New Study Confirms 17 Million Animals Killed Immediately by 2020 Wildfires in Brazilian Pantanal

Scientists estimate higher death count for animals unaccounted, killed after fires

Rigorous wildfire mitigation efforts, including management of organic matter used as fuel, required to sustain life in the Pantanal as climate change intensifies

December 16, 2021

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New York, NY - In a devastating blow to one of Earth’s most biodiverse ecosystems, at least 17 million vertebrates are estimated to have been killed immediately by wildfires that burned a quarter of the Brazilian Pantanal in 2020, according to a new study from the Mogu Mata Network, coordinated by Embrapa Pantanal and ICMBio/CENAP, in which Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, actively participated.

Moreover, scientists estimate the death tally to be substantially higher than 17 million when incorporating underrepresented animals, including those hidden underground, and those that perished days and weeks after wildfire-induced starvation, injuries and conflict with communities.

Published by Scientific Reports, the study illuminates the catastrophic impact of large-scale wildfires on wildlife and highlights the desperate need for interminable wildfire mitigation efforts within the Pantanal, including through more effective management of biomass or organic matter serving as fire fuel.

Escalating this need, climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the coming decades. The Pantanal in particular is forecast to experience a 30% decrease in rainfall between 2070 and 2100, along with an increase in temperature and frequency of extreme climate events.

Lead author Walfrido Tomas, from Embrapa Pantanal stated, “Climate change is a major challenge for the conservation of wetlands worldwide, and wildfire is an expected consequence of drier climate and more frequent extreme climate events such as this one seen in the Pantanal. Under this scenario, the establishment of proper fire use strategies are key to overcome the cumulative impact of wildfire on the ecosystems. As the Pantanal is a tropical wet savanna, fire should never be excluded from the ecosystem nor be applied in the vegetation management practices in a wrong manner, in the wrong time of the year, in the wrong type of vegetation, and in an inadequate frequency.”

While fire is part of a tropical savanna’s ecology, the combination of an intense dry season in 2019 with a brief rainy season prevented the region’s waterways from filling with enough water to act as natural barriers against the spread of wildfires in 2020. Scientists expect shorter and more intense rainy seasons paired with longer, harsher dry seasons to become the norm in Latin America as deforestation and climate change continue to alter weather patterns.

Along with climate change, deforestation, incorrect ignition and use of fire, inadequate landscape management strategies and vegetation encroachment are all driving factors behind the increased frequency and intensity of catastrophic fires. Wildfire prevention strategies urged by scientists include national and state legislation outlining proper fire usage; monitoring for fire detection; establishment of firefighter brigades; community education programs; effective enforcement of fire policies; and implementation of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centers.

Panthera Conservation Scientist and study co-author Fernando Tortato stated, “The loss of 17 million animals in the Brazilian Pantanal is a tragedy that should take the global community’s breath away. With the likelihood of increased wildfire frequency and intensity not only in the Pantanal ecosystem but across the globe due to climate change, it is critically important to do all that we can to reverse course and prevent the millions of deaths of our planet’s extraordinary wildlife species.”

To conduct the study, researchers surveyed regions of the Brazilian Pantanal to count vertebrate carcasses within 72 hours of fire events from January to November 2020, recording animals from 55 taxonomic families. While 17 million represents an extraordinary number of vertebrates, scientists believe this is a great underestimate of the true scale of loss. Underrepresented in the study were smaller vertebrates, including amphibians, snakes and rodents, whose bodies were calcined, covered in ash and not visible to researchers.

Large-bodied animals, including jaguars and pumas, were not included in the study as they were among the injured animals often found alive by rescuers. While more mobile than many others, jaguar refugees that do manage to survive are still sure to face a number of threats, including loss of prey and conflict with other jaguars and communities.

Scientists estimate that the recurrence of wildfires in the Pantanal at the scale of those in 2020 represents a major threat to the biodiversity of the Pantanal, along with valuable water and other ecosystem services provided to human communities.

Panthera has been active in the Pantanal since 2012 through the Pantanal Jaguar Project, which aims to create one of the world’s largest, contiguous jaguar corridors, mitigate human-jaguar conflict through conservation demonstration ranches, foster a flourishing ecotourism industry and operate conservation education initiatives through the Panthera-built Jofre Velho School. During the 2020 wildfires, Panthera worked on the ground with the government, local communities and other groups to fight fires and help mitigate their impact on people, animals and vegetation.

The study comes on the heels of Panthera research published in Conservation Science and Practice in October which estimated that 1,470 jaguars in the Brazilian Amazon were killed or displaced from 2016-2019 due to accelerated deforestation and wildfires, including the 2019 Day of Fire.