Fighting Fires in the Brazilian Pantanal

By Rafael Hoogesteijn, M.S., D.V.M.
Conflict Program Director, Jaguar Program

Fire 1

As new fires rage in the Brazilian Pantanal, five times the amount of last year's inferno, Panthera's jaguar scientists have had to take on an urgent new role: firefighters on the frontlines, where they're setting up breakers, conducting flyovers, and helping to keep the fires from taking the lives of the Pantanal's wildlife, scorching habitats and destroying bridges and livelihoods of local people.

Editor's Note: As of September 10, Panthera conservatively estimates that approximately 200 jaguars have been impacted, including displaced, injured and/or killed, by the current fires throughout the entire Pantanal.

The Pantanal is under siege from wildfires. Over 1 million hectares have already burnt, more than 10% of the region. Brazil's Pantanal is a unique ecosystem and has the world's largest flooded forested grasslands, but when I look around some areas, all I see is burned soil peppered with a few bare trees. On the last day of August, the fires finally reached Panthera's Fazenda Jofre Velho Ranch. We are working to prevent these fires from spreading further by building fire breaks and quenching the fires on the numerous wooden bridges of the Transpantaneira Road. So far, we have kept it away from the ranch's central buildings and pastures, but unless the rains come soon, those too may be at risk.

Panthera is on-the-ground working with the government, local communities and other organizations to fight these fires and mitigate their impacts, including hosting a large group at the ranch. This is not my first firefight, as I have spent 40 years as a cattle veterinarian in the Llanos of Venezuela, where I learned how to prevent and fight fires and treat animals. 

Our first priority is to protect people's lives by stopping the fires from burning their homes and communities, including their cattle corrals. After that, we focus on saving wildlife. Climb for Conservation and the Jaguar ID Project (spearheaded by April Kelly and Abbie Martin) set up the Pantanal Relief Fund to provide equipment, food and supplies, as well as manpower, to fighting these devastating fires. The local Wildlife & Jaguar Oriented Tourism Guides Association (Aecopan) is also involved, as well as Joao Paulo Falcão and Eduarda Fernandes, who are leading the Animal Rescue Team. Our third priority is to save as much un-burnt habitat as possible, for all the surviving fauna and flora to find refuge and food.

Firefighting trucks

While fires are a normal part of all tropical savannas' ecology, including the Pantanal, this year has been an especially weird situation. For generations, Pantaneiros used prescribed burning at the beginning of the rainy season (when plant roots are already humid) to prevent the accumulation of dead vegetation that leads to more massive and intense fires. This practice changed in 1974 when the Northern Pantanal region (Poconé District) was hit by a massive flood, killing 90% of cattle and causing many ranchers to go bankrupt. 

After 45 years with many ranches abandoned, and without cattle trampling vegetation, dead grass and plants accumulated in dense layers. Combined with the worst dry season of the last half-century (we have had no rain since April), this created a dangerous situation. 

After an intense 2019 dry season that included fires that were only controlled last January, we had only the briefest of rainy reasons. The region's rivers, lagoons and corixos (seasonal water streams) didn't fill with enough water to act as natural barriers to wildfires like they usually would. With the increase of deforestation across Latin America, we are experiencing more extreme seasons, shorter and more intense rainy seasons, and longer and harsher dry seasons, resulting in the potential for more severe fires. 

The Pantanal's savannas are adapted to fires and very resilient in their recovery. However, the region's riverine-forested areas aren't so lucky. Jaguars and ocelots use these unique environments extensively. All large mammal prey species of the Pantanal like tapirs, swamp deer, capybaras, brocket deer and peccaries, are associated with it as well. 

Wildfires can be extremely dangerous to wildlife, especially when strong winds allow them to travel faster. The flames quickly engulf smaller and slower animals like amphibians, reptiles and small mammals and destroy the microflora, changing the soil composition. These impacts also indirectly kill larger animals like jaguars, who depend on prey that don't survive. These fires' long-term effects also include the possibility of the "Dequada" — a situation in which heavy rains flush large quantities of ash into waterways, killing fish and other aquatic organisms.

Fighting fires

The deadly combination of a long dry season, flammable layers of dead vegetation, and no natural barriers have allowed wildfires burning since June to travel hundreds of kilometers into the Pantanal. Unfortunately, the people of the Pantanal are not used to these large, out-of-control fires. The only way to try to control fires of this magnitude in these savannas is to select areas with grasses or low vegetation along the remaining "corixos" and clean the ground of vegetation with a bulldozer. These areas become fire barriers to stop advancing flames from going further into forested and inhabited areas. Unfortunately, we can only use bulldozers since we have no big airstrips nearby for large fire-controlling airplanes (like those used in the US) to land and refuel.

There is hope through the smoke, especially for a jaguar named Gloria, who was rescued from the flames despite having badly burned paws. When people noticed her seeking refuge around the community, they immediately acted to save her. In other parts of Latin America, she might have been killed on the spot. But in this region of the Pantanal, the relationship between people and wildlife runs so deep that the community did everything they could to save her. They kept this four-year-old big cat alive until she could be brought to a rescue center and get medical treatments. Gloria is healing nicely, and veterinarians are continuing to monitor her in hopes of a future release. 

Clearly, the value of wildlife and ecotourism is not lost on these communities. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has already severely impacted this lifeline. Thanks to the pandemic, there has been no jaguar-oriented tourism this year, but I am confident that we can be back in business next year with many of those planning to visit in 2020 rescheduling. I am also hopeful that the rains that normally show up in October follow recent predictions and bring relief earlier. In the meantime, we fight on.

Combating fires is very hard work and we are incredibly thankful for the coordination between Panthera's Brasil team and especially grateful to Elizeu Evangelista da Silva, Suelen Macedo Leite and Fernando Tortato. We are also very thankful to everyone who has sent aid so far, including Climb for Conservation and the Jaguar ID Program. You can help the people and animals in the Pantanal by supporting Panthera and other organizations working to fight fires and protect wildlife. 

Learn more about jaguars in the Pantanal.