Wildlife Suffers as Brazil’s Pantanal Wetland Burns

Fires in the world’s largest tropical wetland have burned an area double that of California’s unprecedented 2020 blazes

Wounded leopard after treatment at an animal protection center in Goias State of Brazil
More than 580 species of bird, 271 types of fish, 174 mammal species, 131 different reptiles and 57 amphibian species known to inhabit the Pantanal. Xinhua/Lucio Tavora via Getty Images

The Pantanal—the world’s largest tropical wetland, which stretches across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay—is home to Indigenous peoples and an array of wildlife including jaguars, tapirs and giant armadillos. But for months now the region has been in flames.

Beginning sometime in late 2019 and becoming more intense in June and July of this year, fires have incinerated some 8.1 million acres—22 percent of the lush, biodiverse region, reports Elizabeth Claire Alberts of Mongabay. To put that figure in perspective, the unprecedented, destructive fires in California have burned less than half that, at just under 4 million acres, reports Alex Wigglesworth for the Los Angeles Times.

With more than 17,000 fires so far in the Brazilian Pantanal, this year has already exceeded the annual total for every year on record, which extends back to 1998, and has tripled the annual average, report Tatiana Pollastri and David Biller of the Associated Press. Many of the fires were likely set by farmers clearing land, reports Jill Langlois for National Geographic. Some of the blazes were also the result of lightning strikes, which ignited a parched landscape in the grips of the worst drought in nearly 50 years, reports Emiliano Rodriguez Mega for Nature.

The blazes have been devastating for the region’s wildlife. Nature cites a 2019 study that detailed more than 580 species of bird, 271 types of fish, 174 mammal species, 131 different reptiles and 57 amphibian species known to inhabit the Pantanal.

“My lasting memory from being in the Pantanal is the cacophony of life,” Douglas Morton, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who uses remote-sensing to study fires and deforestation in Brazil, tells Nature. “To me, that’s what’s so heart wrenching about seeing the extent of fires.”

As vast swaths of the normally verdant floodplain landscape have been reduced to ash, some of the region’s animal residents have been left wandering the scorched landscape in confusion and desperation. Per National Geographic, volunteers have been rescuing hundreds of animals and distributing caches of food and water throughout the Pantanal.

Teams have evacuated injured jaguars, tapir and other species to receive medical care and rehabilitation before they can hopefully be released back into the wild, according to National Geographic. Aquatic reptiles such as caimans have also been hit hard as their watery habitat has dried up.

Scientists who study the ecosystem worry that the fires are so severe that they may permanently alter the Pantanal, according to Nature. Climate change is projected to make the region hotter and drier, making it more prone to fires and perhaps no longer able to support the diversity of plants and wildlife that put it on the map as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nature cites a 2015 study that projects a temperature increase of up to 12.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

In the meantime, volunteers are still trying to rescue injured wildlife and provide food and water to those in need.

Carla Sássi, a veterinarian and firefighter with the non-profit Disasters Rescue Group for Animals which is one of the groups working in the Pantanal, tells National Geographic, “I never in my life thought we would have to bring water to the Pantanal.”

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