The Pantanal has fascinated me since I first learned about it in a documentary ten years ago. It is a world of contrasts with dramatically different wet and dry seasons, and a land of many uses spanning three countries. Home to the elusive jaguar, other varieties of wildlife, spectacular landscapes, and Brazil’s rich cowboy or “pantaneiro” heritage, the Pantanal is quickly becoming part of every wildlife traveler’s bucket list.
In late 2019, while the world was focused on the fires of the Brazilian Amazon and Australia, fires also raged in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. Stretching over 81,000 sq. mi across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal is about the size of Kansas. It is home 10 million caimans, the largest concentration of crocodiles in the world and one of the highest density of jaguars anywhere on earth. Sighting these animals and others help attract the 1 million tourists who visit the Pantanal every year.
In October and November 2019, the Pantanal experienced record fires that engulfed an area larger than Yellowstone National Park (over 9,200 square miles), because of intense temperatures and high winds.
To learn more about the Pantanal and fires, I caught up with Cassio Bernardino and Júlio César Sampaio da Silva of WWF-Brazil’s Cerrado Pantanal Program. In an interview, they were kind enough to answer my questions and share their personal insights.
1.Annual forest fires are a normal and even healthy part of the Pantanal’s ecosystem. Why were the 2019 fires uncommon and especially destructive?
The Pantanal is a biome that co-evolved with occurrence of fires. Part of its vegetation is adapted, with ticker corks and leaves. As the Pantanal is a grassland, the fires can rapidly and easily disseminate. Those fires, in pristine times, were caused by natural phenomena, like lightning. With the incidence of human activity, the frequencies of the fires and its duration are getting higher and longer, causing a lot of damage and giving no time for the biome’s cycle of regeneration. On the other hand, the fragmentation of habitats makes it harder for animals to move, causing losses on this group. We are also seeing drier periods, with less rains, and therefore more probability of fire occurrence and dissemination. This is what caused the second round of fires to flare up in January 2020 which spread well into the Pantanal Matogrossense National Park and devastated the wildlife and habitat. These fires were finally extinguished by rain in mid-February.
2. In relation to the size of the Pantanal, how large and destructive were the fires?
The Pantanal, taking in account its size, had 6.3 times more fire alerts than the Amazon in the Brazilian territory. Also, the area burned is estimated in 20,833 km² (8,044 mi²) in the Brazilian portion, it is almost the size of Massachusetts state. This corresponds to around 13% of the Brazilian Pantanal. It was definitely a serious disaster. Many attribute the prolonged dry seasons to climate change.
3. How were important species, such as the jaguar at risk and impacted? How is the recovery since the fires?
There is no available data indicating the impacts of the fires in those species, but firefighters share accounts of many animals that perished, like caiman, snakes, and birds. The Blue Parrot project, that monitors nests of the species accounted losses in 33% of the monitored nests.
4. How were major industries such as cattle ranching and tourism impacted? For example, were lodges destroyed or forced to close?
Around 95% of the Pantanal is under private ownership, the majority of which is used for cattle grazing. The areas that are protected are globally significant, with some UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves and some under the Ramsar agreement that requires national governments to conserve and wisely use wetlands.
The tourism and cattle ranches were the most impacted. Many ranchers lost not only their grasslands, but also valuable infrastructure like fences. And, it is important to say that cattle ranching in the natural grasslands has happened for more than 200 years in the Pantanal, and was not responsible for deforestation, guaranteeing 82% of natural land cover. Many ranchers are also small hotel and lodge owners, receiving tourists at their properties. They had issues related to losing structures and losing clients. The iconic Cayman Lodge was one of the most impacted, with a lot of habitat loss on their lands.
5. What role did WWF-Brazil have during the fires and as part of the recovery efforts?
WWF is member of multi stakeholder crises committee chaired by the Firefighters Corps of Mato Grosso do Sul. We were able to play a strategic role in this group, in addition to supporting the firefighters in the field with donations of equipment, like water pumps and personal protection equipment for those fighting the fires directly.
6. What human threats are causing greater and more frequent forest fires?
Sources believe the fires were primarily caused by burning by farmers that spread out of control over an unseasonably dry landscape. The fire is generally used to manage the pasture, but it is used without technique and without the necessary permission. It is important to find alternatives to the use of fire, but also educate how to safely use controlled burns.
7. How were communities impacted? Specifically, rural and indigenous?
The indigenous territories in the Pantanal were also affected by the fires. In the Kadiwéu indigenous people land, 322 thousand hectares were burned. In rural communities you also see impacts. The fire causes losses of properties, pasture, but also, they create a huge impact in the daily lives of the people, as they need to mobilize themselves to combat the flames exposing their communities to big risks.
8. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The Pantanal is a unique and important ecosystem. The world needs to know it and value it. It is important to the international community to bring attention for the management of this fragile ecosystem and also, for the government to make an official commitment to its protection.
By Karl Egloff, WWF