Capybara smuggling

John was the Head of the Department of Applied Zoology at the University College of North Wales when I was studying for my MSc in Animal Parasitology in Bangor. He was a very kind and patient man that supervised and supported my Dissertation. During that time we met often to discuss my work.

We talked a lot about South America and Uruguay as he was curious to learn about my part of the world. It was during one of these conversations that he expressed his interest on capybaras as he was amazed at the existence of such a giant rodent. He was so keen on these animals that he asked me if I could get him a skull! I took note of his wish but I did not have much chance of getting one for him, away from South America. Even if I would have been there, capybaras are rare in Uruguay.

After a few days I remembered my uncle Lito in Salto, Uruguay. Years earlier he had studied architecture somewhere in the UK. When he came back to Uruguay, he became a very successful architect as he brought in new designs and techniques. His main hobby was to navigate the Uruguay River. With his wife they traveled extensively not only up and down the main river for many years and they also explored a number of its tributaries. It was during one of these trips that they discovered a beautiful spot up the Guaviyú River, one of the tributaries, south of Salto.

He got permission from the ranch owners to camp in the spot at will and he spent a lot of his annual holiday time camping in the woodlands. After retirement he prolongued the time he spent there to a couple of months every year. Luckily I had a chance of joining him at the camp a couple of times and we enjoyed fishing and walking while talking about several issues. I recalled that he once mentioned that there were capybaras in the area.

jc and capyb in hole

The Bushsnob waiting for his turn to enter the bathtub.

So, as uncle Lito offered my only chance for a capybara, I decided to write to him asking if he knew whether it would be possible to get one. I knew that it was a very long shot and I soon forgot all about it. I was really busy writing and typing my work (no word-processing computers in those days!) and damaging my back in the process.

While studying at Bangor, we stayed at Llanfairfechan, a small village nearby where, luckily, we have found Elsie, a great landlady that adopted us as family. So I was rather concerned when one day the usually placid Elsie came in a very agitated state to tell me that the Postman had brought something for me that she thought required my presence!

Curious, I followed her downstairs. The postman had an unwrapped brown paper in his hands that I could see had been a parcel once upon a time. He then said: “I believe this is for you” and presented me with the remains. “It was open for Customs inspection”he said before leaving.

After thanking him I focused on the open package, It contained a very white skull and a letter and it was definitely addressed to me! As soon as I saw the incisors I immediately recognized the large rodent skull and realized that my uncle Lito had done it and I had John’s dream in my hands!

The letter from uncle Lito explained that, after a few days of receiving my request, he had found a dead capybara while wondering in the woodlands. As this was too good an opportunity to ignore, he had collected the skull for me. Afterwards he had consulted a vet friend who recommended him to clean it by boiling it. This he did until the bone was clean until he judged that it was safe to send it to me!


A capybara skull. Source: Illustrierter Leitfaden der Naturgeschichte des Thierreiches, 1876. Original caption: “Fig. 29. Kopfskelett des Wasserschweines (Hydrochoerus capybara. Erxl.) i obere Schneidezähne, ï untere Schneidezähne.” Translation (partly): “Skull of a capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), i upper inscisor, ï lower incisor”. Originator: Unknown.

I took the skull to John the following day and explained him the situation as well as recommending him to boil it again to be on the safe side. At first he looked at the bone blankly until he realized what it was and then he was extremely surprised and pleased to have it and, for the first time he actually embraced me to thank me, a rare occurrence as physical contact is not usual among British people.

The following day back home I was still typing when the landlady came again to tell me that the postman was at the door again! “What is is this time”, I thought while following her to the door. This was a “deja-vu” as the same man was there! This time he handed over a small sealed plastic bag that, on later inspection, contained the lower jaw! Now the skull was complete and John was even happier when he received the missing part.

I recommended him again to boil it and eventually the complete skull was proudly displayed in his office.

A lucky strike at the Brilliant Waters

View of swamp

We visited the Esteros de Iberá (Yverá in its original Guaraní denomination)[1] a few years back and the idea of returning stayed with us. Taking advantage of the visit of our children during the 2015 season’s holidays we booked a three-night stay at Rincón del Socorro. I quote from their web site (

Rincón del Socorro has 12.000 hectares and is located in the Iberá Wetlands. It has been historically managed as a cattle ranch until 1999 when it was bought by The Conservation Land Trust (CLT), who now dedicates to care for its environment through a group of biologists and veterinarians who develop different restoration and reintroduction programs of species. As a touristic establishment, we provide to our guests a close understanding to the local ecosystem, appreciating the importance each different natural environments and conservation it has“.

