Inside the efforts to help animals hurt by the Amazon fires

Across Bolivia and Brazil, wild animals are dying in the blazes. One rescue center is working to help every survivor.

Photograph by Juan Pablo Ampudia, National Geographic
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This armadillo is one of 70 animals rescued from the fire zones around Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and treated in Centro de Rescate para Víctimas de Incendios Biotermal, a hotel turned animal treatment center in the small community of Aguas Calientes. Hotel owner José Sierra tries to calm the animal ahead of his release back to the wild.

Photograph by Juan Pablo Ampudia, National Geographic

Nearly every day for the past 35 days, biologist Raúl Ernesto Rojas and a group of volunteers have been out looking for animals on the edges of the flames roaring around Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Mostly, they find only charred bodies or bones. For any unseen survivors, they leave corn and fresh water cradled in palm husks.

“We stopped counting because there were too many,” Rojas says of the dead.

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Young volunteers from Roboré, a town about 20 miles from Aguas Calientes, attempt to extinguish flames. The young men work as a group to fight the fires that have already burned more than six million acres in the region.

The dead animals aren’t a surprise. Nothing in the Amazon is adapted to deal with the fires raging across parts of Bolivia and Brazil, as well as Peru and Paraguay—most set intentionally to clear forest for agriculture. To date in the Chiquitanía region around Santa Cruz, six million acres of forest—an area the size of Vermont—have burned, according to the city’s government. It’s not clear just how much of the Brazilian Amazon has burned this year, but the country’s National Institute for Space Research says the fires are unprecedented.

The toll the blazes are taking on the Amazon’s wildlife may never be known. Still, eyewitness accounts illustrate the consequences for individual animals—and the tremendous challenges facing the people trying to help.

“We found a lot of skeletons,” says Rojas, who works for the Santa Cruz government. The animals “were trying to run against the fire but were chased by the flames and burned. The main scenery is devastation and death. It’s ashes.”

Even monkeys are turning up dead, he says. If animals that fast and agile can’t escape the flames, “it’s a very bad sign” for slower-moving creatures. “I’ve been in touch with disasters like this for 15 years, but this one has no precedent.”

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Biologist Daniela Vidal monitors Valentina the anteater's vital signs. Shortly after Valentina was admitted with third-degree burns, she fell into a coma.

The city of Santa Cruz assigned Rojas and five other government staffers to work out of the Hotel Biotermal Aguas Calientes, which has been turned into a temporary animal rescue and rehabilitation center. Five volunteers from Santa Cruz University and a local wildlife park have also joined the effort. Centro de Rescate para Víctimas de Incendios Biotermal, as the ad hoc facility is called, opened on August 21 in Aguas Calientes, a town of about 900 people outside Santa Cruz. The facility is one of 12 in Bolivia that provide rescue and rehabilitative care for wild animals—and the only one dedicated to victims of the fires.

So far, the staff have treated 70 animals, including red-bellied turtles, parakeets, toucans, and a badger. Two weeks ago, they took in a giant anteater whose paws were covered with third-degree burns. “Her four legs were completely burned,” says Flora Cecilia Dorado, a veterinarian with the Santa Cruz government who has been leading rehabilitation efforts. Dorado says the anteater, which the staff named Valentina, has been their most stress-inducing rescue yet. Soon after she arrived, she fell into a coma for more than 18 hours. “She scared everyone,” Dorado says. “It’ll be a long road for Valentina.”

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The anteater’s story is unusual: Most animals that come in direct contact with the fires die. It’s why the center’s rescue count hasn’t yet topped 100: Bodies far outnumber survivors. Most animals that escape the flames and are brought to the center are starving and severely dehydrated.

Townspeople in Aguas Calientes and surrounding communities are helping out. “The communities nearby survive by hunting,” says José Sierra, who owns the hotel (now closed to guests) with his wife, Claudia Mostajo Hollweg. “But at the same time, a lot of people have been bringing in [injured] animals.” Four young orphaned peccaries—pig-like hoofed mammals—for example. A villager found them running around their mother, who had died, and brought them to the center.

Dorado describes caring for the animals as grueling and emotionally wrenching. They require round-the-clock attention, and she gets about three hours of sleep a night. Five animals, among them a toucan and a capybara, have died since being rescued. Others—including parrots, turtles, and a badger—have made full recoveries.

Dorado says she and her fellow caretakers minimize contact with the animals because they aim to return as many as possible to the wild. Last week, they released a hawk. Before that, an adult armadillo. Animals that can’t be released, such as a baby armadillo, are sent to the zoo in Santa Cruz for long-term care.

