‘Out of control’ wildfires ravage Brazil’s wildlife-rich Pantanal wetlands


Pocon√£Brazil – The Pantanal wetlands in western Brazil are famous as a haven for biodiversity, but these days they have huge clouds of smoke billowing over them as raging forest fires reduce vast expanses to scorched earth.

Known for its lush landscapes and vibrant wildlife, including jaguars, caimans, macaws and monkeys, the Pantanal is home to the world’s largest tropical wetlands and, in normal times, a thriving ecotourism industry.

But in recent weeks it has been ravaged by fires that threaten its iconic wildlife as Brazil suffers a southern hemisphere spring of drought and record heat.

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Firefighters tackle wildfires in the Pantanal wetland near Porto Jofre, Mato Grosso State, Brazil, November 13, 2023.

ROGERIO FLORENTINO/AFP/Getty


There were 2,387 fires in the Pantanal in the first 13 days of November, an increase of more than 1,000 percent from the entire month of November 2022, according to satellite monitoring by the Brazilian space research agency INPE.

“The situation is completely out of control. And between the heat wave and the wind, it’s only getting worse,” says biologist Gustavo Figueiroa, 31, head of the environmental group SOS Pantanal.

“The Pantanal is a region used to fires. Normally it regenerates naturally. But so many fires are not normal.”

Located on the southern edge of the Amazon rainforest – which was also devastated by unprecedented fires in 2019 – the Pantanal stretches from Brazil to Bolivia and Paraguay over more than 65,000 square kilometers.


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It has been hit hard by drought this year, with normally flooded areas reduced to shrunken ponds.

At one such spot along the gravel highway across the region, the 95-mile “Transpantaneira,” a small group of caimans can be seen trying to swim in the shallow water.

Nearby, the body of another sits rotting on the bank.

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A dead crocodile is seen as wildfires rage in the Pantanal wetlands in Porto Jofre, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, on November 11, 2023.

ROGERIO FLORENTINO/AFP/Getty


Elsewhere, a dead hedgehog lies on a blanket of ash in the charred remains of what was once a forest.

“It probably died from smoke inhalation,” says veterinarian Aracelli Hammann, who works as a volunteer with a wildlife rescue group.

They made the grim discovery in the Encontro das Aguas park, home to the world’s largest jaguar population.

Almost a third of the park has been affected by fires in the past month, according to the environmental group ICV.

The other main front that firefighters are fighting is in the Pantanal National Park to the southwest, where fires have burned 24 percent of the surface. Figueiroa warns that the two fire fronts “are merging.”

Exacerbating the situation, firefighters face huge logistical struggles as many hard-hit areas can only be reached by boat.

Experts say the fires are mainly caused by human activity, particularly the burning of land to clear it for agriculture. Climate conditions have only made things worse.

Experts say that even when animals survive the flames, they risk starvation.

“We’ve seen a variety of dead animals, including insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals that are unable to escape,” says Figueiroa. “They are part of an invisible food chain, and each death has a domino effect that reaches all the way up to the apex predator, the jaguar.”

In a clearing, a group of monkeys rush to devour bananas and eggs left for them by volunteers.

“We call it ‘grey hunger’ – when fire reduces all the vegetation to ash and there are no natural food sources left in the area for animals that survive the flames,” says Jennifer Larreia, 33, head of the animal rescue group E o Bicho.

In 2020, when forest fires also ravaged the region, her organization delivered 300 tons of fruit to animals in five months.


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