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Branded for a balanced biosphere.

We were flying toward Hato Pinero, an hacienda located between the plains of the Orinoco in central Venezuela and the Caribbean mountain range to the north. From the airplane we looked down over the magical hill country of El Baul, where prehistoric slopes rise to 600 meters above sea level, breaking the monotony of the vast plains.

When the light aircraft landed an hour later on a neatly tended strip, we had arrived at what is surely one of the few spots where livestock, nature conservancy and biotourism are harmoniously joined - a feat due to the energy of one man, Antonio Julio Branger, owner and visionary of Hato Pinero.

The Pinero expanse, 80,000 hectares in all, is part of a large flat region, known as the llanos, which occupies more than 300,000 square kilometers of Venezuelan territory and stretches a good way into Colombia. The lowest portions of these savannas were once a sea that linked the two oceans before the Andes came into being.

In the austere natural setting of the plains, all greenery disappears when the rains stop. With only two seasons, dry (November to March) and rainy (May to October), conditions change brusquely from desert heat and baked earth to violent downpours and "rain in buckets." Rivers that were down to a fine trickle swell torrentially. They burst out of their beds as if trying to create a new inland sea. All of nature suddenly enters a new cycle. For animals that survived the drought, thanks to a few isolated water holes, the water everywhere means renewed freedom.

The abrupt change, the stark, transitionless climate, shape the character of the people living on the plains. To a llanero like Antonio Branger it is a land of dreams and challenges. It was the llaneros who made possible victory in the war of independence against Spain in the early 19th century. Nobody could move faster than these plainsmen on horseback, or bear up as well under the harsh climate, or survive in a wilderness inhabited by jaguars and pumas.

Antonio was 15 years old when he crossed the wild, trackless plains between Valencia and what would be his future hato or ranch. Travelling on his mule Medalla, a tireless companion always alert to danger, he rounded up livestock along the way. It took him more than ten days to cross that immense, desolate terrain.

In his wanderings Antonio dreamed of finding a virgin land that would grow with him and adapt to his plans. When he was still a young boy, he inherited the estate of Hato Paraima from his father, and soon thereafter found what he was searching for nearby: an abandoned ranch called Pinero. Although he bought the ranch and settle there, he did not give up his life as an adventurer and hunter.

Antonio's enthusiasm for Pinero was inexhaustible. He began by restoring and enlarging the ranch. He marked the boundaries of his land, and for the first time there was barbed wire on the plain. Then he rounded up what little livestock remained scattered about the ranch, mostly descendants of the longhorn cattle brought by the first Spanish settlers. These animals could be identified by their unique butterfly-shaped brand, which Antonio has preserved unchanged. Today the property is also known as Hato de la Mariposa, The Butterfly Ranch.

Toward 1951 Antonio introduced purebred strains of bos indicus, cattle from India: Nelore, Gir, Gujarat and Sahiwal. In time, through complex and sophisticated insemination techniques, he succeeded in developing a new breed, a cross between the Indian strains and the European Holstein, Swiss, Gelvieh and Red Angus. This unique breed adapted well to the tropics and yielded optimum quantities of milk and meat.

From the beginning it was hard work. The day started at three a.m. under the morning star, Venus, whose size and luminosity is impressive on those vast plains. Antonio gives entertaining accounts of the joyful early days of Pinero: great feasts, music, and socializing with the old families of the area who afterwards moved away to Valencia or Caracas. He never lost his passion for cattle, and to this day he can be seen out with his men every morning looking after numerous healthy-looking animals, each one of which he seems to know individually.

The local fauna, however, was decimated from the outset. In summer, people came from all over the plains to hunt jaguar and the ranch was often referred to as La Cazadora, the huntress. Hunting was the passion of the men of the plains, the measure of their strength and their cunning. Although Antonio was an expert hunter himself, the destruction of wildlife on his land began to disturb him. Finally he put aside his guns and forbade any hunting on the property. Many continued to kill the animals surreptitiously, until he took the drastic action of confiscating all weapons, educating his men to a new conviction: men and animals could coexist.

To reestablished the primary balance and save the biological chain, he had to allow the animals to live freely in their habitat. Today Hato Pinero is home to a great variety of species: 49 mammal, 42 reptile, including the legendary anaconda, and 14 amphibian. Jaquars, pumas, water dogs, peccaries, tapirs, ocelots, palm bears, and anteaters abound on the estate. However, fish species outnumber any other with 104. They include several types of pirana and a creature that particularly impressed Humboldt, the electric eel (electrophorus electricus).

