Last week I published five of my top six wildlife encounters during my recent Brazil photo tour. Here’s the number one moment from the trip.
One afternoon, we left our lodge in Brazil’s southern Amazon to explore the Cristalino River. On the docket? Anything from caimans to monkeys to otters to macaws. We had already seen a nice variety of species, including several birds and some mammals I’d never encountered before.
We’d barely gone 100 yards from the dock when suddenly our boat was turning around.
I looked back at our guide from the lodge who was manning the motor. In stilted English he mumbled, “giant armadillo.”
I figured he was joking at first. But then I thought, “why would anyone joke about a giant armadillo?” If someone’s going to tease us about a rare wildlife sighting, they’d mention a Harpy eagle, or black jaguar… some big name prize that we always joke we expect to see on trips like this. If anything, the giant armadillo was too obscure to joke about… and that’s when I knew he was serious.
Why was it a big deal? Well, the giant armadillo may not technically be endangered (it’s listed as “Vulnerable” by IUCN), and it’s found over a large swath of South America. But IUCN notes that the population is declining and the species is “rare where it occurs.” The fact is that people almost never see them. If they do it’s usually at night (the majority of images found online are taken at night, or feature captive animals). The only photos I’d ever seen during my travels were from trail cam footage recorded by scientists tracking jungle cats.
You never hear about giant armadillo sightings because they’re nocturnal, live in largely-inaccessible environments, and have wide territories. Unlike other “rare” creatures like the snow leopard, wolverine or Harpy eagle, there’s no reliable place to go see a giant armadillo in the wild.
So you can understand why I was getting antsy as we sped back down the river. As it turned out, we didn’t have far to go. It was only another 200-300 yards going the other direction from the lodge when we slowed. We approached the far bank and… whoa, there it was!
The armored, prehistoric-looking insectivore—the size of a medium dog—was waddling up the bank and into the forest. The only question was whether we could move quickly enough to catch up to it.
It turned out we didn’t really have to. As our boat pulled up, we saw the armadillo walk up into the forest, passing within a foot of the people that had spotted it and radioed the sighting in. My clients shuffled out of the boat at my urging, and I hastily swapped lenses, ditching the long 600mm for my 100-400mm zoom while simultaneously pocketing my 24-70mm and grabbing my flash.
We crested the hill and watched as the giant shuffled right down the trail. We followed slowly at a distance. I made eye contact with my guide Fred (who was as excited as I was) to see if we could possibly walk through the forest to find a better angle than the butt shots we were being treated to. And that’s when the armadillo did two glorious things:
That’s right. One of South America’s most elusive mammals decided to model for us. My clients were bunched in front of me, but I was able to stand on a log to shoot over them and get my own shots, like the one above. I shot with and without flash to hedge my bets in the dark environment. The armadillo continued to pose.
A gap opened up at the front of the group, allowing me to slither through and lay on my belly so I wasn’t obstructing anyone’s view. To my amazement, the giant armadillo continued to stay put.
This is a remarkable creature. Not only is it big—adults usually reach 70-80 pounds and have been recorded at over 100 pounds in the wild—it also has the most teeth of any land mammal (up to 100… remarkable given that it’s primarily an insectivore), and proportionally the longest claws of any mammal.
In case you’re wondering, that’s a leaf on its back, not an antenna. This was not a tracked or radio-controlled animal! 😉
We had such a long session—the entire encounter lasted nearly ten minutes—that we were able to shoot everything from wide shots to close-ups. Clients were comparing armadillo snot bubbles on their LCD screens.
Eventually, the giant armadillo stood up and began walking down the trail away from us again.
By this time I asked Fred to hustle back to the lodge to rouse the one client who had stayed behind due to an illness. This was one sighting you couldn’t pass up even if you were under the weather. By the time they returned, our armadillo had walked off the trail and into the jungle… but they still had a sighting because there were two giant armadillos.
Indeed, the original group had radioed that they saw two, and we believe it to have been a courting pair. The one that posed for us was a male (there’s more than one reason it’s called the giant armadillo… trust me).
Afterward, my clients sensed my excitement and asked about it. They didn’t know the background on this large, odd-looking critter. I declared that this was probably the most elusive mammal they would ever seen in their lifetime, but it wasn’t until I asked Fred to tell them how many giant armadillos he had seen in his twenty-plus years of guiding that it really hit home. This was Fred’s first (quickly followed by his second when he saw the other one!).
It will most likely go down as the rarest mammal sighting I’ll ever have. I’ve seen three snow leopards in the Himalayas, I’ve photographed aardvarks in South Africa, and I’ve sat for days in a lek with the Marvelous spatuletail in Peru, but I went to those areas knowing I’d have a decent chance of finding those species. The giant armadillo is something I never thought I’d ever see, much less during the day. That’s why it’s number one on my list.
Want to join me on my next Brazil adventure? I’ll be returning in 2020 to both the Amazon and the Pantanal. Learn more here and get on the waiting list now.