David Owen: Butterflies, Caimans and the Lesser-Spotted Stenson – How Golf Just Might Provide One of Rio 2016’s More Noteworthy Legacies
As Spain’s Sergio García, one of the top golfers who did make it to Rio, crunches his drive off the 13th tee, he almost certainly does not realise he is within about 50 metres of a caiman nursery.
Also within putting distance is a fine specimen of the cecropia tree, whose flowers are a much-loved delicacy for the tiny residual local population of three-toed sloths.
Towards dusk, the fairway where the Spaniard has deposited his ball may well become a dining area for young capybaras, a sort of giant guinea-pig, which have quickly acquired a taste for the thickly-carpeted grass that has taken root here.
I am usually a bit sceptical about golf courses’ ecological credentials.
However, with luck and a fair wind, this Olympic golf course just might provide a small but important refuge for local plants and wildlife, in an area where development has been incessant in the last 30 years.
One of my guides on this week’s visit – Mario Rotnitzky, an Argentina-born environmentalist who has spent six years working here – says that if the already degraded sandy plot had not been secured for golf when it was, it would almost certainly have become a favela or a cluster of condominiums by now.
As it is, a high-rise is under construction right next to the media entrance to the one million sq m zone, about the same size as Rio’s Olympic Park.
To appreciate just how important – but also how precarious – this refuge could be, you need to understand that it lies slap bang in the middle of the 40 kilometres long shopping mall/condo hatchery that is Barra da Tijuca.
The first time I drove down to the Olympic media centre, I was gobsmacked by the sheer scale of the sprawl which has sprung up partly because of the spectacular topography that can make infrastructural development in Rio itself so problematic.
Being granted the privilege of walking around the golf course with Rotnitzky helps to make sense of a somewhat mawkish display at the terminus station to the new metro line linking Rio and Barra, which may well speed the development of the area even further.
Depicted are a range of local creatures – a spider, a crocodilian, a snake, even a big cat – next to the following caption, in Portuguese and (very) imperfectly rendered English:
“The quick urbanization of Barra da Tijuca caused the habitat of many of the local wildlife [to be] threatened.
“The photographic representation of these specimen transports by a checkered process to two surfaces tiles that will serve so that they are always present and are remembered by the users of the first metro station constructed in Barra da Tijuca.”
You get the idea, but – guess what? – rumours of some of these creatures’ demise are premature: they are still here, living at or near an Olympic venue.
The post-Games plan is for the golf links to become a public course, accessible without membership, and for the continued environmental upkeep, hence, to be part-funded by local golfers.
Rotnitzky says he is staying to continue his work.
I just hope the aim of protecting this special place, albeit in the semi-artificial guise of a sports arena, is respected.
Back to our tour, where, in addition to García, we happen upon a lesser-spotted Henrik Stenson, Sweden’s reigning Open champion; it’s good to see that Zika didn’t deter all the top players from coming.
Our first notable “birdie”, on and around the first fairway, is a southern lapwing, a plover-like bird.
From then on, we are rarely out of earshot of their calls, reproduced in their local name: quero quero.
In the absence of eagles and albatrosses (though there are plenty of buzzards), these handsome wading birds would make a natural emblem for the course if one were needed.
This, though, is nothing to the excitement that awaits us in a stretch of sand and cactus just to the left of the 12th fairway.
Beside a few holes, rather bigger than golf holes, scooped out of the sand, is a green sign: “Here is the home of a family of owls. Please watch your step.”
And there, to my amazement, slightly further on, watching us with huge eyes that give them a permanently startled look, are some of the inhabitants – starling-sized burrowing owls.
Clearly, they have grown accustomed to their human neighbours.
I am told, incidentally, that in the unlikely event of an athlete hitting his or her ball into one of these nests, the ruling will probably be that the golfer gets a free drop, but in a nearby sand trap.
Among the many natural delights around the 13th hole, which is the closest to the big lagoon which lies beyond the course, we are lucky to spot a rare bolboleta da praia butterfly (parides ascanius in Latin), magnificent in black red and white with a swallow tail.
This is a particular source of pride for Rotnitzky, who has managed to coax it back here by reintroducing the plant it feeds on – the lantana camara, a type of sage.
The best is still to come.
As we stroll back towards the clubhouse, we spot a magnificent broad-snouted caiman – similar to an alligator, but slightly smaller – lazing in the lagoon immediately to the left of the 10th fairway, its elongated head seemingly supported by a lily pad.
It is an uplifting sight, not least because Rotnitzky says they have a good supply of local fish and are docile.
There remains one further, somewhat disconcerting, moment when I spot a yellow and black sign bearing the silhouette of what looks like a rattle snake.
Unlike other creatures, Rotnitzky explained, steps have been taken to remove the local snakes to an alternative refuge.
This is hardly surprising: you can imagine the pandemonium if a boa constrictor eased into view on a green as the leader was lining up a crucial putt.
He tells me 30 snakes in all have been removed over the past two years.
Nearly all have been boa constrictors, along with a couple of jararacas, or pit vipers.
Golf is about to make Olympic history here in Rio.
If – and given the pace of development here, I still fear it is rather a big ‘if’ – the sport can provide a permanent protected sanctuary for local wildlife, it will have contributed one of the more noteworthy legacies of the 2016 Games too.
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz