Successfully Saving Pantanal Jaguars from Brazil's Wildfires

By Ross Rosenthal
Marketing and Communications Specialist

jaguar face

In this blog, the trauma of the recent fires in the Brazilian Pantanal and Panthera’s work there is recapped. The devastating effects they had on wildlife and ongoing concerns are discussed; however, exciting developments are taking place aimed at fighting the fires and building hope for the future. 

In late 2020, a refugee in need of help stumbled into a home in the northern Brazilian Pantanal. She was a jaguar named Gloria, with badly burnt paws from the effects of raging, devastating wildfires in the region. The local people, supported by NGOS including Panthera, immediately rushed to her service and ensured she got the care she needed. 

Gloria the jaguar with her bandaged paws. | © ABIGAIL MARTIN 

Across the world, wildfires highly intensified by climate change are devastating ecosystems and the wildlife and people who so desperately need them. Unfortunately, stories like that of Gloria may become all the more common. And this is no truer than in the Pantanal. 

In fall 2020, the Pantanal saw some of the worst wildfires in recent memory. After an extremely long dry season, there was an extremely large mass of dry brush, and rivers did not fill with enough water to form natural barriers to fire. As a result, when fires caught, they had catastrophic consequences. It is estimated that roughly 30 to 40 percent of the region’s land burned during this period. Especially hard hit were the Pantanal’s riverine forests, which, unlike the region’s savannas, do not have a natural mechanism for mitigating and controlling the effects of wildfires.

The Panthera team tries to prevent the fires from destroying wooden bridges.
The Panthera team tries to prevent the fires from destroying wooden bridges. | © FERNANDO TORTATO/PANTHERA

Many species of the Pantanal’s wildlife could not escape the devastating effects of the fires. Much of the ecosystem’s important biodiverse life was consumed in the flames. And it is estimated that roughly 600 jaguars were affected by the wildfires. These big cats, a symbol of the region, were in dire need of assistance.

However, Panthera and its partners, both in 2020 and now in 2021, did and are doing everything they can to rush to the aid of this ecosystem. Thanks to the support of the Pantanal Relief Fund, created by Climb for Conservation and the Jaguar Identification Project, our Jofre Velho Ranch was one of the few in the area that managed to save approximately 30 percent of the land surrounding it from the devastation. They are also facilitating the efforts of fire brigades. As a result of the fires, Brazilian society mobilized to form these brigades, one of which operates through the Jofre Velho Ranch, the Brigada Alto Pantanal-Jofre. It is tasked with fighting fires and defending the land from these blazes, as well as taking preventative measures. 

Our team is also razor-focused on creating and cleaning roads and firebreaks. Firebreaks are strips of land clear of debris, which makes it difficult for fires to spread over that terrain. Often, firebreaks are roads themselves. They have worked diligently to clear these firebreaks of as much dead foliage as possible. This is difficult, however, because the firebreaks are often flooded for a few months of the year. 

Even after saving a large proportion of the surrounding ecosystem, exciting developments mean Panthera Brazil is even more prepared to protect tapirs, ocelots and jaguars. They recently received a donation of a mobile 5,000-liter water tank from the NGO SOS Pantanal, which will greatly help them in this fight. They have also held trainings from local fire departments, and the Director of the Encontro das Águas State Park, Mr. Raimundo Fagundes, visited for a discussion. At this point, we have too constructed a large warehouse to house our fire equipment, which is now in very high stock. 

The effects of their mobilization are already apparent. In June, the team responded to a fire in the Transpantaneira road, where they quickly managed to put out the inferno. We hope that this is an encouraging sign of things to come, especially if the fires come back in a similarly destructive form. 

However, this season, things are looking up. Government firefighting organizations and private brigades are more on the alert, better organized and working in unison. Preventive warnings have been issued and we have discussed with local stakeholders, cattlemen and local inhabitants how fires this year are much more in line with the normal naturally occurring fires in the region. Slightly more rain during the dry season, significantly less wind and less combustible material in the savannas have also made it harder for fires to spread. And, of course, fire brigades have much more resources to prevent and fight fires, with better support from water-spreading small airplanes, that can rapidly access some areas difficult for the brigades to trek.

A male jaguar happily runs along in the Pantanal | © LISA ANTELL

Though our team can take preventative measures, the fact of the matter is that the Pantanal and ecosystems all over the world are at increased risk of abnormally destructive fires due to climate change. Thankfully, we have a loyal family of donors and supporters who helped Panthera recover from last year’s devastating fires and prepare against this year’s new season. Thanks to the hard work of scientists and community members on the ground — supported by everyday people from around the globe — we can ensure the unique beauty of the Pantanal and its jaguars for years to come.

Learn more about jaguars.