PoconaBRAZIL – The Pantanal wetlands of western Brazil are known as a haven of biodiversity, but these days they are belching huge clouds of smoke as raging forest fires reduce large areas 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 a typically thriving ecotourism industry.
But in recent weeks it has been ravaged by fires that threaten its iconic wildlife as Brazil grapples with droughts and record-breaking heat in the southern hemisphere's spring.
According to satellite monitoring by INPE, Brazil's space research agency, there were 2,387 fires in the Pantanal in the first 13 days of November, a 1,000 percent increase over the month of November 2022.
“The situation is completely out of control. Between the heat wave and the wind, it's only going to get worse,” said biologist Gustavo Figueroa, 31, head of environmental group SOS Pantanal.
“The Pantanal is a region that is used to fires. Normally, it regenerates naturally. But so many fires are not normal.”
The Pantanal sits at the southern edge of the Amazon rainforest – which was also destroyed by unprecedented fires in 2019 – stretching from Brazil to Bolivia and Paraguay over an area of more than 65,000 square miles.
This year, the drought has hit hard, turning normally flooded areas into shrinking ponds.
At one such spot, along a dirt highway across the region on the 95-mile “Transpantaneira,” a small group of caimans attempt to swim in shallow water.
Nearby, someone else's corpse sits rotting on the shore.
Elsewhere, a dead blackberry lay on a carpet of ash in what had once been a forest charcoal residue.
“He probably died of smoke inhalation,” said veterinarian Arachelli Hamann, who volunteers with the wildlife rescue group.
They made the gruesome discovery in Encontro das Aguas Park, home to the world's largest jaguar population.
According to the environmental group ICV, almost a third of the park was destroyed by fire last month.
The second main front that firefighters are battling is the Pantanal National Park in the southwest, where fires have burned 24 percent of the surface. Figueroa warns that the two fronts of the fire will “come together”.
Exacerbating the situation, firefighters face enormous logistical struggles, given that many difficult areas can only be reached by boat.
Experts say that the fires are mainly caused by human activities, especially for agricultural purposes. Climatic conditions only worsened the situation.
Experts say that even when animals survive the fire, they are at risk of starvation.
“We saw a whole range of dead animals, including insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals that couldn't escape,” says Figueroa. “They are part of an invisible food chain and each death has a domino effect that reaches the top predator, the jaguar.”
In a clearing, a group of monkeys rush to devour bananas and eggs left for them by volunteers.
“We call it the ‘gray famine' – when the fire turns all the vegetation into ash and there are no natural food sources for the animals that survive the fire,” said Jennifer Lareia, 33, of the animal rescue group E o Bicho. .
In 2020, when forest fires also ravaged the region, his organization provided 300 tons of fruit to animals in five months.