Mounting challenges

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Milagros ("Miracles") suffered fourth-degree burns on her face and neck when she was trapped by fire in a fenced field. By the time she arrived at the rescue center, she'd already suffered for several days. Despite receiving treatment, Milagros died.

Despite the community support and the dedication of the temporary staff, the center is struggling. The Santa Cruz government staffers, including Rojas and Dorado, could be recalled at any time, and there’s no equipment at hand to diagnose internal injuries. After a horse named Milagros (“Miracles”) got trapped inside fencing as flames closed in, she suffered fourth-degree burns over her body. José Sierra says staffers suspected that her lungs and liver had been heavily damaged from smoke inhalation, but they couldn’t make an assessment. Milagros died.

The team is concerned that they won’t get the equipment or resources they need to provide long-term care for the animals. “This is a tragedy right now,” Dorado says. “But the most important part is, what’s going to happen after this event?”

It’s election time in Bolivia, and local officials are happy to show up at releases of rescued animals and get media coverage, Rojas says. But he worries that that level of attention won’t last and won’t result in the center being made permanent or getting more equipment.

“It needs to be said out loud again and again,” Rojas says. When the rains come, and the fires die down, “everyone is going to forget about it. After the elections, everyone is going to forget about the animals. They will need attention for many, many months ahead. They need to support this initiative.”

In Brazil, limited options

The situation for animals in Brazil is similar to that in Bolivia, according to João Gonçalves, the Brazil communications manager for World Animal Protection, an international animal welfare nonprofit. Many animals don’t escape, and deaths are widespread. Those that do evade the flames and smoke are often orphaned or burned.

There’s no unified national effort to help animals hurt by fires, Gonçalves says. Rescues are done on a local, optional basis, and their extent varies widely in different areas. In most of the country, it’s up to firefighters who come across animal survivors to decide to rescue them and bring them to a local rehabilitation center—if one exists nearby.

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An aerial view of destroyed lemon trees in Roboré illustrates the scale of destruction.

Gonçalves singles out two regions 300 miles apart, Rio Branco and Porto Velho, that are experiencing fires. Rio Branco has a government-run center for animals, he says, but not Porto Velho. There, Gonçalves says, “if a firefighter would like to rescue an animal, he has no place to bring this animal for treatment.” There are only two other such animal centers in the Brazilian Amazon, and neither is close to areas of intense burning.

Firefighters aren’t ordinarily given animal rescue training, and they aren’t equipped with animal first-aid supplies or tools such as hooks for lifting snakes and boxes for transport. World Animal Protection is providing training and resources through partnerships with fire brigades in and around Rio Branco and hopes to expand those efforts.

Among the animals the Rio Branco center has taken in are two orphaned baby sloths found by firefighters. By necessity, rescuers focus on mitigating the suffering of individual animals, but the fires are so widespread, that entire animal populations may be undermined.

Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, estimates that the fires have already left 500 jaguars stranded or dead in Brazil and Bolivia. That’s 500 from an already declining population threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation, and hunting, says Esteban Payán, the organization’s South American regional director.

“It’s the speed of devastation” that’s so perilous, he says. “You’d never get hundreds of jaguars killed in just two weeks by hunters.”

A wake-up call?

To Bolivians working in the rescue center in Aguas Calientes, each success is a victory. “Every life matters. Every animal matters,” says Rojas, the biologist who spends his days searching the burn zones for animals in the ash.

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Staff from the Aguas Calientes rescue center, joined by government officials, release a hawk that made a full recovery. The facility has a temporary government permit, but owner José Sierra emphasizes the need to make it permanent in order to receive funding, equipment, and long-term staff.

“It’s hurtful, what has happened,” Dorado says. She hopes the stories of individual animals—Valentina the anteater, the orphaned baby peccaries, Milagros, the horse who succumbed to her injuries—will make people see the tangible consequences of the fires. “I hope people can be conscious that humans are the main reason for what is happening to these animals and nature. I hope people can wake up.”

On September 14, a Saturday, Dorado got married at the shelter to her long-term partner. “He had always said, ‘Tomorrow, when there’s more money.’ But after seeing this and being here for 15 days, I said to him, ‘I want to marry you here. Because there’s no tomorrow.’”

Then, early on the following Monday morning, she drove Valentina up to Santa Cruz for more treatment. Soon after, the anteater started to walk again.