Fires in Brazilian Pantanal wetlands, on april 2020, at night. (Andre Zumak / WWF-Brazil)

Recovering Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland in the world

Faced with the multiple threats that affect the Pantanal, and two years after the devastating fires that destroyed the local biodiversity, several initiatives are being promoted to conserve the rich biodiversity of the largest wetland in South America.  Communities have organized to fight the fire, rescue the blue macaws, and worked towards coexistence with jaguars.

With around 340 thousand km² of surface, the Pantanal constitutes the most significant tropical wetland in the world. Much of it is found in Brazil, extending through Bolivia and Paraguay.

Despite its enormous size, this paradise has suffered various impacts. Poaching and retaliation against wild carnivores, such as the jaguar, and the expansion of arable land are some of the threats that this place faces, leading to intense degradation of ecosystems and  loss of habitats for various species.

One of the biggest catastrophes of recent times came from the fires that occurred in 2020, fueled partly by a severe drought that had affected the region.

According to MapBiomas, the reduction of the water surface between 1991 and 2021 experienced a loss of 17.1%. “Before, we had a regular regimen of six months of drought and six of rain. Today, the water is permanently available for less than six months,” says Cynthia Santos, conservation analyst for WWF-Brazil.

Due to the drought conditions amongst other factors, the fire left deep marks that were noticeable for long. The flames had consumed about 40,000 km² or 27% of the wetland’s  forest area, and more than 26% of its biome – the geographic space that shares the climate, flora, and fauna – was destroyed.

Pantanal in 2020. Photo by: Juliana Arini/WWF Brasil

While it has been impossible to fully estimate the loss of fauna two years after the fires, some calculations indicate that in 2020 around 7 million vertebrate animals (such as mammals, birds, and reptiles) died immediately due to the flames, without counting invertebrates (such as insects).

For this reason, some initiatives began to recover the nature of the Pantanal and amend, as far as possible, the negative consequences of human action.

Fighting the Flames

A study on the impact of fire in the Pantanal confirms how poor soil management and burning or controlled fires, which are standard agricultural practices in the region, are responsible for leaving areas degraded. The same research adds that “controlling illegal deforestation and the misuse of fire will only be possible if the government, society, and the agricultural sector come together.”

About 75% of the earth’s surface has been significantly altered by human activities, including the loss of 85% of wetland area between 1700 and 2000. Indeed, the removal or degradation of wetlands is currently three times faster, in percentage terms, than that of forests.

In 2022, the impacts of a degrading wetland are already visible. In the Pantanal, rainfall levels are expected to remain between 40% and 50% below average in this period, according to the Weather, and Climate Monitoring Center of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

To fight against the flames, organizations such as the Arara Azul Institute along with indigenous people, farmers, and the local population of the wetland are being trained as firefighters.

The objective is to train them to detect and monitor possible fire sources to prevent and combat them. “Devoid of the training, we used to go without any expertise and put our lives at risk [while fighting fires],” says Neiva Guedes, president of the Arara Azul Institute, referring to the distressing period of 2019 and 2020. Now partners such as firefighters and civil society organizations train the “pantaneros” — ‘local cowboys’ – to respond promptly and notify fire crews, thus avoiding a major disaster.

In this way, at least ten brigades have been formed with 76 members in the cities of Corumbá and Miranda, including indigenous communities and fishermen, as well as owners of farms and small towns.

Fires in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. 2020. Photo by: Silas Ismael / WWF-Brazil

The training is carried out by the National Center for the Prevention and Combat of Forest Fires (PrevFogo/Ibama) as a result of a partnership between Ecoa – Ecologia e Ação and WWF-Brazil.

WWF’s Cynthia adds that combating the threat of fire is essential, although the importance of conserving local biodiversity must not be forgotten. “We must think of strategies that include the restoration of degraded environments. The loss of water is a consequence of the loss of freshwater sources.”

With that goal in mind, in the 1980s, she began an initiative to recover one of the most iconic species of the Pantanal, which has suffered from poaching and fires.

 Creating Homes for the “Endangered” Blue macaw

One of the initiatives that managed to measure the impact of the great fire of 2020 was the Arara Azul Institute, which has been operating since 1986 in the region. The name of the organization is inspired by the arara-azul or blue macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinu). This bird usually weighs 1.3 kg and can measure up to one meter from its beak to the end of its tail.

In the Pantanal, these birds build 90% of their nests in Mandovi, a tree with a soft core, and in ximbuva (Enterolobium contortisiliquum) and angico branco (Albizia nipioides). But an essential part of this vegetation has been lost due human activities, which is why the Arara Azul Institute works to monitor this species and create artificial nests.

Since the 1980s, these activities and other efforts of the organization have helped in the survival of the macaw. This bird was even removed from “endangered” category to “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as its  population, previously estimated at 2,500 mature individuals, has now reached around 4,300 individuals.

The president of the Arara Azul Institute felt the impact in the nests of her first ecological refuge called Caimã. The flames had destroyed around 65% of the area.

“It took 17 days to control the fire, which only ended with the arrival of the rain. When monitoring the nests, we saw that the fire reached 49% of the nests in the refuge,” Arara Azul Institute’s Neiva explains. The nests were burned inside and outside the cavity. The smoke intoxicated the chicks, and the few that survived died sometime later.

