Do go chasing waterfalls

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As Jeff Goldblum famously says in Jurassic Park, ‘life finds a way.’ As Tai Strietman explores some inhospitable habitats, he realises how true that is.

Sometimes you look at a habitat and think ‘fish would hate this place.’ You’d probably be wrong and your assumption might be based on our very human perspective of the natural world; the spot may be muddy, murky, extremely fast flowing, terribly loud due to crashing water, full of detritus — there are so many things that we might assume make somewhere uncomfortable to live, but for fish, it might just be the perfect place to call home.

A trip to a fast-flowing river in Central-West Brazil, led by catfish expert Luiz Tencatt, saw me encounter just such a habitat, although first we had a long drive ahead of us. After heading north from Campo Grande, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, we spent several days exploring the region around the town of Coxim, home
to the famous Black Neon Tetra, Hyphessobrycon herbertaxelrodi. On our last day, Luiz took us to a ‘secret spot’ east of the town where he had been conducting research and collections with his team from the local university, but which was apparently unknown to the public. 

To get there, we drove for hours through great oceans of soy stretching to the horizon and beyond, broken every now and then by wide plantations of eucalyptus, sterile growth destined to become paper and charcoal. Here are there, tiny islands of indigenous forest remained, their tall trees and dense undergrowth lapped at by the waves of monoculture crops. 

The entire region was formerly a dense patchwork of woodlands and savannah, with corridor forests once running alongside waterways now choked with pesticides and fertiliser runoff, and cleared of any accompanying trees. 

The wrong greenery

Soy is used in many food products and is, ironically, a critical ingredient in many vegan foods. Of course, there are alternatives to soy and many vegans actively search for them, but I found myself wondering if the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mega-agricultural industry of soy was laughing behind the backs of those hoping to rescue the natural world and be ethical by making dietary choices to achieve this. In terms of biodiversity, put simply, there was none. We saw only one species, the Giant Rhea, a flightless bird like an Emu. They are one of the few beneficiaries of agriculture, to an extent, as they move in bands picking up seeds from the tilled earth. Usually on long drives, one would have to keep an eye out for crossing armadillos, crab-eating foxes, ocelots, snakes, large lizards, tortoises, rodents, deer and Giant and Southern anteaters. We saw none of these. Even the usual avian scavengers that soared above or sat by the side of the highway were absent, there was no roadkill to eat because almost nothing could live here anyway. 
While looking out across the sea  of monotonous green with its small islands of trees dotted here and there, I reflected that the reason I was so upset by the scene was because I knew what it should look like. I have explored areas where such cerrado (savannah and dry forest) habitat is intact. Even within the name of the state were the clues as to what once was: ‘Mato Grosso’ meaning ‘thick woods.’ I asked my friend Dr. Fernando Carvalho, an ichthyologist and natural scientist with an intimate knowledge of the region’s history and biology, how long ago this landscape was transformed. 
 “A hundred years?” I asked. “Oh no, probably in the last 30-40 years” he replied. 

Something hit me in that moment. The quaint and pleasant landscape of the English countryside is, in fact, almost no different from the oceans of soy I was seeing here. The difference was time. Agriculture in the UK has seen the destruction of natural habitats and their conversion into crops and grazing land take place over thousands of years. The ‘real’ landscapes are long gone and what we see and imagine to be a natural idyl is a totally transformed and human landscape. When we look at the bare, dramatic, and to us iconic slopes of the Scottish Highlands, we are not seeing the forests that once covered them, now kept down and unable to return due to sheep grazing and grouse-shooting estate management. 

Unlike Brazil however, there are some causes for hope; there is more forest in the UK now than there was in medieval times, although the monoculture strategy of the Forestry Commission leaves much to be desired.

Read the rest of the feature in the April issue, available to read instantly on our digital edition HERE  or purchase the print edition HERE
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