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Soccer-Brazil calls up wild squad for fans at World Cup wetlands

Reuters

By Mary Milliken

POCONE, Brazil, June 23 (Reuters) - The guide known as "Little Fish" calls out to a squad that sounds just like a Brazilian soccer team with their one-name monikers: Taffarel, Dragao, Chiquinho, Rodrigo, Cicarelli.

Taffarel, the name of a former Brazil goalkeeper, is actually Little Fish's nickname for a tuiuiu, a stork with red-ringed neck who spreads his huge wings when he runs. Dragao is a playful alligator, if such a thing exists, Chiquinho and Rodrigo are capuchin monkeys and Cicarelli, an otter who refuses to come out of the vegetation.

On days between World Cup games, this bench of Brazilian stars in the Pantanal - the planet's largest wetlands and almost as big as Britain - draws fans from around the world who have come to the host city of Cuiaba, located in the exact geographical center of South America.

In lobbying World Cup organizers FIFA for host city status, Cuiaba and the Brazilian government touted the wildlife - an estimated 1,000 bird species, 300 mammals and 9,000 invertebrates - they could show tourists on their doorstep. They hope the exposure during the high-profile tournament puts Pantanal on people's travel wish-lists for years to come.

Little Fish, who has been guiding here for 10 years, makes sure they show up when the tourists penetrate the wetlands by boat. He'll even get down on his stomach on the bank and play with Dragao the alligator, his snapping jaws at arm's length.

"This is a job created by God and he gave me the creativity to talk to nature, with the trees and the animals," said the guide, whose real name is Josue Lopes.

JAGUAR STAYS ON BENCH

Hundreds of tourists heard the call of the wild on Sunday, two days before Colombia meet Japan in the Pantanal arena, the last of four group stage matches in Cuiaba.

Colombian fan Catalina Restrepo made the 165-kilometre (102-mile) trip from Cuiaba to the Pantanal with her family, the last hour of which is over the dirt Transpantaneira road, where families of alligators sun themselves on the banks and people fish tiny-toothed piranhas out of the lagoons.

"We heard about the alligators and the boat, but you never expect the whole thing to be so amazing and to be so close," to the animals, said the 30-year-old Restrepo who works in international trade.

Jiro Takano, who is working for his company at World Cup venues, wanted what he called "an escape to big nature that he cannot see in Japan."

"I was excited to see crocodiles and capybaras in nature for the first time," Takano, 39, said. "But it's a little bit disappointing because...I wanted to watch jaguars and sloths."

Little Fish never promises jaguars will show and says the best strategy for seeing one is to pretend you don't want to see the spotted feline so much.

Before heading back to Cuiaba, Restrepo paused to praise FIFA for allowing a remote place like this to show the wildlife that makes it unique in the world.

"Cuiaba is not so fancy like Brasilia or not so organized like Belo Horizonte," she said of the other cities where Colombia have played.

"It's the only moment they have to show off what they have." (Additional reporting by Reuters TV; editing by Justin Palmer)

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