Encountering Capybaras on Colombia’s Eastern Plains

Colombia is a country of immense biodiversity, bordering two oceans, containing the roots of the Andes, and the northern edges of the Amazon. A particularly unique area and ecosystem, and one teeming with wildlife is the Eastern Plains, or Llanos Orientales in Spanish. This stretch of plains and savannah that extends into neighbouring Venezuela separates the mountains and the jungle and is home to a wide variety of animals.

The most ubiquitous of those animals is the capybara. The largest living rodent in the world, they roam the plains here in large groups and plentiful numbers.

While much of the plains are used for cattle ranching, many of the ranches also double as wildlife preserves and remain fairly traditional and rustic, a stark contrast to the more industrialized ranching practised in much of the world.

The protection of wildlife in the area has only strengthened as tourism to Colombia has grown. Wildlife safaris to the area have become a popular attraction, and they offer many opportunities to see animals in their natural habitats in an ethical way, most especially the abundant capybaras that roam the vast plains.

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The capybara’s natural habitat

Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) inhabit a large range in most of South America, concentrated in and around the Amazon basin. They flourish in a variety of habitats including forests, jungles, wetlands, and lowland plains like Colombia’s llanos.

In Colombia, they live both on the plains of the Llanos and in the Amazon rainforest. The best area to see them in large numbers and in their natural habitat is by far on the plains.

Wildlife safaris can be organized as day trips out of the city of Yopal, the capital of Casanare department or province. Overnight stays can be organized at a variety of ranches and wildlife preserves, many of which offer multi-day packages that include a variety of activities such as wildlife hikes, horseback rides, and wildlife spotting from safari-style trucks.

Located just below the Andes and east of Bogotá, Yopal can be reached overland or by flights from Bogotá. Wildlife safaris in Casanare are still lesser known compared to destinations like Cartagena and Medellín but are becoming a more common trip. While the area is isolated, it is quite safe.

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The capybara’s natural behaviours

Capybaras are a good bit larger than most of their rodent cousins like guinea pigs and chinchillas. They average around 45kg and are between and about 1 metre long. They have semi-webbed feet and can hold their breath for up to 5 minutes, making them excellent swimmers. They can even sleep in the water.

They are herbivores and eat mostly leaves from trees and graze on the grass of the plains. They can live up to 10 years, although many live shorter lives due to their status as prey for other animals. Jaguars, pumas, and anacondas are among the animals that prey on capybaras on the Colombian plains.

Capybaras are quite social animals and usually can be found in groups of one or two dozen animals. They communicate via barks and display social bonds and organization in their herds.

Usually, they congregate around water sources. During the dry season when water becomes more scarce, larger groups can be easily seen around the remaining small lakes and ponds. During the wet season, when the plains flood, they are more likely to be found in smaller groups.

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How to see capybara in Colombia

If you plan a wildlife safari to Colombia’s plains, you will see plentiful capybara. They have large populations and coexist well with the cattle raised on the ranches. There are opportunities to see many other animals here, including deer, caimans, field owls, many species of migratory birds, anacondas, giant anteaters, and even jaguars and pumas.

However, the capybara is by far the most plentiful and easy to spot!

Capybaras are great for nature photography, as you can get fairly close. If you come within a few metres though, they may bark and flee. They are not aggressive.

When is the best time of year to see capybara?

Especially during the dry season, from December to March, they are easy to spot in large groups around water. This is also the time of year it is easiest to spot the rarer animals mentioned above. During the wet season, from April to September, they may be more spread out but will still be easy to spot.

Where to see capybara in Colombia

While you won’t need a guide to track or point them out to you, you will need to organize a tour or stay at one of the ranches and preserves, known as hatos. There are many tour operators and travel agencies that can organise wildlife tours in Casanare, and you can also organize directly with many hatos.

Because capybaras are so plentiful and have such a large range, they can be seen in many other places as well. In fact, they are present in every country in South America besides Chile. While many live in the Amazon and other forests and jungles, they are much easier to spot on the open plains and in wetlands with less cover.

Another well-known area to see capybaras in the wild is the Panantal wetlands near the border of Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolívia.

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Conservation efforts and future outlook

Capybaras are plentiful and in no current danger of becoming threatened or endangered. In some areas of their range, newly urbanized areas have affected their habitats and caused them to seen as a nuisance though.

In some areas, such as this region of Colombia, they are eaten and even farmed for meat. Because they coexist well enough with cattle and the ranches here practice traditional, non-industrialized methods of ranching on land that was already plains, further growth of the cattle industry in this area does not appear to be a threat to them.

The growth of nature tourism and many of the ranches complementing their income with wildlife tours and safaris is a good sign the area and all wildlife that calls it home will remain largely protected.

However, in some other areas, ranches have been known to try to eliminate them. Additionally, the growth of cattle ranching as well as mining in many parts of the Amazon does threaten their jungle habitats with deforestation. The capybara itself is still able to flourish on cleared ranches, but deforestation affects other animals.

Overall, the future outlook and prospects for capybaras are quite good though. Seeing them in Colombia’s plains is a good way to support a sustainable method of ranching that also respects the surrounding nature and habitat.

Capybara brief

The capybara is the world’s largest rodent, and it can be found in a variety of habitats in South America. In Colombia, capybaras are found in the eastern plains, or llanos, which are a vast area of grasslands and savannas.

Capybaras are social animals and live in groups of up to 100 individuals. They are herbivores and their diet consists of grasses, fruits, and vegetables. Capybaras are also excellent swimmers and can stay underwater for up to five minutes.

If you are interested in seeing capybaras in Colombia, there are a number of places where you can go. Some of the best places include the Los Llanos National Park, the El Tuparro National Park, and the Casanare Department.

The best time to see capybaras in Colombia is during the dry season, which is from December to April. During this time, the capybaras are more active and easier to spot.

Spotting capybaras in Colombia is a truly unforgettable experience. These large rodents are a fascinating part of the country’s wildlife, and they are sure to leave you with a lasting impression.

This wildlife encounter was experienced by Cartagena Explorer

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