Antonio managed to combine his stockbreeding effort, which has already produced 20,000 head, with his forest and wildlife conservation program. To avert fire and deforestation he keeps the cattle in smaller areas, where they graze on pastures to which improved seeds have been added at a ratio of one percent to natural growth.

In was not easy to save the local variety of cayman or baba from extinction through commercial exploitation. Fortunately, studies done at Pinero enabled the Ministry of Environment to establish the exact number of reptiles that could be sacrificed annually. Now babas gather in phenomenal numbers at the few water holes in late summer, sunning themselves or asleep buried in mud. Sometimes more than 200 have been counted per hectare.

The capybara (hydrochaeris hydrochaeris) have also been saved from extinction. Troupes of these likeable creatures frolicking by the water are always a cheering sight. The flesh of this largest of all rodents, which can weigh in at some 140 pounds, is highly prized. Antonio's ban on hunting ran into the further problem that this animal is considered the traditional dish during Lent on the plains, the theory being that it is semi-aquatic. To honor tradition without threatening the species, he permits strictly controlled hunting of the capybara.

The entire Hato is a great observation site for birds, whose over 342 different species serve as the best indicators of ecosystem equilibrium. The Hato, in fact, boats 3.79 percent of the bird species of the planet. Curlews (vanellus chilensis) dart about on banks covered with the blue and purple flowers of the bora (ichornia crassipes). Nearby are cormorants (phalacrocorax olivaceus) and many types of heron, including the gray herons with their slender, slanting necks, and the great white heron. Several species of duck take possession of the ponds, while sparrow hawks and eagles fly overhead in search of prey. Large scarlet-throated storks, dainty American ibises and scarlet ibises (eudocimus ruber) are among the other exotic species inhabiting the estate.

Numerous along the creeks of the Hato are partridge-like chenchenas (ophistocomus hoazin), probably related to the cuckoo bird. They are remarkable because of the peculiarities of their young, who climb trees with the aid of two small claws on their wings. Four days after they are hatched, they can elude enemies by taking to the water, where they dive and swim underwater as necessary. The claws, as well as the ability to swim, are lost after two or three weeks.

In December a biological research station will be inaugurated at the Hato. It will carry on conservation surveys initiated in 1982 with the visits of members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IRCN), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and national and international organizations and universities. The first project a the station will be a study of the jaguar in the wild, directed by Peter Jackson, chairman of the Cat Specialist Group of the IUCN. Hato Pinero was selected as the most suitable site in all of South America for such research.

Recently Antonio went to work on another dream: the promotion of ecological tourism. Bio Tours is the name of its embodiment, a means to promote, in Venezuela, a tourism that not only respects nature, but puts the tourist back in touch with himself. With his profound knowledge of the plains and his passion for the authentic, Antonio had the inn for travelers built with techniques and materials going back to colonial times, without sacrificing modern comforts. Walls of plaited cane and mud draw the visitor indoors to cook spaces and patios full of plants. The beautifully carved wooden doors and Andalusian windows were obtained from the small, nearby town of Calabozo.

Roads within the boundaries of the Hato permit visitors to approach sites chosen for exploration in vehicles adapted for difficult terrain. No fewer than fourteen completely different routes can be taken in the Hato. They are identified by sonorous names like Caujaral, Majarey and Escorzonera.

Don Antonio Branger has achieved his aims. Nature's balance has been restored at the Hato, and its doors are open. The future lies in organizing this new mode of tourism in other Venezuelan ecosystems such as the upper Orinoco, the Andes, the great savanna and the Carribean.

So that the Hato should not be an island unto itself, and in the hope that other ranch-owners will catch on to the idea of protecting wildlife, Antonio is diligently promoting environmental awareness. This September, in recognition of his contribution to the field, Antonio was awarded the prestigious El Gran Cordon de Andres Bello by Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez. But Antonio will not rest on his laurels. The establishment of the new Branger Foundation is evidence of his unflinching commitment to work in unison with nature for a healthier world.

Parisina Malatesta and Jorge Provenza are a writer/photographer team living in Caracas, Venezuela.
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Author:Malatesta, Parisina; Provenza, Jorge
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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