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.