Food glorious food

Do you eat because you’re hungry?

Are you a social eater, or a ‘foodie’?

Or, like millions of others, do you have a more complex, sometimes destructive, relationship with your food?

I’ve never felt hungry in my life.  Food is everywhere.  I take it for granted. I abuse it.  I’ve therefore decided to go on the ‘Lighter Life’ diet.  A maximum of 500 calories a day, made up of two shakes and two bars. Goodness knows why I’ve decided to do this ludicrous diet during one of the largest feeding frenzies on earth.

Geographic spread of the Pantanal flood plains.

I’m in the Brazilian Pantanal during the dry season, where reduced water means a concentration of food, and a great feast for birds and caiman, giant otter and capybara, tapir, giant anteater and jaguar. Extending from the Amazon, the Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, with flood plains bigger than England and Wales combined.  The Pantanal is home to the largest diversity of fish on the planet with 650 varieties compared to 500 across Europe.

From April to November the dry season shrinks the Pantanal by roughly 80%, intensifying competition for food.

A hungry eater?

Losing the fight for food during the Pantanal’s dry season could result in hunger and starvation when the rains tip the balance back in favour of aquatic life.  There is therefore intense competition between the 1,000 or so bird varieties across the Pantanal.

Many compete for fish,

with some a little greedier than others.

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This can turn into an intense struggle for survival.

Fight for food between a black-collared hawk (left) and road-side hawk (right).

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Lots of birds also compete for nuts, seeds and fruit,

while some prefer insects.

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Great Kiskadee (and termite)
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Road-side hawk and cicada

Some birds are masters at just waiting for their opportunity to stave off hunger.

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Ten million Yacare caiman share the waterways with these birds, making the Pantanal the highest concentration of crocodilians in the World.  Crawling along the floor watching their beady eyes, pretending to be brave but knowing that at the first twitch I’m off, is terrifying.  This lone hunter watches for hours, conserving its energy, only taking the food it really needs to survive.

Brazilian wasp (and Caiman).

It waits; and waits.  Letting food go by.

Until.

It feeds.

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Caiman and catfish

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Grilled fish.

It’s dinner time back at camp and after watching animals eat all afternoon I’m absolutely starving.  My stomach is rumbling. I’m salivating.  Strawberry flavour food pack. Soya protein. Guar gum. Xanthan gum. Carboxylate methyl cellulose. The absolute agony of ‘extreme dieting’. It’s been five hours.

After a further week of dieting I’ve moved into ketosis – burning fat. It’s a constant struggle to get back to animal basics. Listening to my body, eating only when hungry and stopping when not. This sounds simple. It’s not. A life-time of emotional, stress and boredom eating, of completely ignoring my own physical needs, is hard to break. I’m starting to build coping strategies. The regularity of only eating every four hours, of not buying ‘real’ food but having sachets and bars. This is the bed-rock of taking back control in a constantly shifting world of emotions, thoughts and hormones. I also need to drink lots and lots of water if I’m to avoid headaches and dizziness.

A social eater?

Many species need to cooperate in order to survive.  For these animals food often also strengthens social bonds.

The Pantanal is the last strong-hold of the giant river otter. The size of a Labrador, there are less that 5,000 of this endangered species in the wild. This social, cooperative animal lives in groups of ten and is dominated by one mating couple. The whole group care for their pups, protect the territory, hunt and share food.

Giant river otter

Extremely territorial, the river otter work together to defend their preferred feeding grounds.

With appropriate vocalisations.

An efficient pack-hunter,

An effective hunter.
Giant river otter and catfish.
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River otter and electric eel.

the river otter ‘sometimes’ share food.

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Another massively social creature, Capybara, are everywhere! The largest rodent in the world, they live in groups of 10–20 individuals. These amazing mammals are led by four dominate males, which build social bonds, provide leadership and seek group consensus!

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Male Capybara.

