But the results of our research on the topic were more optimistic than we expected. The article we published in the Journal of Mammalogy in 2007 reported that 130 places on Earth serve as large-mammal refuges and that they support the full roster of big mammals that lived there 500 years ago. These refuges fell into two categories. One category included the most inhospitable places on Earth, places that were too cold, too damp, too dry, too humid, or too remote for humans to develop. This group featured vast regions of Siberia, northern Canada, Alaska, and the Amazon and Congo basins. The other group included a much smaller set of places, including Emas—remnants still afloat in human-dominated landscapes. We made no claims about whether the species survived at carrying capacity in these places—often they were present at much lower numbers or densities than in the past. It was clear, though, that places such as Emas would need intensive management to maintain the rich large-mammal fauna still present.
After lunch and a short drive, we arrived at a soy plantation that bordered the park. We stepped out of the car and into a completely different environment. Walking among the neat rows of soy, I asked Carly how many planters grew soybeans on farms adjacent to Emas. Gauging by my experience with rice cultivation in Nepal, I expected the answer to be in the hundreds. I was off by two orders of magnitude. Carly held up one finger. “This 40,000-hectare ranch is owned by one person. There probably aren’t more than a few landowning entities in this entire area.”
Big soy. It was my first encounter with such a vast expanse of agriculture. The lucrative plants covered the entire landscape. Corn grows here also, and in some parts of the Cerrado cotton is added to the rotation. The soybean is a recent addition to the farming economy of the region. Glycine max, as it is known to science, might have been more aptly named Glycine “min” until a few years ago, when crop and soil scientists figured out that the addition of lime to reduce soil acidity enabled the conversion of pasture and cattle ranching to soybean cultivation. As a consequence, the nitrogen-fixing legume began to prosper in areas where it could not grow before.
Brazilian farming practices changed almost overnight. Brazil has become the second-largest exporter of soy, after the United States. Much of it is exported as soybean oil, the most widely used cooking oil, or soybean meal, which has many uses but largely is fed to cattle. Producing high yields requires extensive use of fungicides, which are applied every few days. The corn grown in the next pasture was subjected to heavy doses of Roundup to control weeds. Pesticide use was rampant. White-tailed hawks and some kestrels flew by, but raptors and other birds were few. The agrotoxins may have already thinned their numbers. Perhaps a rumored decline in the bird fauna here, however anecdotal, is an early warning signal as to what lies ahead for surviving Cerrado wildlife.
That night at dinner with Leandro Silveira, Anah, and their team of researchers, the conversation focused on big mammals, beginning with rhinos and elephants in Asia and Africa. “Our biggest herbivore in Brazil is now the tapir,” Leandro noted, “small by megaherbivore standards.” A tapir is about the size of a large pony, with a pig-shaped body. Leandro was pointing out one of the great anomalies of nature. Even though there are more mammal species in South America than anywhere else, large mammals are even rarer here than in other parts of the world. In truth, most South American mammals can fit inside a shoe box. Of course, there are important exceptions that are considerably bigger—the larger primates, peccaries, capybaras and other large rodents, deer, and larger predators—all of which are well documented as having a major impact on their surroundings.