Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • On the extensive grasslands of The Plains of Venezuela,

  • small patches of jungle provide oases for the local fauna.

  • These jungles are mere specks on the vast open plains, but during the dry season,

  • when the heat turns the grasslands into an inferno, they are the only the shade,

  • the only refuge for many of the animals of this forgotten corner of the world.

  • In the shelter of the forest, the animals find food and protection.

  • While out on the plains the abundance which follows the rains is soon replaced by the scarcity of the long dry season,

  • here, among the trees, it is always possible to find food, in the form of fruits, leaves and seeds.

  • And with so many vegetarians around, hunters, naturally, are also drawn here.

  • The "matas", as these small Venezuelan forests are called, also contain dangers.

  • The shadows of the enormous trees provide relief from the burning sun,

  • but may also at times conceal death.

  • Our story begins here, in the heart of the forest.

  • In the shade of the impressive ceibas and mangos our heroine, a morrocoy tortoise,

  • is enjoying the abundance and the cool of the mata,

  • little suspecting her luck is about to change.

  • Though it is a species in danger of extinction, the morrocoys are a sought-after delicacy on the plains.

  • From time to time, people enter the forest in search of a change from their usual diet of rice and beans,

  • and the tortoises are both tasty and easy to catch.

  • Unaware that her life hangs by a thread, our heroine now begins an extraordinary journey.

  • The plains-dwellers cook them in their shells as soon as they get back to the village.

  • But luck is on her side.

  • In her white prison, in a world she is incapable of understanding,

  • the morrocoy tortoise does not know she is about to discover the different worlds of the Plains of Venezuela.

  • It will be a long, dangerous journey to get back home.

  • This is her story, the adventure of a voyage in search of paradise in hell.

  • During the hot months night comes as a great relief out on the open plains.

  • For the plains dwellers, this is the time to sit around the fire and exchange their experiences of the day.

  • Alcohol is passed round, relaxing both mind and body, and making them less alert.

  • For the captured tortoise, their relaxed mood offers a chance to make a dash for freedom.

  • With slow steps, she leaves behind certain death and escapes into the night.

  • But her odyssey has just begun.

  • Because far away from the forest, the plains are a constant survival test.

  • At dawn, life, until then hidden, again stirs on the vast open expanses.

  • Three hundred thousand square kilometres of apparently deserted horizons fill with living shadows.

  • The animals take advantage of the hours before the heat sets in to eat and gather together.

  • The entire plain comes to life with the constant movement of thousands of living beings.

  • The capybaras scare great flocks of red-billed whistling ducks,

  • whose wing beats sound out over the swamps every day at dawn.

  • They are just one part of the incredible community of birds on the plains,

  • where there are more different species than in the United States and England put together.

  • The forest also comes to life at dawn,

  • and it does so with the cries of the howler monkeys.

  • This noisy communication between groups, marking out their territories,

  • shows that no predator can reach them up in the treetops.

  • But down below, on the ground, things are very different.

  • The peccaries are permanently on the alert.

  • They also take advantage of the cool hours around dawn to make short trips beyond the limits of the forest.

  • It is a less frequented area, so it is easier to find fruits which have fallen from nearby trees;

  • a trophy which is often the cause of disputes.

  • Beyond, stretches the sea of grass, a world open to the sun,

  • the natural habitat of animals adapted to these conditions, but an unknown world for a tortoise

  • who has spent her entire life in the shade of the jungle.

  • Thinking only of returning home,

  • the morrocoy tortoise sets out across the landscape of parched grasses,

  • unaware that attentive, yellow eyes are closely observing her.

  • A burrowing owl sees her approach his nest, and is not prepared to tolerate intruders.

  • Under the ground, in a pleasant, cool tunnel, his chick is hidden,

  • and the owl plucks up his courage and tries to scare off the armoured stranger.

  • The tortoise does not know what is happening.

  • No bird in the forest in which she lived had ever attacked her.

  • There, they all know that the morrocoys are inoffensive.

  • But this is the open plain, and here any animal is a potential enemy.

  • Confused, the tortoise changes his course, away from the little owl's nest.

  • This has been her first contact with this new, harsh and hostile world to which she does not belong,

  • a world she will have to cross if she wants to again reach the safety of the forest.

  • As the tortoise scuttles off, life again returns to normal for the owl family.

  • Once the danger has passed, the female emerges from the hole,

  • accompanied by the only surviving chick from the eleven eggs she had laid,

  • while the male flies off in search of nearby prey.

  • The burrowing owls eat almost any animal which is not bigger than them.

  • If you hope to survive in this harsh environment you can't afford to be a choosy eater,

  • and these small birds of prey happily devour anything from insects and amphibians to squirrels and lizards.

  • On this occasion it is a mouse that has fallen into his claws.

  • The male breaks its neck with his beak, and then carries it back to the hole,

  • where the female tears it apart and prepares it.

  • But the chick, which has already developed feathers, becomes impatient,

  • and decides to take the largest part of the booty into the safety of the nest to devour it in peace.

