São Paulo, BrazilThe jaguar’s paws were raw and pink when volunteers found him at the river’s edge, his final destination in a desperate search for water.
Since January, sweeping wildfires—likely set by farmers clearing land—have scorched nearly 20 percent of the young male's habitat in the Brazilian Pantanal, part of the world’s largest tropical wetland. Stretching across Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, the 70,000-square-mile Pantanal has the highest density of mammal species on Earth. While the Amazon rainforest, which is 30 times the size of the Pantanal, usually makes headlines with frequent wildfires, such blazes are not as common in the Pantanal. The biggest fires in the Pantanal this year are four times larger than the Amazon's biggest blazes, NASA satellites show.
To save its unique biodiversity, teams of volunteers have fanned out throughout the region, rescuing hundreds of animals and leaving others food and water.
In September, volunteers traveling by boat spotted the injured jaguar lying on his side on a riverbank in Encontro das Águas State Park, home to one of the species' highest populations.
The team sedated the animal and brought him to Porto Jofre, a hub for the many nonprofits, volunteer firefighters, and government organizations working to combat the fires and help wildlife. The jaguar was airlifted to an emergency hospital, and though he’s now recovering well at a rehabilitation center, it’s too early to say if he’ll be able to return to the wild. (Read how the Amazon wildfires harmed wildlife in 2019.)
“If the jaguar—an animal at the top of the food chain that swims, climbs trees, runs—is suffering like this, imagine what it’s like for more helpless animals,” says Carla Sássi, a veterinarian, firefighter, and coordinator of the Disasters Rescue Group for Animals, one of the local nonprofits that rescued the cat.
Sássi and her colleagues have set up 72 food and water points along 90 miles of the Transpantaneira highway, a major road through the Pantanal. The situation has become so dire that some animals, such as monkeys and tapirs, meet the rescuers every day when they return to replenish the provisions.
Many, like the coati—a raccoon relative—are found wandering along the roadside, dehydrated and exhausted. Those animals that depend heavily on water, like caiman, a reptile related to crocodiles, suffer the most as their habitat burns. (Learn how animals cope with wildfires.)
And especially worrisome, Sássi says, are the species that were declining before the fires. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the jaguar as near-threatened by extinction; there are between 4,000 and 7,000 jaguars in the Pantanal, out of a total of about 170,000 animals throughout Central and South America. The lowland tapir and the giant anteater are both considered vulnerable.
Beyond the lives lost, the fires will have a long-term ecological impact, experts say. Wildlife habitats for many species will be destroyed, likely leading to fierce competition between animals for remaining water sources. The Pantanal also provides food and water, as well as flood protection, for both wildlife and human communities, and these services could be hindered for decades.
Life-giving water for animals and people
Before the fires, the Pantanal, mostly located in the central-west Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, was well preserved, with 83 percent of its native vegetation cover intact.
Its wetlands act like a big sponge, retaining floodwaters in its upper basin from October to March, creating natural flood protection for people and animals living downstream, before slowly draining from April to September. This fall and winter influx of water hydrates the region long after summer rains have gone, keeping its more than 4,700 species of plants and animals—such as anacondas, toucans, anteaters, macaws, and capybaras—alive. (Go inside the efforts to help animals during the 2019 Amazon wildfires.)
As part of its hydrological cycle, water levels in the Pantanal shift between high and low flooding every seven to 10 years. The cycle is now on a natural decline that will likely last another four to six years. But in the last two years, this biome—or large ecosystem—has received even less rainfall than expected.
Part of the problem is what’s happening in neighboring biomes. Many of the 1,200 rivers and streams that make up the Pantanal originate in the Cerrado, a tropical savanna to the east and south that’s also ravaged by fire. To the north, the Amazon continues to shrink due to deforestation. The rainforest’s flora evaporate moisture into the air, which is responsible for part of the Pantanal’s rainfall. When the trees disappear, so does that water source.
Compounding such factors is the biome’s biggest drought in five decades: The volume of rainfall between October 2019 and March 2020 was 40 percent less than the average for the six-month period. (Read more about the world’s freshwater crisis.)
If the drought and wildfire pattern continue, the Pantanal could lose its annual flood pattern and, over time, become another Caatinga, a biome located in northeastern Brazil where species have adapted to scarce water.
“It essentially depends on water that comes from outside of itself, so if that water doesn’t arrive, the Pantanal’s landscape could change,” says Felipe Dias, executive director of the conservation nonprofit SOS Pantanal Institute.
That could also be disastrous for the more than 2.2 million people who live in the Brazilian Pantanal, many of whom not only depend on its natural resources for sustenance, but also for ecotourism.
Looking for wildfire solutions
Such concerns are why conservationists like Dias are working to prevent such wildfires from happening again. Key to that strategy is advocating for the creation of a national wildfire alert system, as well as investments in training and equipment for local volunteer firefighters, he says. (Here’s how wildfires form, and why they’re so dangerous.)
Such measures would also mean better protection for the jaguar, says Fernando Tortato, a jaguar researcher in the Pantanal for Panthera, a big cat nonprofit. (Why jaguars offer lessons in survival for all of us.)
“The Pantanal is one of the key areas for the conservation of the jaguar,” Tortato says, because its population was considered relatively well connected before the fires. The feline’s numbers have fallen mostly due to habitat fragmentation and human encroachment, which has led to conflicts with people and exposure to poachers.
If wildfires become the new normal, it's important for conservationists to understand how jaguars adapt to burned habitat. To that end, Tortato plans to monitor an animal that suffered superficial burns during this year’s fires and is expected to be returned to the wild with a GPS collar.
For now, rescuers are still focused on helping animals that need immediate attention. Sássi and her rescue group have also set up trap cameras to monitor the animals benefiting from the provided food and water and continue to give veterinary care to those in need.
Treating animals in the wetland for burns and dehydration was work she never expected to do, she adds.
“I never in my life,” she says, “thought we would have to bring water to the Pantanal.”