National Geographic : 2005 Aug
a forest to the east, and a small herd of cattle trots down into the marsh. More whoops, and another slow river of cattle moves in from the west. Now a cascade from the south, and the sound of hundreds of scimitar-horned beasts slowly surging through the water is as thunder ous as Iguacu Falls. While the well-mannered zebu take their turns at the salt troughs, the riders drift silently through the lowing herd, stalking a waifish calf, a crea ture so slight, so light on its hooves, it looks like a marionette. Whap! Lassos drop over its head. The men spring from their saddles, and two of them tumble the calf to the mud. One pins it with a knee, slides a long knife from the scab bard at the small of his back, and slices two scar let notches in a white velvet ear, to mark it as belonging to Lau. He wipes the bloody blade clean on the calf's snowy flank. The second man swabs the bleeding notches and the lingering umbilical cord with a disinfectant. A third jabs a vermicide into the calf's neck, then they're up and on to the next. Six more calves and the job is finished, man and beast coated in mud. This afternoon they'll repeat the morning's performance at the up stream roundup. Tonight eight pairs of boots will be propped by the ranch house stove to dry. This being the Pantanal, the boots won't actu ally dry until the dry season arrives. L au's house and corral at Santa Marta occupy the center of a hundred-acre island of high ground. There is no elec tricity. Two big tables, four benches, a couple of wire porch chairs, and some beds are the only furniture. The kitchen, roofed but open on two sides, harbors a ragtag collection of hard-luck cases: three motherless guinea chicks, a blind rooster, two skittish cats. A mob of at least 25 monk parakeets has constructed a haystack apart ment in a tree ten feet from the table, and every hour they erupt in raucous quarreling. Parrots, macaws, and toucans frequent the yard too, their flashes of color and their chuckling trills and calls are intrinsic ornaments of Pantaneiro life. "They live around the house because it's safe from predators," Lau says, surveying a pair of toucans in a mulberry tree with proprietary pride. Pantaneiros say, "It's the eye of the owner that fattens the calf." Even so, Lau and his wife, Zenilda, like many fazendeiros, don't live at the 60 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * AUGUST 2005 "Taking action to preserve only the floodplain is a waste of time if we don't save the uplands, for only one reason water flows downhill." In a cloud of dust on the Pantanal's surrounding highlands, tractors plow land yielding cotton and soybeans for global agribusinesses. Annual rains don't flood the highlands but sweep down tons of silt and pesticides. Also pouring in: tourist buses. This one packed with Brazilian fisher men splintered one of the hundred-plus wooden bridges on the Transpantaneira Highway, a 90-mile-long dirt road.