In contrast, the giant armadillo had no use for soy plantations. Giant anteaters also avoided the agricultural fields, but they visited the cattle pastures because these appeared to have greater populations of ants and termites. Ranchers often left the termite mounds and ant nests intact, and the long-snouted opportunists showed no hesitance in excavating their dinner in man-made habitat. Giant anteaters were also more common where ranchlands abutted riparian forests. The shaggy creatures entered these forests and bathed in the water to cool down. Jaguars tended to stay inside the park but occasionally wandered into nearby fields. Pumas spent more time outside the park in areas with heavily forested groves lining rivers and streams. Tapirs liked to be near springs close to the remaining forest fragments outside the park.
Overall, the landscape matrix in this region was friendlier to rarity than most pessimistic biologists would have predicted. Some of the large mammals survived massive land-use change in the Cerrado because enough bits of natural habitat remained in the matrix to meet their needs for food and cover. How long these vital pieces would remain before becoming soy or sugarcane fields was an open question. Leandro was lobbying in favor of forever. He is one of the few muddy-boots biologists who has learned to rub elbows with lawmakers, and he spends as much time working with them as he does tracking jaguars. Leandro practices what the best conservation biologists preach, that conservation is 10 percent science and 90 percent negotiation. He had fought hard to enact the current federal law requiring landowners to keep a minimum of 20 to 30 percent of their property in natural vegetation, as well as to keep their hands off development of river- and streamside forests. Depending on topography and drainage systems, this measure potentially protects more than 35 percent of the Cerrado outside the reserves.
The Round Table on Responsible Soy Association, an effort to bring together all the big soy producers, conservation groups, and the Brazilian government, is trying to make cultivation more harmonious with nature conservation. Leandro’s first step was to convince the group that the best-practices goal of leaving 20 to 30 percent of land as natural habitat would help the maned wolf persist in the Cerrado. It would be ideal if the protected areas were in contiguous blocks connecting ranchlands in one area to those in another. Carly worried that all of the set-asides would be in forests because including grassland in the 20 to 30 percent mix of intact land would bite into the profits of the ranchers. Under the current system, the big producers would benefit most by converting to agriculture as much grassland habitat as allowed. And that is what is happening. Even with a law that sounds good on paper, legislation that is not based on strong science will have uneven results. The current law could conserve good jaguar and tapir habitat outside reserves but do little for the grassland-dependent maned wolf.
The next morning, we were out early again with Mason. We stopped at a huge hole in the ground. Here were the signature diggings of a giant armadillo, one dedicated earthmover. “There must be an ant nest or termite mound nearby,” Carly said. Giant armadillos often excavate burrows to reach under the nests of their favorite prey. Few people have ever seen a giant armadillo aboveground or in a zoo, so it’s hard to picture one. A good start would be to multiply the size of the common nine-banded armadillo by ten. The nine-banded armadillo, the unofficial state mammal of Texas, is among the most common roadkill along highways in the state. If striking a poor nine-banded would feel like rolling over a speed bump, hitting a giant armadillo, which can weigh up to 60 kilograms, would be like smashing into a retaining wall. Fortunately, giant armadillos tend to stay clear of roads in the Cerrado, though some are run over by passing vehicles anyway. Unlike the nine-banded, which ranges across much of the southern and southeastern United States all the way to Argentina and parts of the Caribbean, the giant armadillo is limited to South America. There it ranges widely into the Amazon basin, where very little is known about its habits and needs. Most likely, though, giant armadillos, which are both rare and considered by the IUCN to be threatened, thrive in the drier portions of the range, in Venezuela, the Cerrado, and the Chaco region, which extends into Paraguay.