Scientific research another victim of Pantanal blazes

. Sep 23, 2020
research wildfires pantanal wetlands

Biologist Gabriela Schuck was in isolation at her home in Porto Alegre, in Brazil’s South, protecting herself from the coronavirus. While she worked on her master’s dissertation, the 25-year-old kept up with the news on television and social media about the spread of forest fires ravaging three of Brazil’s largest biomes: the Amazon, Cerrado, and Pantanal. The latter is in an increasingly critical situation: the world’s biggest wetland has seen around 20 percent of its area destroyed by blazes.

Though she lives over 2,000 kilometers from the Pantanal, Ms. Schuck began seeking out institutions and offering her help as a volunteer, when her university advisor told her of the possibility of being deployed to the Sesc Pantanal Natural Heritage Reserve (RPPN), a conservation unit located on the banks of the Cuiabá River, in the middle of the Pantanal.

</p> <p>RPPNs are private preservation areas dedicated exclusively to protecting fauna and flora and scientific research. The Sesc Pantanal Reserve, which became the biggest hotspot of biological studies in the wetlands, was one of the areas most damaged by fires.</p> <p>Around 90 percent of its 108,000 hectares has been turned to ash and cinder. Gabriela Schuck had worked there in 2017 and 2018 as a field assistant alongside other researchers, so naturally heeded the call and embarked on a journey consisting of a three-hour plane journey, 200 kilometers by car, and 40 minutes by boat.</p> <p>Upon arrival, what she saw was jaw-dropping. &#8220;The gray ground changed the landscape a lot. The grasses and bushes simply disappeared, all that&#8217;s left is dry soil and some trees,&#8221; she explains. &#8220;It is terrifying to see such destruction.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="684" src="" alt="research pantanal brazil deforestation 2020" class="wp-image-50096" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 2048w, 610w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Photo: Lucas Ninno</figcaption></figure> <p>Two fires started in neighboring cattle farms joined forces and advanced on the reserve&#8217;s vegetation. Strong winds, the <a href="">biggest drought in 50 years</a>, and human involvement created a &#8220;perfect storm,&#8221; with flames persisting for 20 days, trapping wild animals and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.</p> <p>Birds abandoned their nests and managed to escape by air. Mammals — such as jaguars, tapirs, coatis, monkeys, and armadillos — were not so lucky. With no choice but to flee by land, many were burned alive or suffocated due to smoke inhalation.</p> <h2>Pantanal: the anatomy of a tragedy</h2> <p>The consequences for biodiversity are still hard to fully quantify. Scientists from the Wildlife Study Group (GEVS) — which includes researchers from numerous Brazilian universities — put together a task force with the mission of cataloguing dead animals and creating a diagnosis of the tragedy among various species. Ms. Schuck is one of the members of this group. &#8220;I&#8217;m surprised to still find live animals as the damage was so severe. We are sweeping area by area, documenting, photographing, identifying carcasses and deciding on a methodology that allows us to have a real dimension of the damage caused to the [region&#8217;s] biodiversity. The invertebrates are the hardest to count, because their bodies simply dissolve and become nothing,&#8221; she says.</p> <p>Photo traps set up by the team have captured the presence of some surviving animals. Many have burns on their paws, while others are severely debilitated due to a lack of food and water. With insufficient support from governmental institutions, rescue and treatment operations have been left down to <a href="">NGOs</a> and volunteers.</p> <p>Picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the blaze, researchers are slowly finding evidence to explain how this tragedy occurred and the potential ways to resuscitate the Pantanal biome. However, science itself has been one of the fires&#8217; victims.</p> <h2>Another setback for Brazilian research</h2> <p>In the Sesc Pantanal Reserve, at least 30 scientists working on various projects will be forced to interrupt, cancel, or change the objectives of their research, as several mini-biomes and species have simply been incinerated. The RPPN manager, Cristina Cuiabália, says that despite the disaster, the research teams are still keen to work.</p> <p>&#8220;On the one hand, it&#8217;s a huge frustration, on the other hand, we have to stay motivated, working harder. Scientific production is fundamental in this process of obtaining answers to the factors that contributed to what we are seeing today, and showing what we can do so that these <a href="">disasters</a> do not happen again.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>However, Brazilian scientists were already in a precarious position, before the fires. President Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s government froze scientific funding in 2019, causing the payment of research grants to stop nationwide. The government also sent a budget proposal before the pandemic that earmarked the paltry amount of BRL 16.5 million (USD 3 million) for the purchase of inputs and material for academic research in 2020. For the previous year, the budget was BRL 127.4 million.</p> <p>Regardless, science persists through adversity. With sparse resources, young people like Gabriela Schuck are eyeing up the results of their labor in the long term. &#8220;As a new generation researcher, I feel useful being here. Actually, I&#8217;m better off here in the forest than shut in at home. When I was a teenager, I watched TV programs about the Amazon, the Pantanal, and I thought that&#8217;s what I wanted to do with my life, and today I&#8217;m fulfilling my duty. Science is allied with enlightenment about phenomena such as forest fires and knowledge makes prevention easier.&#8221;</p> <p>After four months of drought, a brief shower fell on the Pantanal on the morning of September 20, slowing down the fires that continue to burn. Local residents celebrated the rain on social media, symbolizing a small instance of respite and hope for better days in the Pantanal, which is now facing a long path to recover its beauty.

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Lucas Ninno

Lucas Ninno is a photographer and journalist from Cuiabá

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