The hunt for the giant otter

They’re large and they hunt in packs, so giant otters ought to be easy to study. Sophie Stafford put her tracking skills to the test in Brazil’s Pantanal.

Giant otter article
You should also be able to spot, from a moving boat, an otter spraint 8m away on a bank, under a tangle of undergrowth. You cannot flinch at handling faeces and other unattractive substances, and you must have a blissful disregard for tick bites, bee stings and other irritants. (One of the teams accidentally beached their canoe on a bee’s nest with predictable results. Ellen Wang never mentioned that potential bio-hazard!) You have to be strong enough to paddle 15km a day and still have the energy to carry your canoe overland to explore oxbow lakes. Plus you need the patience and dedication of a saint – after two weeks of searching, I never did see a giant.
  • Focal observations
    Miguel is highly skilled at detecting an otter whisker or a ripple in the water at a distance. The team has so far identified 46 giant otters from 11 family groups using throat markings.
  • Diet analysis
    The researchers regularly collect otter spraints (scats), note the GPS location, label them and preserve them in plastic bags.
  • Otter activity
    This is monitored from canoes and carefully chosen locations on land. The researchers look out for active otters as well as their dens, footprints, resting sites, tracks and spraints. 
  • The spraint samples
    These are washed through a fine mesh sieve. The remaining fragments are dried and separated into food categories – scales, bones, hair, feathers and shells. They are identified at a museum.
The Pantanal, Brazil, is a vast wilderness area known for its abundant, diverse and visible wildlife. The flat, open landscape consists of a range of tropical forest and savanna habitats, a complex river network and the largest expanse of tropical wetland in the world. The region has supported cattle ranching for over 200 years and has become a popular wildlife-watching destination.
  • BA flies daily from Heathrow to São Paulo. TAM Brazilian Airways operates three flights a day from São Paulo to Campo Grande.
Where to stay 
  • Recanto Barra Mansa This lodge on the Rio Negro combines cattle ranching with a well-developed ecotourism project. 
  • Fazenda Rio Negro Also on the Rio Negro, this 7,700 hectare cattle farm is owned by Conservation International. Today, it is a model for successfully combining conservation and ecotourism. 
  • Barranco Alto Eco-Lodge A friendly and comfortable farm with excellent wildlife sightings. 
  • Pousada Mangabal A working cattle ranch in an area known for its great wildlife.  
  • Refugio Ecologico Caiman Home to a pioneering ecotourism project and headquarters of the Blue Macaw (Conservation) Project. 


To meet Sophie and the rest of the BBC Wildlife team, click here.


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