São Francisco do Perigara Farm, Pantanal's most important macaw sanctuary, lost more than 70% of its area in the 2020 fires in Pantanal. Photo: Bruno Carvalho.

“The first reaction is despair, a sensation that everything was lost in the fire”, says Neiva Guedes on Pantanal fires this year

Brazil’s greatest expert on hyacinth macaws talks about her experience in the field and the situation of one of the country’s best known birds after the 2020 Pantanal fires.
Brazil’s greatest expert on hyacinth macaws talks about her experience in the field and the situation of one of the country’s best known birds after the 2020 Pantanal fires.

It was during a field trip to Pantanal in 1989 that Neiva Guedes saw hyacinth macaws for the first time, sitting on a dry tree branch. Knowing that beautiful blue species was seriously threatened with extinction, especially because of intense animal trafficking, made her heart jump. She started studying the species and has done important conservation work since then. 

Now a professor at the Anhanguera-Uniderp University and the best-known hyacinth macaw expert in Brazil, Neiva saw the devastation caused by the 2020 Pantanal fires. The São Francisco do Perigara Farm, a sanctuary for about 15% of these birds in the wild, has had at least 70% of its area devastated by the fire. Neiva’s first reaction to the sight was utmost shock. “I spent three days paralyzed in a state of shock because I couldn’t digest what was going on,” she told Climate Tracker. In this interview, the researcher talks about her work, how the hyacinth macaw is being affected by fire and climate change, and what might lie ahead in the future of these birds. 

Neiva Guedes holding a 76-day old hyacinth macaw chick. Photo: Fernanda Fontoura.

Fires have consumed at least a fourth of the Pantanal area. Some were accidental, some were very likely criminal, but they’ve all got help in spreading by the unusually long drought this year in the region. How is climate change affecting the hyacinth macaw?

Macaws are affected by sudden temperature oscillations. Some days you experience 45C and less than a day after it drops 12 or 13C. So birds can’t stand it. And this is happening around August and September, which is when the species is starting to reproduce. We humans have air conditioning and other ways to refresh when temperatures rise. Birds don’t have that. We’ve seen some nests reach up to 43C. Chicks can’t survive these temperatures. 

The same goes for the rains: in the long term, until last year, there was almost the same amount of rain falling by the same periods, except for this year, that rained much less. Now the rain is more concentrated in smaller intervals. Nests end up being flooded, which incur in loss of eggs and chicks. And this was even before the fires. 

What did you see when you first got to the Pantanal after the fires? What was your reaction and how do you feel amidst it all?

We went to the São Francisco de Perigara farm. It’s a traditional farming area with native vegetation and my team and I have monitored it for the past 15 years. We’ve known the former owner for quite some time and now his two daughters own the place. They noticed that the macaws started gathering every evening in front of their house, making their nests especially on palm trees so they could sleep there. With time, the farm became a traditional macaw dormitory and the owners had the place surrounded and protected.

Then, all of a sudden it started catching fire and in less than a month, almost 90% of the area had fire spots. Flying over the area to get to the farm after the fires, my first reaction was of despair, a sensation that everything was lost and there was nothing left. The sensation was I had seen that movie last year but now a worse one was playing in the back of my head in 2020.

It was really terrible to witness all that destruction. I spent three days paralyzed in a complete state of shock because I couldn’t digest what was going on. It’s desperating to see so much life lost and to feel like the work of a whole life is going down a drain. Now I feel better, but at the beginning it was truly hard. 

After the shock was over, my first reaction was to call firemen, the environmental police and friends asking for help to put down the fires. What else do you do in a moment like this? You’ve got to act. 

Hyacinth macaws fly over the landscape of the São Francisco do Perigara Farm, an important macaw sanctuary in Pantanal. Photo: Anderson Warketin.

You started working with hyacinth macaws in the early 1990s and founded a project that later became the Arara Azul Institute in 2003. This work was very important to take the macaw from the Brazilian List of Endangered Species and change its status at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. How did it happen? 

All the monitoring and research work of the institute was important to take the hyacinth macaw from the Brazilian List of Endangered Species in late 2014. By then, the population had risen from about 1,500 to 5,000 birds in Pantanal, which is the most important habitat for them. Since the IUCN follows the countries that harbor the highest number of a given animal species, they used the data to update its Red List of Threatened Species. From endangered it became a vulnerable species, a degree lower in the extinction threat scale. 

On the one hand we were happy with it, because it’s a result of the hard work we’ve been doing. On the other, though, it’s of great concern that because of this change in status, sanctions for macaw traffickers are not as heavy as they used to be, making things easier to criminals.

Do the recent fires worry you with the possibility of a setback in the bird’s conservation status? What is the current state of the hyacinth macaw today?

It is very worrying. We’re doing efforts with the government to perform a new assessment next year in order to have a clearer picture. 

A month after the fire, the dormitory macaws traditionally used to sleep in cannot harbor them anymore. There used to be about 300 or 400 of them everyday at São Francisco do Perigara. Now there are about 50 or 60 of them going there. The fire has also directly impacted food availability for these birds. They basically feed on acuri (a large nut with sweet pulp) and macaw palm nuts—and most of the area has been burnt, a lot of these trees included. But since the fire ran unevenly through the place, there are a few pockets, small islands that were not affected by the fire and can serve as a refuge to the birds and other animals. In a few places there’s still some food, but we don’t know how long it will last. 

Fires are unlikely to catch an adult macaw because it flies. But chicks inside nests die off and it greatly affects their reproductive cycle. The effects of fire are felt the worst long after it’s put out. Animals suffer with food shortages and they’re forced to migrate to look for it. A food chain that was in balance gets totally disrupted as jaguars and ocelots will try to prey on macaws and other species to survive. 

The loss of habitat to such a specialist bird is really serious. So macaws are in a delicate situation that we would like to reassess. The whole situation needs to be reevaluated, we can’t leave it the way it is.

Blue macaw couples are normally monogamous and have one partner for their whole lives. Credits: Publio Rodrigues.

How do you see the future of the blue macaw in Brazil?

The future is uncertain and worrying. The chicks dying today in the fire are birds that will not enter the adult population in 7 or 9 years—not to mention that other species are also being heavily affected in the Pantanal. 

But despite it all, hyacinth macaws are quite resilient. They look after their nest even when the fire gets close to it, and seem to feel they need to reproduce and do it, even when it’s hard to get food or find a new place to live. 

I think not only the fires but also the pandemic came to teach us a lot. We need to observe and learn that we cannot leave things the way they are. Animals and humans are suffering because of all this. Losing a species or a habitat is a game with no winners.