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Within a week, the young can eat grass, but continue to suckle—from any female in the group—until weaned around 16 weeks.  Again building a strong bond amongst their social group.

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Suckling Capybara
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Meanwhile…

Food is also central to our own socialising, ritualistic bonding and entertainment. I’m struggling to stay connected. Over the last week or so I’ve tried eating just before dinner and then sitting at the table drinking water while everyone eats. And eats. And eats. And talks about food. And share stories of wildlife. Eating. I might be becoming slightly obsessed.

Crispy peanut flavour bar, ‘full of goodness’. Tapioca starch. Polydextrose. Rice syrup. Trimangnesium citrate.  More generally, and beyond this trip, there is a fascination about this diet. It’s a bit like new parents and their comfort talking about bodily functions. Normally completely taboo subjects become the topic of discussion. How much have I eaten? What have I eaten? How much do I weigh? Poo.

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There is the majority, including the amazing people sharing this Brazilian adventure, that express their strongly held views – how I’m fine as I am, how the diet is inadvisable – and then support and encourage me despite any reservations.

There are others that find my diet intimidating, maybe projecting their own insecurities, that respond with strong, disproportionate criticism. When this happens I’m shaken by people feeling they can tell me what to eat. Trying to take control of my most basic function.

This feels really uncomfortable. The temptation is to withdraw. Avoid meals. Avoid meeting people for drinks. It’s just easier. Less tempting. Less awkward. Less confrontational. Although this can also bring loneliness and isolation and a sense from others that I’m aloof and anti-social. A self-imposed exile.

A destructive eater?

One hundred and fifty years of clearance and munching cattle has made the Pantanal feel very familiar. A working farm or a gentle stroll across the closely cropped lawns of a classic English summer garden.

With jaguar hiding in the bushes.

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A romanticised garden of Eden. An easy coexistence between human and non-human animals, the Pantanal has provided an environment of last resort for many endangered species including the Brazilian Tapir, Giant Anteater and soon to be endangered, Jaguar.

The Brazilian Tapir eat from planted mango groves and can weigh over 50 stone – I’m DEFINITELY staying off mango.

Tapir and not-yet-ripe mango.

Whereas the seven feet long, giant anteater take advantage of ploughed fields to find ants and termites.

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Giant anteater

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A call on the radio, a 65 kilometres an hour bond-like zoom in a speedboat through narrow, bendy streams.

dsc_7851Then stillness.

Waiting and waiting in 110 degree heat trying to spot a jaguar amongst the bushes from the largest jaguar population in the world.

The apex predator, regulating the populations of all other animals, the jaguar has the most powerful jaws of any cat, biting directly through the skull of its prey to deliver a fatal bite to the brain. I’m slightly in awe.

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But look a little closer. There are signs that a new apex predator is becoming more desperate in its own search for food.

Approximately 99% of the land in the Pantanal is used for agriculture and ranching. There are 2500 fazendas and up to eight million cattle. The Pantanal is threatened from efforts to clear areas for cattle ranching, rice and soy plantations, agricultural pesticides and mercury from gold mining, along with heavy siltation that destroys fish and aquatic plants.

Bush fires can rage for days, potentially tipping the balance in this fragile environment.

Bush fires used to clear land for ranching rage for days.
Bush fires used to clear land for ranching rage for days.

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According to the Living Planet Index, by 2020 30% of animal species that existed in 1970 could be extinct. The biggest cause of extinction is the destruction of wild areas for farming and logging: the majority of the Earth’s land area has now been impacted by humans, with just 15% protected for nature. Through prudent use, the average Westerner can save 45 gallons of water a day. It takes 460 gallons to make one burger.

It clearly isn’t sustainable that we pretend that we live in an isolated bubble, that we are not part of a greater order of human and non-human animals.  Neither is a diet where I also live in my own little bubble, minimising contact with other people.

Maybe I should try the ‘Shorter Life’ diet. Forty roll-ups and two glasses of red a day.

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