The plight of the Brazilian Amazon grabs headlines, but the status of its neighbor, the Cerrado, remains veiled in obscurity. This omission is a pity because the savannas of South America hold the key to reaching a balance between safeguarding rarities and growing the food we eat. Few environmental journalists are familiar with the Cerrado, which represents about 21 percent of Brazil and where both the total amount and annual rate of habitat conversion is higher than in the Amazon region. Over the past fifty years, more than 55 percent of the native habitat of the Cerrado has been cleared to make way for crops and livestock. Only about 2 percent of the region receives formal protection from the federal government, and Brazil’s Forest Code, at least on paper, requires protection of habitat on 20–30 percent (depending on the Brazilian state) of private lands.
The Cerrado borders the Amazon rain forest to the west and the green ribbon of the Atlantic Forest to the east. To the south lies the vast seasonal swamp known as the Pantanal. The Cerrado ranks as the world’s most diverse tropical savanna, even richer than the miombo, a similar habitat in southern Africa. The miombo’s infertile soils and tsetse fly infestations repel agriculturalists, whereas the Cerrado can be farmed for commercial crops after some soil modification. It has become the world’s largest producer of soybeans and beef and soon will be a major producer of sugarcane. The Cerrado has the dubious distinction—along with the previously mentioned Indonesian provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan—of being among the most biologically diverse landscapes being converted most rapidly to agriculture.
This endangered tropical savanna features an unusual trio of rare mammals—the giant anteater, giant armadillo, and maned wolf. Very few tourists travel to Brazil explicitly to see them, even though the Cerrado offers the best chances of a sighting anywhere in the world. The ecotourism value of these species per hectare is far below the return that ranchers receive for beef cattle, soy, and sugarcane. So how do these rare species, along with jaguars, pumas, tapirs, and other wide-ranging Cerrado vertebrates, cope with massive land-use change driven by human economics?
Biologists who point out that a number of species can coexist in environmentally friendly cultivated zones have coined the term “countryside biogeography” (“matrix conservation” in Europe) to characterize the study of this phenomenon. This new discipline is essentially the study of which species persist in agricultural landscapes, assuming that interspersed with intensively used farmland are patches of natural habitat. To explore this issue and its relevance to the preservation of rarity, our next stops include Serra da Canastra and Emas National Parks in Brazil, at the edge of an expanding agricultural frontier that threatens to plow under rarity. Here, biologists are using a startling field technique that, along with the global positioning system collars worn by jaguars and pumas in the Peruvian Amazon, could revolutionize the study of rare vertebrates.
Edson shooed us back into the van to pursue the other goal of this outing: to search for the Cerrado’s rare endemic birds. Earlier that morning, he had led us to the Brazilian merganser, an incredibly rare duck that, like the Kirtland’s warbler and the greater one-horned rhinoceros, is an extreme habitat specialist, one that lives only on the fast-moving, clear streams of the upland Cerrado. Contamination from gold mining (now banned) caused the decline of this species. Edson guided us down a canyon to give us a fabulous view of a bird whose entire global population was probably no more than 250 individuals. Mergansers are elegant-looking ducks, but the Brazilian version has a startling profile, accented by its pointy head feathers. This solitary female had chicks perched on her back as she guarded them through their first week of life.