The CLT was created in 1992 by Douglas Tompkins to protect wild lands, primarily in Chile and Argentina. It was blatantly obvious that a large investment has taken place not only in the refurbishment of the ranch but also in the general area of the wetlands. The hostel at Rincón del Socorro is managed by a private concession that employs about 40 people, including the guides. We were very fortunate to get “Mingo” as ours as he proved to be a great companion who patiently explained most of the questions we asked and who had no problems in admitting not knowing an answer on the few occasions that he did not.

RdS view cropped

Rincon del Socorro: parking and reception areas.

To reach the place required a long journey of about 750 km from Carmelo, our hometown in Uruguay. Bookings were made about one month before the visit and being this a wet summer I immediately got “cold feet” about the very likely possibility of a rains during our visit planned for 2-5 January. However, there was not much I could do but hope that the usual luck that accompanies us would be with us again.

My concerns were not lessened the day before as 2015 started with heavy rain! A rather desperate last minute check to the weather forecast showed “suns” so hope was somehow maintained. The lucky strike started when getting up very early on the 2nd of January where clear skies greeted us. This magnificent weather stayed with us and we had four beautifully -and even relatively cool- sunny days that enabled us to enjoy the trip to the full and the playing cards and dice we brought with us in case of rain were not remembered. Amazingly, it started raining after we got back to Carmelo and it continued to pour until the 8 January!

During our stay we joined all available activities: animal watching walks and drives, boat trips to lake Iberá as well as a -rather painful to me- horseback ride. All these activities combined allowed us -with the advice of Mingo- to understand the different ecological areas that are found in the wetlands that I will try to briefly describe to you.

A general view of the Ibera wetlands. Capybara coin: Rincon del Socorro; Armadillo: Ibera lagoon.

A general view of the Ibera wetlands. Capybara coin: Rincon del Socorro; Armadillo: Ibera lagoon.

The Iberá Provincial Reserve is a protected area in the northwest of Corrientes Province, northeastern Argentina. The entire area is in the shape of a funnel, with the conical mouth towards the northeast and the stem pointing towards the southwest, ending in the Corriente River. Established on 15 April 1983, with an area of about 13,000 km2 it contains a mix of habitats that I will briefly describe to put the place in context. More information is available in the web, of course.

The lagoons, up to a depth of five metres, and the floating islands are an important feature. The latter are composed of floating organic material where giant bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus) (Totora in Spanish) predominates among others such as yellow laurel (Nectandra angustifolia). These islands determine the shape of the open water while the water circulates underneath towards the Corriente River (the funnel’s stem). The latter with its sandy banks maintains a constant and slow flow that will eventually flow into the mighty Paraná River. Its very wet and sandy banks do not allow for the growth of large vegetation.

A Yacare (Caiman yacare) on a floating island at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

A Yacare (Caiman yacare) on a floating island at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

There are large areas of swamps and reeds, particularly towards the northeast where the water has filled depressions and accumulated over time, creating large flooded grasslands and reed beds mainly formed by piripiri (Cyperus giganteus) a kind of papyrus and giant bulrush that rarely dry out. In other areas grass fields made up predominantly of red grass (Andropogon lateralis) predominate and walking on it reveals small depressions filled with water. These micro lagoons enable the development of truly small aquatic systems. Finally, there is another grassland system in the sand hills of North and West Iberá where scattered patches of forest and/or little round blue lagoons interrupt the grasslands known locally as “espartillares”.

A Capybara in its private bathtub.

A Capybara in its private bathtub. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

Palms occur in the form of groves of the small Dwarf Yatay Palm (Butia paraguayensis) that grow in the higher parts of the area as well as Caranday Wax Palm (Copernicia alba) that grow in sand and clay. As these palms are water tolerant they can survive floods and form dense forests that occupy areas where most land and aquatic plants do not survive.

There are patches of wet forest that have a limited lifespan as conditions are not ideal for the growth of the common forest trees such as queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), the gum tree (Sebastiania brasiliensis), the ombú tree (Phytolacca dioica), the pacara earpod tree (Enterolobium contortisiliquum), and the lapacho tree (Tabebuia spp.). Drier areas are populated by Ñandubay trees (Prosopis affinis), with their medium height and flattish canopies creating dry forests in the savannah.

