Capuchins, Capybaras, and Cattle

Reports from the Field

By: Robert S. O. Harding

Originally Published in 1991

View PDF

Many Museum members are familiar with the popular “Reports from the Field” lecture program. In an effort to expand the focus of that program and to reach those of you who live far from Philadelphia, this series will examine some of the field research being carried out by the Museum and associated departments at the Univer­sity of Pennsylvania. Robert S.O. Harding is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Penn­sylvania.

For conservationists, a central dilemma is how to preserve species, habitats, and even ecosystems without depriving the people who depend on the land of their ability to make a living from it. Arguments based on preserving natural beauty and saving endangered species rarely convince those whose livelihood is tied to the land, and so it is not surprising that no matter how well funded they may be, conservation efforts are almost never successful in the face of local apathy or concerted opposition.

One solution to this problem is to structure conserva­tion programs so that they provide economic benefits in exchange for the lost earning potential of land no longer available for local use. On the vast central Venezuelan plain known as the llanos, one family has made this approach a key element in their strategy to preserve a part of an ancient ecosystem. Because much of the llanos is flooded for half the year, large-scale agriculture is impractical, and from earliest colonial times raising cattle has been the Ilaneros’ principal occupation (Fig. 1). When the Branger family bought 100 square miles of llanos forty years ago, Hato Piñero was a working cattle ranch much like others in the area. Antonio Julio Branger, the senior member of his generation of the family, immediately imposed strict controls on bunting, deforestation, and burning. Over the years, as other landowners have cleared their few remaining forests to create additional grassland, captured macaws and parrots for the pet trade, and hunted mammals and reptiles alike for their meat and skin, the wildlife at Hato Pifiero has coexisted in relative tranquility with cattle.

As a result, today the ranch contains a wide diversity of birds, mammals, and reptiles. Ornithologists have recorded over 340 species of birds there, ranging from familiar migrants from North America, such as the barn swallow, to the brilliant scarlet macaw, seen everywhere in pairs and sometimes in flocks of 16 or more (Fig. 2). A full spectrum of cats can be found in and near the forests, from jaguars and pumas down to ocelots and jaguar-rundis. Their mammalian prey includes capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, found in large groups either in or near water; both giant and lesser anteaters; and the ubiquitous white-tailed deer. In the rivers and streams that criss-cross and border the ranch are river dolphins, the large Orinoco crocodiles, anacondas, and a robust population of caimans, small alligators that grow as much as six feet long.

While a strong interest in conservation is a necessary precondition for a successful program, it is not sufficient in itself. Antonio Julio Branger has been able to preserve Hato Piñero’s natural patrimony by pursuing several approaches simultaneously. First, protecting the ranch’s wildlife would have been impossible without a produc­tive economic base, and he has managed the cattle production of the ranch in a way that is both efficient and ecologically sound. Sr. Branger introduced and raised purebred zebu cattle from India, Brazil, and elsewhere. Over the years he has stayed current with advances in technology, so that today, for example, all breeding of the prize-winning cattle is done via artificial insemination.

The Brangers also pioneered the importation of a highly nutritious species of African grass, planting it in large paddocks in the central part of the ranch (Fig. 3). This made it possible to move cattle in from the far reaches of the ranch and to use smaller centralized areas more intensively. Because less money was needed for fencing, road maintenance, and transport, significantly more cattle could be supported at a significantly lower cost. More important, from a conservation point of view, cattle were withdrawn from the outlying areas, allowing the native wildlife to thrive without competition. In addition, small companies were set up to market the nutritious grass seed and to sell frozen semen from Pinero’s prize-winning bulls. In short, a strong economic base was maintained that made it possible to continue and even improve the traditional way of life of the local people without sacrificing conservation objectives.

A second major approach toward conservation, in which the wildlife in effect has contributed to the cost of its own protection, began four years ago. At the urging of ornithologists from around the world who were familiar with the unusually large and diverse bird populations of the ranch, Sr. Branger decided to construct a tourist facility to house and feed 22 visitors. Using local artisans and materials that included concrete and tree trunks from nearby forests, a simple but comfortable structure was constructed that blends imperceptibly with the ranch buildings that surround it. Open trucks whose sheet-metal bodies were specially constructed in the ranch’s own workshops now carry visitors to represen­tative habitats, where the wildlife that surrounds them is pointed out and described by expert multilingual guides. Because the tourist operation has been successful and often operates at or near capacity, some visitors have suggested that it be expanded and a swimming pool and other luxuries be added. Sr. Branger, however, is well aware that success in what is now called “ecotourism” can overwhelm the fragile environment that has at­tracted visitors in the first place, and he has stoutly resisted pressures to increase the tourist presence.

In addition to bringing tourists to the llanos as a way of providing financial support for the preservation of Hato.

Cite This Article

Harding, Robert S. O.. "Capuchins, Capybaras, and Cattle." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 3 (November, 1991): -. Accessed April 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to