These birds remember where they left their nests, and return to the same place every season. That is why, after the destruction, the Institute built new nests in the same location.

In a burned area but the nest was protected by the metal plate. Two newborn nestlings died before the fire reached the site. Photo: Fernanda Fontoura/Instituto Arara Azul.
This is one of the highest on Caiman. The fire passed through the capão but the tree was preserved, but the two eggs were predated. Photo: Fernanda Fontoura/Instituto Arara Azul.

After the fire, ecological relations changed. There was no food for fauna, so these birds had to travel farther to find food. More significant predation of the young macaw by species such as coatis was observed, which would take advantage of the prolonged absence of the parents.

Still, the efforts have borne fruit. According to the Institute, in 2021, 181 eggs were laid, of which 78 were lost. In 2022, the macaws laid 111 eggs, of which 72 fledged. “It is a long-term job, and the effects last severely and take time. So there is a struggle in nature in search of survival,” says Neiva.

N. 2125 was handled, by Lucas Rocha, on August 23, 19, with planks and a metal belt to avoid predators (Photo Fernanda Fontoura/Instituto Arara Azul.). On Aug. 30 it was monitored and had two eggs (Photo Kefany Ramalho/Instituto Arara Azul.). In September the fire arrived on the site, went up through the reached the nest, losing the nest box, eggs and equipment (Photo Thamy Moreira/Instituto Arara Azul.)

“Conserving species is the key to maintaining the biodiversity of the Pantanal. And that is what the biome offers— its exuberance,” says Cynthia.

For that reason, conservation projects require the help and participation of local communities that have lived in the area for generations. This is especially relevant for another emblematic species of the region – the jaguar.

Coexisting with the Jaguar

One of the iconic species of the Pantanal is the jaguar or ‘Onça-Pintada’ (Panthera onca), the largest feline in the Americas. As a carnivore, the jaguar is key to the health of ecosystems.

However, the loss or transformation of its habitat due to human activities – such as livestock – has generated a series of consequences, including the predation of this animal on livestock. For this reason, the jaguar has been heavily hunted out of fear of reprisal.

“Some owners see the jaguar as an enemy because of the financial damage it causes with its attacks on herds. But they also see it as a national treasure and want to preserve it while keeping their property safe,” says Diego Viana, a veterinarian. 

Diego was born in Corumbá, the largest city in the Pantanal. His connection with the region, therefore, is rooted. From the age of 11, he  would go to his great grandfather’s farm, who was a hunter. He left his hometown at the age of 17 to study veterinary medicine. “I know of people’s fear of losing their cattle. That is why I try to promote coexistence between humans and jaguars. In this way, we can add value to their products by developing livestock in harmony with nature,” he adds.

Fires in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. 2020. Photo by: Silas Ismael / WWF-Brazil

For this reason, Diego implemented an initiative inspired by his stay in South Africa while studying his specialization. These are low-voltage electric fences to scare predators away from where the herds are. In the South African case, they used it to protect sheep from lions and other predators near a nature reserve. After searching for other projects that used this technology, Diego met representatives from the organization Panthera Colombia.

Since 2016, he has been developing similar measures in the Pantanal with the help of the Homem Pantaneiro Institute, an organization that protects local biodiversity. “Any action there is difficult, especially in remote areas. For example, to reach one of the properties where we work, we have to travel almost 6 hours by river or 12 hours by road,” adds Diego. “At least once a month we check if everything is okay with the material of the fences, which  has the chance of being damaged by environmental factors. Even farm officials can help with this monitoring.”

Alternative measures have emerged, such as light repellents to ward off predators. This option is for spaces where it is urgent to protect cattle, but there is not much time to implement the fence. This has shown positive results— on a farm where Diego works, 16 calves had died from jaguar attacks in two weeks in 2021. With the repellant, no new deaths occured in a  month.

The impacts of low voltage electric fences are visible. Around 3% of livestock production was lost for innumerable reasons, according to Experiences in anti-predatory management by jaguars and pumas in the Pantanal of Brazil of 2017. Of the 11 causes of death, only one was due to a jaguar, while others included causes like snake bites, showing favorable results of the fences. 

On the first property where Diego implemented these technologies, 930 heads of cattle were lost a year before the project execution. His work with the fences, management, and identification of jaguar attacks decreased mortality to 230 in the following period. In the last 7 years the highest number reported was 330 dead animals.

On large farms, the fences remain around the cattle maternity, where the calves are the most attacked. “We do this so as not to interrupt the movement of animals towards rivers, for example,” adds Diego. In smaller farms, the veterinarian recommends fencing the entire property.

Thus, they reduce economic loss and help prevent jaguar hunting, moving towards a better coexistence between humans and wild carnivores.

Evandro Almeida
He’s a mobile journalist born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brasil. Former Fellow in Dart Center (Columbia University) and Youth Climate Leaders; also Economic Trainee for Estado de Sao Paulo and member of #RedLATAM for Distintas Latitudes. Evandro’s worked in the TV Band in Google News Initiative, as text editor in TV Record, and interned in Municipal Parliament of São Paulo. He’s the digital editor for TV Band producing and editing reports, podcasts, and video programmes.