature changes during the time, with different plants appearing on the beaches, water level rising, and the beautiful sky and sunsets.

I will never forget the sounds of the birds, of the caimans, of the botos blowing, during the day and also at night. Half of my time in Cantão I slept alone in a cabin. But actually I was never alone, I shared the cabin with mice (that loved eating my soap), with a cute hairy large spider, sometimes cockroaches, toads in the bathroom and opossums stealing my food, mutums and hoatzins around the cabin making noise.

But I will also never forget the strong smell and the red sky caused by large forest fires in some place in the Amazon, leading to some sleepless nights. And the huge soy plantations up to the horizon in the Cerrado. I hope that the big efforts of Instituto Araguaia will always protect the Cantão.  

 

ELENA WEINDEL / Germany / OCTOBER 2015

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Thank you very much!

I enjoyed my time here and learned a lot about this special ecosystem. The pink dolphin, besides many others is a wonderful creature. I will never forget the moment at the expedition in St. Antonio, where I was washing my self in the river and a dolphin came close by playing in the water the whole time. It was also a pleasure watching the otters and getting a closer look at their complex social life. It was great seeing different birds all day long....I have stored many beautiful memories.

 

 

JEAN-PAUL MAGNAN / Canada / JULY 2014

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"I spent about 4 months at Instituto Araguaia (from July to October 2014).  Instituto Araguaia is a special place. It's filled with more species of birds I could remember to name (in english and portuguese). It's filled with so many fish that catching ten in a couple hours is considered a "bad fishing day". It's filled with sounds of all sorts; the hum of the mutum, the grunts of caymans, the blows of the dolphins, the whines of giant otter cubs; This among all the sounds of the wind in the leaves and chatter of a dozen different birds. It's full of all this and so much more that you would think it could be a little overwhelming. And it is, at first.

To be able to absorb it all, you need to take a second. In a world where the motto is to go go go, it's harder to do then you think. You take a deep breath of the pure, Amazon filtered air, and begin to feel at peace. While filled with so many unfamiliar sounds, it's also missing others. Honking traffic, roaring airplanes, drunken hollaring, thumping sound systems. These aren't the sounds meant to calm us, just the ones we've become used to.

However make no mistake you are in a city, a whole different kind of city. Where mice crawl through your rooves and eat your soap, where ants and termites fill every crack of every tree and every hole in the ground, where giant otters cubs whine for fish and turtles crawl up from under the sand beneath you.

It's places like this that are our last sanctuaries.

I never considered a day there a day at work, but a privilege. It was an unforgettable experience. One that I have already shared dozens of times and will share countless more for the rest of my life."

 

Daniela Wooddell / usa / September 2013

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Dear Silvana,

I can't begin to thank you and George for the amazing time I had. And for (more importantly) including me in your incredible family there! You have put together a great team of people with passion for your vision of preserving Cantao, the otters, and all the other wildlife from the destruction facing so much of Brasil. I am  thrilled to become part of the team! Please, let me know when I can be of help.

Batman has apparently had relationships with catwoman throughout his history- her alter ego name is Selina. That could be an appropriate name for Batman's female.

 

MELISSA SAVAGE / USA / july 2012

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Zow.  what a great 5 weeks.  you have an amazing paradise in your part of Brazil.  thank you hugely for having me there, to dream in your thatched lodge, float in your canoes, wander your oxbow lakes, and give chase to your giant beauties.  I loved every bit of it.  I only hope I was of some use to your project.  I realize I came at a time of transition, and I believe that with Adriana in place, you will begin to see lots and lots of useful information on where your otters are.  I am astounded by the thought of all 780 lakes having otters moving through them.

Your staff was so fine.  Not only did they take meticulous care of me, but they were good company.  We all communicated perfectly.  Jaimundo is a gem, and you are so extremely lucky to have Ronan.  

I think, if you two can't make this sort of thing happen, then who can?  I wish you all all all the best with the project, but I feel that your assets, including your ownselves, are more than sufficient to the task. I left the binocs and the headlamp for the Instituto, and gave the backpack and a water bottle to Adriana.  In addition, I would like to make a (small) contribution to the Instituto, so please advise there too. 

I can't thank you enough for the opportunity.  Hope to see you again soon, in the Western Ghats, Santa Fe, Rio, La Fenice......

All good cheer,  Melissa