  • The burrowing owls rarely dig their own holes.

  • Generally, they use the tunnels made by another inhabitant of these wide plains,

  • an ancient animal which in the early morning retires underground.

  • The nine-band armadillo is one of the descendents of a race of armour-plated creatures

  • that have lived on earth for millions of years, with virtually no physiological changes.

  • The armour from which their name comes protects them against enemies

  • and allows them to make their way through the undergrowth.

  • But it presents a distinct disadvantage during the hot hours on the plains.

  • The leathery surface of its dark scales rapidly absorbs heat.

  • When the sun comes out and temperatures rise, the armadillo's protective shields cause it to overheat,

  • and it has to seek cover underground.

  • And this curious survivor of former ages not only does this rapidly and efficiently,

  • but what's more, digs its burrows at the base of the termite mounds that are scattered across the plains,

  • an impressive adaptive strategy.

  • These structures offer the armadillo two great advantages.

  • On the one hand, they have a sophisticated ventilation system

  • and, on the other hand, they are full of termites.

  • The lodger thus has an air-conditioned room and a larder full of food.

  • For our tortoise, the sun becomes increasingly unbearable.

  • Its reptile physiology will help it to bear the heat,

  • but she is disorientated in this dry, suffocating world.

  • Finally, a breeze carries across the smell of water, and indicates which way she should proceed.

  • And slowly, patiently she enters the lowlands where the water

  • left behind after the rains still feeds the last patches of green on the plain.

  • Swamps and low-lying areas still hold water until well into the dry season.

  • The soil of the plains is thick clay,

  • and this is the essential factor making such incredible biodiversity possible

  • in a place where conditions are so harsh.

  • Because the clay prevents the water from draining away, and so pools form.

  • For the animals of the plains, the flooded areas provide relief from the intense heat.

  • While the burning sun paralyses life on the grasslands,

  • the fauna of the plains gathers here in search of food and water.

  • During the day, thousands of birds come here to feed.

  • Under the shallow waters of the flood areas swim innumerable fish.

  • As the dry season advances, the patches of water become increasingly smaller

  • and the fish progressively concentrate, making them easier to catch.

  • And so, the pool is crowded with fishers.

  • The American ibises search the cloudy waters for small fish.

  • They move their extraordinarily specialised beaks from side to side until they find their prey,

  • fish of between three and five centimetres in length.

  • If they touch weeds, branches or fish of different sizes they calmly continue their search.

  • But if the beak brushes up against one of the fish they are looking for,

  • it will clamp shut with amazing speed,

  • trapping the victim in twenty-five thousandths of a second

  • one of the fastest reactions of any vertebrate in the world.

  • Scarlet ibises, spoonbills, ducks and egrets, American ibises

  • each one uses a different technique,

  • hunts different prey and has a different shaped tool, the beak.

  • It is a mass gathering of specialists with jaws adapted to a specific type of prey,

  • and so reducing competition among species.

  • From up in the air, too, there is a beak that can skim the water in search of fish close to the surface,

  • and that beak belongs to the scissorbill.

  • Like the ibises, the scissorbills are selective and only close their beaks

  • if they touch a fish of the right size.

  • Even so, it is a risky fishing technique because on occasions

  • the obstacles they come across turn out to be spectacled caimans.

  • The water masses of the Orinoco basin are often covered in a blanket of bright green.

  • Millions of water hyacinths colonise the pools, forming small floating forests.

  • Below the water, the hyacinths form an intricate network, a tangled aquatic maze.

  • Floating on the swollen shoot of its base leaves, the hyacinths spread out their roots

  • until they join with those of neighbouring plants,

  • to such an extent that they completely cover the surface of the pools,

  • preventing sunlight from penetrating into the water, or gases being exchanged.

  • This could be fatal for the aquatic fauna and flora.

  • But the plains also have a powerful army of hyacinth-eaters,

  • which clear the surface of the water as they incessantly graze.

  • Thousands of capybaras daily feed on the succulent leaves of the aquatic plants.

  • These powerful rodents, the largest in the world,

  • live an amphibious life between the warm clear banks

  • and this enormous vegetable soup where they find food,

  • protection and relief from the implacable sun.

  • To be able to dominate this aquatic world,

  • the capybaras have acquired important physiological adaptations over millions of years of evolution.

  • These are their weapons with which to conquer the water:

  • paws with webbed fingers to swim and dive, and eyes, ears and nostrils placed at the top of the head,

  • so they can receive all the information from the surface when they are submerged.

  • A great part of their success in colonising the plains is due to their social behaviour.

  • The capybaras are very gregarious animals.

  • The groups are normally composed of thirty individuals,

  • but can be of up to one hundred, so social links, which begin with the family from the moment they are born,

  • are vitally important, and must be constantly reinforced.

  • When it is time to reproduce, the capybaras go into the water.

  • On land they are more vulnerable so, when they are going to mate,

  • the male follows the female into a shallow pool