Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Meeting my friend

I am walking along the River Thames in the South Bank area of London with Carolina Vargas. It’s the week after Christmas, and the place is packed. We’ve been strolling for awhile, listening to buskers play a jazz version of “Jingle Bells,” and then pausing to watch a pair of dancers.

A few minutes later, we’re caught in the middle of a noisy human throng waiting to get into the London Aquarium. Suddenly, Carolina looks up and says, “What is that?” She tilts her head slightly, pointing her ear to the sky. I look at her quizzically, because I can’t hear anything through the din. She smiles and points upward toward a slender tree, the kind you find growing doggedly in the middle of the urban concrete. There is a slight fluttering within its branches.

She’s found an astonishingly tiny bird -- then another, and another. They have a pretty song, and we stand there for a moment enjoying the nature she has plucked out of the human chaos surrounding us. I’m amazed at how incredibly strong her animal-spotting instincts are. I am a photographer, with a photographer’s eye – but this is something altogether different.

These instincts were, of course, honed in the wetland Pantanal region of southwest Brazil as she sought out endangered giant otters for study and observation. If you’re reading this, you probably also know it was there that she took in and raised the orphaned giant otter she named Sancho, after Sancho Panza, a character in Don Quixote. Panza (also spelled pança) means “belly.” Sancho was so named because the infant otter would drink so much milk his belly would swell into a fat little mound.

You all know how that story ends, but I get hits here every day from people wanting to know what happened after that – and what is happening now. I was lucky enough to spend the last week of 2008 with Carolina in London, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in conservation at the University College of London.

London is a long way from the Pantanal, and it is much, much colder. “I don’t think I could survive here for very long,” she laughed one day as we shivered on a train platform in the morning chill. Carolina is a paradox in one respect: she’s completely adept at navigating the bustle of London, but longs for the wilder, bigger spaces of the Pantanal. She is comfortable taking the Tube, but more comfortable rowing a boat on the Salobra River.

The essential adaptability of her character shows in her life here in England. She lives in a small, spare room in Central London decorated by pictures of her family and of Sancho, and shares a kitchen and bathroom with several other women. She manages the intense workload of a graduate program in a second language, yet still has to find the time to devote to a part-time job to meet her school expenses. She’ll spend the summer working on a final project, probably related to giant otters.

Everything she is doing in chilly London this year has a single purpose: to get her back to the Pantanal, and the otters. But money is a constant challenge in wildlife conservation, and probably more so for those who study giant otters. Despite the fact that Sancho has charmed the socks off hordes of people who visited this blog in the last eighteen months, giant otters are not the “charismatic megafauna” that draw money easily, such as polar bears, chimps, whales, or even that more elusive resident of the Pantanal, the jaguar. I am mildly ashamed to admit that Raising Sancho was the first time I’d heard of giant otters. To make matters worse, limited resources in a poor global economy are increasingly being shifted from wildlife conservation to climate change issues.*

One of the things I realized, as Carolina and I talked more and more during my trip to London, is that I’d like to be involved in giant otter conservation through my writing and photography. To that end, I’m hoping to join her in the Pantanal early this summer, to write and photograph a piece on the otters. I may try to get two articles out of it. One would be a more general article, and another would relate to how the interests of the giant otters intersect and diverge with the interests of the local population.

Carolina conducted interviews with local people during her time in the Pantanal to determine their attitudes toward the otters -- information vital to creating policies to manage the relationship between them. There had been some feeling that the otters competed with fishermen for available fish. (A more likely explanation, however, is commercial overfishing.) Fortunately, some of the local people are starting to become aware of the value of ecotourism, and they understand the otters have a place in that. Tourists come in increasing numbers to see the otters, and then spend money. This is good for everyone. But the relationship of the otters to the people living in the area is still a matter of concern. Having lived out west, it’s a dynamic I find interesting with respect to almost any conservation issue.

In June, 2008, Carolina returned to the eco-lodge where the events in Raising Sancho took place. Over the course of several days, she spent time on and in the waters where so much of her work with Sancho occurred, catching up with events that have occurred since her departure. She saw the family of ten that made an appearance in the show, and as so often happens, that family has taken over the territory of the otter couple that interacted with Sancho toward the end of his time with Carolina.

Although a number of the local guides think they have seen Sancho in the area, Carolina did not see him while she was there. And so his whereabouts stubbornly remain, like so many questions in life, a mystery.

What is clear, however, is her single-minded dedication to the otters. We spent the last day of 2008 huddled in her room, poring over research papers, drawings, and photographs of the Pantanal and its inhabitants. I learned about otter campsites, dens, and latrines. I had a thousand questions, most of which have no answers yet, because the study of these creatures is still in its infancy. As we watched video footage of the otters on her laptop, an enthusiastic smile spread across her face as the sound of the otters’ vocalizations filled the room.

I found myself hoping, for her own sake and for the beautiful ariranhas, that she gets back there soon.

*When I first started posting on Raising Sancho in 2007, I received several inquiries from people who had seen the show and wanted to know how they could contribute to Carolina’s work or research. I’ve been pestering her for months now to let me link to a PayPal account on this blog, so that those who want to can support her education, and when that concludes, her continuing work with the otters. I know she is uncomfortable with this. When you get to know Carolina, you realize she has a streak of modesty a mile wide that instinctively shrinks from self-promotion. But my argument is that if people want to support her work, they should be able to do so. She remains skeptical of that. So my solution is this. If you want to support her work, e-mail me (or her) and I’ll continue to bug her to create a PayPal account, and if she does, I’ll update the blog and link it.


