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January 1999
Hato Pinero: One Solution in a Complicated World

By Lynne E. Miller


Cattle ranching and ecotourism have gotten a lot of bad press recently. Millions of acres of rain forest in Central and South America have been decimated to provide grazing land to feed the public’s growing demand for beef. Ecotourism, originally developed in the name of conservation, has often spiraled out of control, doing more harm than good in the long run. Managed carefully and effectively, however, cattle ranching and ecotourism can do a great deal to preserve certain ecosystems. Hato Pinero provides one example.

Hato Pinero is a functioning cattle ranch in the llanos or central plains of Venezuela. It is owned and operated by the Branger family, led by Sr. Antonio Julio Branger. The family bought the land, some 200,000 acres of it, about 50 years ago, when land was cheap. Their plan was to enter the growing beef industry. Indeed, this has become a successful enterprise. Hato Pinero maintains some 20,000 head of zebu hybrid cattle. The operation is run the old fashioned way, by cowboys on horseback. This is an efficient way to move cattle around and it has minimal impact on the land. However, there is now much more to Hato Pinero than just ranching.

Hato Pinero now features a thriving tourist business and an internationally known biological station. These ventures were undertaken in the name of conservation. It all starts with the ecosystem. The llanos landscape is naturally a mosaic of open grassland, where cattle are grazed, and huge stretches of forest, home to monkeys, anteaters, large cats, and a great variety of birds. (It is not rain forest, by the way, but dry forest.) The region changes dramatically with the seasons. During the wet season, from about May through October, 200mm of rain falls monthly on the landscape. This water supports lush vegetation, including heavy foliage on the trees and thick, green grass. During the other six months of the year, from November through April, the llanos receives little rain and everything dries out. The ground becomes hard and cracked; lakes are reduced to tiny ponds, supporting thirsty wildlife; many trees drop their leaves; and the grasses turn brown. These are the natural, annual changes of the llanos.

Many years ago, Don Antonio noticed that this natural pattern was being interrupted. The owners of ranches around him were cutting down the forests, selling the wood and making room for more cattle. This seemed like good business to them. It was changing the natural scheme of things, however. Without the trees, the rains never came. The dry season became longer and longer, and eventually the land became useless. Don Antonio realized that if he wanted to maintain his cattle operation on a long-term basis he would have to preserve the forests.

This was a far-sighted perspective. In those days, conservation was a word used only by loud gringos with fancy degrees from big universities. However, Don Antonio had first come to Hato Pinero as a young man and, in many ways, had grown up there. He had come to treasure the wildlife of the llanos and wanted to safeguard its future. But there was a problem: Don Antonio had no sons to carry on this tradition. His family didn’t immediately see the wisdom of conservation. What would happen to Hato Pinero when he was gone? In order to preserve the land he loved, Don Antonio realized that he would have to make the wildlife lucrative. Enter ecotourism.

At that time, some 15 years ago, ecotourism was a fledgling industry in South America. Under Don Antonio’s watchful eye, a tourist house was built at Hato Pinero. Following a traditional colonial plan, the house was built by local workers using local materials and hand tools. It was rustic but comfortable. Over the years, Hato Pinero has become a favored destination of bird watchers from around the world. Having seen how much is to be gained by tourism, various members of the Branger family have encouraged Don Antonio to expand the operation, but he steadfastly refuses. The tourist operation accommodates only 20 people at a time. This reduces the number of people walking through the forests and the number of trucks driving the dirt roads. Carefully managed, this enterprise is fulfilling its goal of preserving this stretch of the llanos.

Tourism at Hato Pinero has become very successful. Thanks to Don Antonio’s pioneering efforts in the name of conservation, and because of the region’s varied landscapes, the area supports tremendous diversity of wildlife. There are no large herd animals as there are in Africa and sightings of jaguar or giant anteater are rare. However, there are over 400 species of birds, and an avid watcher can easily see 100 different types in a day. There are parrots and storks, small songbirds and hummers, and many water birds, such as scarlet ibis and snowy egret, which flock to the watering holes. Hato Pinero is a haven for both wildlife and nature enthusiasts.

Don Antonio didn’t stop there. Not long after the tourism program became established he realized that, in order to preserve an ecosystem, one must understand it. Thus, science was brought to Hato Pinero. Under Don Antonio’s direction, builders constructed a biological station which provides comfortable accommodation for 20 scientists, has a library and an herbarium, and a complete kitchen and dining room, staffed by helpful people who assume the domestic chores, thus freeing up resident scientists to pursue their research. It is a first-class operation.

Capuchin Monkeys

I was one of the first scientists to come to Hato Pinero. My research with capuchin monkeys began in 1989. Following me were those who studied the spectacled caiman, the green iguana, the capybara, the giant anaconda, the strange and interesting hoatzin, and the mysterious jaguar. In 1995, I returned to Venezuela with the support of the Earthwatch Institute, which provided volunteer research assistants to help me with my work. Slowly, we are piecing together how these animals interact with one another and with the forest that is their home.

My studies of capuchin monkeys have paralleled the work of anthropologists around the world. Like humans, monkeys have various problems to solve as they go about their daily lives. Capuchins are small monkeys, about the size of a large house cat. They feed heavily on fruit and insects, but will also eat baby birds and squirrels and other small mammals. Because of their small size, predation is a tremendous problem for them. As the seasons change, food sometimes becomes scarce and hard to find. These are some of the pressures that complicate their lives.

I have learned over the years that one of the major factors in a monkey’s life is the size of the group in which it lives. Large groups have many advantages. They can push smaller groups out of feeding sites and thereby monopolize resources. Larger groups can also forage in dangerous areas where smaller groups dare not go. Because there is strength in numbers, monkeys in large groups often come down to the ground to feed on wild pineapple (bromeliads) and large terrestrial snails. Members of smaller groups fear the predatory cats and snakes that hunt on the ground and therefore avoid these areas. Overall, smaller groups have limited access to scarce resources. Life in a large group, however, also has its problems. With more mouths to feed, competition is stiff and aggression can be fierce. Larger groups experience the stress of this social situation. The parallels with human behavior are clear.

However, like humans, monkeys have found solutions to their problems. Monkeys in smaller groups have to be flexible in their approach to life. While larger groups can move about with impunity, smaller groups must conserve energy through the times of scarcity. When food is abundant, large groups squander their time in rest and play while smaller groups devote their time to gorging, storing up fat reserves for the tough times to come. On the other hand, monkeys in larger groups have to do what they can to avoid aggression within the troop. When feeding, they spread out as much as possible, giving each individual a little more elbowroom and reducing the number of fights.

Hato Pinero provides several examples of solving problems. Thanks to the conservation efforts of Don Antonio and the Branger family, the forests of Hato Pinero continue to thrive, supporting the abundant animal life that depends on them. Within that forest, capuchin monkeys, like humans, face daily pressures that relate to group size, but they cope with these pressures in creative ways. As studies of the llanos ecosystem continue, we will learn more about how to maintain this piece of paradise and save it from the problems of a complicated world.

Dr. Lynne E. Miller is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at San Diego, and a principal investigator for the Earthwatch Institute. Her research with capuchin monkeys will continue, with Earthwatch support, in 1999. For further information about the Earthwatch Institute, go to their website at This article is based upon a talk given at the Earthwatch Institute Festival of Science and Culture, Harvard University, October 24, 1998.