Fires in Brazil threaten jaguars, houses and plants in the world's largest tropical wetlands

POCONE, BRAZIL (AP) — Firefighters in Brazil's Pantanal wetlands earlier this month celebrated the end of the fire season on Facebook, saying in a Nov. 7 post that “it is a relief for everyone who lives in the region.”

They spoke too soon.

In the first two weeks of November, fires fueled by unusually dry and hot weather destroyed nearly 770,000 hectares (1.9 million acres) of the world’s largest tropical wetlands, preliminary figures from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro show. This accounts for 65% of the damage done by fires in the region this year.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, a federal agency, detected 3,380 fires in the Pantanal in the first 17 days of November, compared to just 69 in the same period a year ago, and well beyond previous fire season records dating back to 1998.

The Pantanal holds thousands of plant and animal species, including 159 mammals, and it abounds with jaguars, according to the World Wildlife Fund. During the rainy season, rivers overflow their banks, flood the land and make most of it accessible only by boat and plane. In the dry season, wildlife enthusiasts flock to see the normally furtive jaguars lounging on riverbanks, along with macaws, caimans and capybaras.

Much of the Encontro das Aguas (Meeting of the Waters) park, located at the border of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states — known for its large jaguar population — had turned from emerald green to dark brown. A team of Associated Press journalists on the ground spotted a large jaguar licking its paws by the river banks, lying on a bed of burnt vegetation.

“If this continues every year, there won't be anymore (jaguars), they’ll go away, they’ll find a way, like people and run to the city," said Leonisio da Silva, a 53-year-old resident of the park. "It is going to end.”

Jaguars in the park, which covers more than 1,000 square kilometers (over 400 square miles), are accustomed to human observation and have been a top ecotourism draw for more than 15 years. Their preservation and that of their natural habitat are essential in a region.

Firefighters, troops and volunteers are working night and day to try and stop the fires, which are threatening not only the region’s rich fauna and flora but also houses and touristic guesthouses.

And there is little outlook for any near-term help from rainfall.

“This is so atypical,” said Renata Libonati, who coordinates the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro's alert system for fires in the Pantanal. The fire season usually ends in October, when the air gets more humid and it begins to rain. “What we're seeing is an extension of the fire season.”

Libonati said the heat wave that swept through much of Brazil this week, combined with the El Niño phenomenon led to higher temperatures and drier weather conditions, both favorable to fires.

Firefighters and authorities in the Pantanal region are also faced with a logistical nightmare.

Angelo Rabelo, president of a local environmental group that oversees a protected area of about 300,000 hectares (1,160 square miles), runs his own fire brigade, currently comprised of eight members, working alongside a small team of national forest firefighters. “Access to some areas, especially the fire heads, necessarily implies ... the arrival of helicopters,” he said.

The state of Mato Grosso do Sul launched on Nov. 14 a joint task force, mobilizing the state’s entire fleet of aircraft to help firefighters, either dropping water on fires or flying out firefighters to the region’s most remote locations. It also declared a state of emergency in four municipalities most affected by forest fires and where parks and protected areas were particularly at risk.

The neighboring state of Mato Grosso said it had also strengthened its workforce, with about 200 federal and state firefighters on the ground. The state’s Secretary of Environment said it will invest an additional 6.4 million reais (1.3 million dollars) in the region.

Intense fires were reported around the main accessways to the biome, or area classified according to the species that live in that location. Videos shared on social media showed a car driving down the BR-262 highway, with flames on each side, as if passing through a corridor of fire.

Thick smoke emanating from the fires reduced visibility this week, with the Federal Highway Police closing the BR-262 at one point, and reports of a small private plane crashing, injuring four. Lack of visibility also hindered rescue efforts, firefighters said.

Some on the ground were also growing frustrated with authorities' seemingly slow response.

Enderson Barreto, a 25-year-old veterinarian in Porto Jofre, a small municipality close to the Meeting of the Waters park, said his and other colleagues' pleas for help weeks ago were left unanswered, until it was too late.

“We alerted several times in relation to the fires,” Barreto said, adding that people told them they were being too alarmist. “Greater energy should have been put out when the fires were not in such large proportions. Today it is totally out of control."

When he is not rescuing animals from the fires, Barreto is helping firefighters combat the flames. He said the impacts were “unmeasurable.”

Fires are frequent in the Pantanal and vegetation can regenerate quickly with rain. But when the fires are too intense, or attack more densely forested areas, the wildlife that survive are left stranded without habitat.

This year’s fires, for now, are not as dramatic as those of 2020, when flames engulfed more than 3.5 million hectares of wetlands, or about 30% of the Pantanal, killing and injuring countless animals, including jaguars.

From where he was standing, Barreto said, small reptiles and amphibians seem to be the main victims in this year's tragedy.

“They are invisible victims, but they are the base of the chain, for the balance of this ecosystem,” the young veterinarian said.


Jeantet contributed from Rio de Janeiro.


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