Anonymous said...

YOU Go Girl! I'm so happy this Site is active, happy and running again.

and all the readers here have one thing in common

We LOVE Sancho!

Take care

Marcia dos Reis said...

Cara Trailhead,

Estou torcendo pelo trabalho da Dra.Carolina. Todos podemos ajudá-la. Sancho está em nossos corações!
Até breve. Marcia.Brasil.

Dave said...

I can't imagin how exciting that must have been. I would love to meet someone out there making a difference in this world with the animal (otter of corse) I love most.
I had the experience of a life time to raise an otter (american river otter) when I was a teenager. The bond between me and the otter was stronger than I have ever had with any other wild animal and most pets I have had. It was a very special time in my life.

Rock on Sancho!

Trailhead said...

Dave, tell us more, please! We love stories like that around here.

The London trip was incredibly exciting. Carolina's very cool, and tough, and I'm so glad to know her.

Dave said...

I was about 13 or 14 when my otter turned up behind my house. We lived on a small river down in Florida. The otter my mom named Samba was alittle older than Sancho. His mother had been killed by something, it looked like maybe a boat or a gator. He took to my dog (Golden Retriever) like it was his mother. The two where always together they would meet me at the bus stop in the afternoons and we would play and fish most days. I didn't have the knowledge of Carolina to help him get back to being on his own. So he would mostly just sit lay next to me while I fished for his food.
To me otters have the best outlook on things they are always playing and socializing with there family and friends. He could sence if I was stressed when I would get off the bus from school (everybody knows middle school can be a stressful place) and he would always do something funny or make weird noises and before I knew it whatever had happed that day was long forgottin. Alittle like Sancho's story mine does not have the best ending. One day Samba was in the garage under my fathers car and he was running late to work or something and he was trying to get Samba to come out (my father and Samba did spend alot of time together so Samba did not know him that well) so he reached under his car to pull Samba out and grabbed him by the tail and Samba bit him. It was not a bad bit I asked my dad and he said it didn't even draw blood but like any caring parent he was concerned and he called the local wildlife department.
Thats the sad part like Sancho's story. Here is the nice ending many years later with what would later become my wife, we where at Seaworld and I was telling my to be wife that a had raised in otter for about a year just like the one in show we where watching. I also told her that the local wildlife department didn't have the right habitat ect to keep my otter so they gave him to Seaworld. So she pressured me to go ask after the show if he was still around. So I did knowing that the likelyhood was very slim. But I did knowing my soon to be wife would not let me off the hook if I didn't. I walked up to the trainer after the show and asked if they had an otter named Samba he said no, "I know it" is what I was thinking. The trainer asked why I told him my story and where I was from and how long ago it was. He told me that was really weird because they have an otter that came from the same area I lived same age as Samba would have been ect... But his name was Otis. He asked me if I would like to see him, Ofcorse I said yes so me and my wife went behind stage to the otter habitat. I had no idea they had as many otters as they did there must have been 10-12 otters of all different types and before we even got up to the habitat the guy was going to show us I pointed out Samba and he saw me. He was standing up tall at the back of his little river area and he ran up to the front wall so I could see him. The trainer laughed and said so you do know Otis. I talked with the trainer for quite some time then and he told me that I answered alot of the question he and the other trainers had as to why Samba was the way he was. They told me he was by far the oldest otter they had but still the fastest out of the water he said that he runs more like a dog than the others and that it now make sences being that my dog and him where like a Mother - son relationship.
So I am holding out hope that one day Sancho and Carolina will be reunited like me and Samba where.

Trailhead said...

Dave, that's an incredible story. Can I put it in a post of its own?

Dave said...

Sure! That would be great. Sorry I am such a bad writer. Grammer was never my strong suit.

Trailhead said...

Dave, no worries. Doesn't bother me in the slightest -- I think your story shines through beautifully. Thanks for letting me post it.

Dave said...

Where will it be posted on here? Do you write for a living you have qiute a tanlent.

Trailhead said...

It's posted on the top now.

Do you write for a living

I'm working on it. ;)

Dave said...

Has Caroline let you set up a paypal account to go to help her work and studies yet?

Trailhead said...

Hi, Dave! Sorry I'm so late in commenting. I check this blog periodically but I sometimes overlook the recent comments accidentally. Nope, we haven't yet gotten to that. She recently emailed after spending a lot of time finishing her dissertation in London, so maybe we can talk about it again.

Just fyi, I'm blogging here now, if you want a more reliable place to reach me.

Tanya said...

Hi, It's 2011, this is the first time I have seen the show on Sancho and Dr. Carolina. I found myself smiling, laughing and simply being filled with joy watching Sancho and Carolina interact. Sancho is absolutely adorable, funny, smart, awnry and so much more. Than, the end came and I was bawling my eyes out, as I am sure everyone else who has watched and will watch the show has. I have always been an animal lover, but there are a few stories that really take a stab at my heart. God, I hope and pray Sancho is living happily with his otter wife and little otter cubs, swimming and enjoying life as he did while being with Carolina. If anyone has found out anything new about Sancho, would you please post an update and if Dr. Carolina is accepting contributions to her research now, would you please let me know that as well? Thank you so much!

Laura May said...

I saw the BBC documentary about Carolina and Sancho last night for the first time in the U.K. Like others I feel real grief and heartache over the disappearance of Sancho. Carolina and Sancho were so very beautiful to watch. I've been googling updates and information all night but nothing seems to be posted later than 2008. Has there been any update in the years that have followed up until now?