A group of Southern Screamers at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio de Castro.

A group of Southern Screamers at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

The place is also an animal paradise with many interesting and rather unique species. Abundant southern screamers (Chauna torquata) were spotted while living up to their names and screaming in alarm at our approach while the rheas (Rhea americana) grazed undisturbed.

Rhea and chicks feeding. Picture by Mariana Terra.

Rhea and chicks feeding. Picture by Mariana Terra.

The estimated number of bird species identified in the wetlands is nearly 400 and therefore there are too many to mention. However, the pair of Jabiru storks (Jabiru mycteria) nesting near the ranch were simply spectacular.

A pair of Jabiru Storks on their nest. Picture by Mariana Terra.

A pair of Jabiru Storks on their nest. Picture by Mariana Terra.

Taking off... Picture by Mariana Terra.

Taking off… Picture by Mariana Terra.

Taking off and in flight. All three pictures by Mariana Terra.

Taking off and in flight (below). Both pictures by Mariana Terra.

Mariana jabiru flying 2On the other end of the size spectrum (tiny), but not less impressive were the various humming birds as well as the aptly named Strange-tailed Tyrant (Alectrurus risora), spotted too far to capture it on film but that can be seen in:

A Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird (left) and probably a female Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbird at a feeder in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.

A Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird (left) and probably a female Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbird at a feeder in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.

Close-up of the Glittering-Bellied Hummingbird.

Close-up of the Glittering-Bellied Hummingbird.

A Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird (left) and probably a female Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbird at a feeder in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.

Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbirds (perched, left and in flight top right) and a Glittering-Bellied Emerald Hummingbird (flying, right). All Hummingbird pictures by Mariana Terra..

The mammals spotted were mostly rodents. Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) being very abundant both in the swamps as well as in the small lakes we visited. It was interesting to notice that while the latter were rather brown in colour, the ones inhabiting the swamps and grasslands had a reddish tinge as if henna would have been applied to them.

Female Capybara feeding her babies.

Female Capybara feeding her babies. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

Plains Vizcacha (Lagostomus maximus) were also present in numbers, mainly grazing around their burrows and it was very entertaining to see them carrying various objects to their burrows. They are the largest of the Genus and they build elaborate burrows that house successive colonies for generations.

A family of Plains Vizcacha out in the evening.

A family of Plains Vizcacha out in the evening.

Grey (Lycalopex gymnocercus) and Crab Eating foxes (Cerdocyon thous) were seen daily and three Hog-nosed Skunks (Conepatus chinga), a mother and two babies, were seen daily at the ranch’s park, stamping their forelegs in warning when we got too close, failing to get good pictures as they appeared only at dusk. We also saw a family of Black Howler Monkeys (Alouatta caraya) but did not see the rare Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) or the re-introduced Giant Anteater (Mymecophaga tridactyla). However, our disappointment was somehow lessened by enjoying the sight of a Screaming Hairy Armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) standing in its burrow and three Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) walking in the meadows.

Rincon del Socorro: guest accommodation area.

Rincon del Socorro: guest accommodation area.

We were accommodated at the refurbished ranch facilities. The rooms were very comfortable and they were up to the high standards we have enjoyed. All activities and meals were included in the price. The latter were good and the service did not make us wait. We were all very satisfied except for our son who in his early twenties, who during dinner on the first day got small portions of food and only his British education kept him from making the remarks I would have made being in his place! He also stoically tolerated our jokes. He was pleased at breakfast as it was a buffet and he could serve himself the portion size he wanted!

The respite given by the good breakfast ended at lunch where he received the smallest portions again! After that, anticipation regarding his portion size for dinner grew as the day went on and, yes, we were not disappointed as he again got the smaller portion. This made us all laugh loud to the surprise of the other guests and waitresses who did not understand the reason for such a mirth! As the situation repeated itself at all meals, it soon became an expected event and we did not laugh anymore but felt sorry for our son and even contributed from our portions to enlarge his! Well, his mother did anyway…

Finally, during our last dinner it was the time for us to get the surprise as he was somehow rewarded when he was presented with the largest -by far- cheesecake portion of all. He did not leave one crumb as he ate it with a smile in his face!

[1] Iberá means Brilliant Waters.