The catastrophic effects of Pantanal fires on wildlife

. Oct 06, 2020
Thousands of animals were killed by wildfires in the Pantanal wetlands. Photo: Christiano Antonucci/Secom/MT Thousands of animals were killed by wildfires in the Pantanal wetlands. Photo: Christiano Antonucci/Secom/MT

After being ravaged by fire, Brazil’s Pantanal wetland is set to endure a long and severe period of famine, with several animal and plant species at risk of extinction. These are just some of the direct and indirect consequences for the biome, which has been burning out of control for over two months thanks to a series of forest fires that have already destroyed 23 percent of the Pantanal this year alone.

The potential impact for the fauna and flora in the Pantanal — the largest wetland in the world — are laid out in a report by the Instituto Homem Pantaneiro, the organization in charge of several environmental reserves within the Pantanal, specifically in the Serra do Amolar region.

The findings are attached to the Federal Police’s inquiry into the wave of fire outbreaks, which investigates four farmers for allegedly starting blazes that destroyed over 25,000 hectares of vegetation.

</p> <h2>Irreversible changes for wildlife</h2> <p>The Pantanal is home to a huge wealth of wildlife species, including at least 130 mammals, 80 reptiles, 460 birds, 30 amphibians, and 260 different types of fish. Among the most famous animals in the region, jaguars are suffering from the effects of the widespread fires, alongside tapirs, deer, alligators, toucans, Tuiuiu storks, snakes, and macaws.</p> <p>The Instituto Homem Pantaneiro report shows that the biome&#8217;s animals will suffer from increased exposure to predators, changes in their habitats and diet, as well as being forced into changing behavioral and migratory patterns. Some species may even go extinct. According to the institute&#8217;s technical coordinator Letícia Larcher, various species of plants could disappear for some time, as the region&#8217;s organisms will all react differently to the fire crisis. &#8220;For instance, one type of plant may take longer to respond when the rain comes than others around it. Animals that are associated with this plant may then require more time to adapt to the burned environment,&#8221; she explains.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="pantanal wetlands wildfires" class="wp-image-50717" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 2048w, 610w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Firefighters in the Pantanal. Photo: Christiano Antonucci/Secom/MT</figcaption></figure> <p>Dr. Larcher explains that species are set to see significant changes to their eating and migratory habits. &#8220;When a fire destroys such a large area, the nutritional content of animals&#8217; food is affected. Fires have left animals without food, forcing them to forage in dangerous areas where they may be killed by humans or other predators. They could also starve to death.&#8221;</p> <p>Some already endangered animals are likely to be put at even more risk. &#8220;Take the giant anteater as an example. It is slow, and it has a dense coat that is susceptible to fire. And they feed off ants, which live in the soil. So what happens when this soil is scorched?&#8221; says Dr. Larcher.</p> <h2>The jaguar effect</h2> <p>NGO <a href="">S.O.S Pantanal</a> carried out its own study to identify the direct effects of the fires on the animals living in the wetland biome. The most common impacts were burns, smoke poisoning, and death.</p> <p>In a standard fire season, jaguars, for instance, can seek refuge in floodplains, rivers, or lakes that are largely safe from blazes. This year, however, as a result of prolonged droughts, these safe areas are fewer and further between. Furthermore, the sheer size of the fires makes escape more difficult, and many animals end up injured or killed by the flames.</p> <p>The jaguar finds itself right in the middle of another potential effect of the Pantanal fires, one that is potentially even more devastating. As a top-of-the-chain predator, the jaguar naturally regulates the populations of smaller predators. After becoming even more endangered amid the fire crisis, the lack of jaguars will see lower-level hunters booming in population, and consequently, several prey species could begin to struggle.</p> <p>There are also big concerns about the hyacinth macaw. The largest population of the species in the world lives in the Pantanal, where it eats fruits from the <em>acuri</em> trees. With the fire striking as the <em>acuri</em><strong><em> </em></strong>begin to bear fruit, the birds will be left with nothing to eat.</p> <h2>Pantanal plants and fungi under threat</h2> <p>In the Kew Gardens&#8217; <a href="">State of the World&#8217;s Plants and Fungi </a>— a comprehensive study into the diversity of vegetables and fungi around the world — Brazil is listed as the country which discovers the most new species of plants, with an average of 200 per year — last year saw 216 discoveries. Brazil is the home of the most plant and fungus species in the world, with over 41,000 described species, just under half of them being endemic to the country. And even this undersells Brazil&#8217;s potential in biodiversity, with new species being discovered that can be used in food, medicine, fuel, and materials.</p> <p>Among the new species identified in 2019 in Brazil were two wild forms of cassava, one type of sweet potato, and a new species of yam — all of which have agricultural potential. &#8220;The discovery of new species of cassava is of worldwide importance, as 800 million people have diets based on this plant family,&#8221; reads the report. New species may be planted directly or crossed with other types of cassava to improve disease resistance or tolerance to climate changes.</p> <p>Brazil also saw 24 new species of guava, jabuticaba, and pitanga fruits. Even some well-studied plant families have seen new discoveries: there were 24 novel species of orchids and seven bromeliads. However, the study notes that two out of every five plant species in the world are near extinction.</p> <p>The researchers say that avoiding the extinction of vegetables is a way of protecting the human species. Besides helping to regulate climate and contribute to water supply, plants also provide food, fuel, and medicine.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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