It’s not just the Amazon that has been burning more fiercely since Bolsonaro took office as the president of Brazil. The world’s most important wetlands, the Pantanal in the western part of Brazil, has seen the number of fires increase from 1,147 between August and October of 2018 to 6,958 in the same period this year. This means that animals, such as the beloved blue arara, are suffering and more dangerously threatened with extinction.
Fires threaten the lives of several animals that used to thrive in the rich biodiversity of Pantanal – not to mention the vegetation. After the fire vanishes, the land is strewn with the burnt bodies of alligators, lizards and snakes, many of whom probably died of thirst.
“There is no estimate as to how many trees and animals were burnt”, Carine Emer, a biologist with Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp), told G1. “It is difficult to predict how long it will take for the area to recover. it depends on how long the fires will last, what will have been destroyed,” she added.
Júlio Sampaio, a forest engineer who specializes in environmental restoration and manager of WWF‘s Cerrado and Pantanal’s programs, says that although no estimates have been made about the impact of the fires on wildlife, it is fair to say it has been high.
“There are reports of incinerated animals and animals smothered by smoke. Slow-moving animals such as small animals and reptilians are the ones who suffer most with the fires,” he said.
He notes that, unlike some plants who are genetically wired to survive fires, animals are not. “There is no specimens in the Brazilian fauna that is adapted to live with fires,” he says. “This makes the impact of fires on animals much bigger for animals than for plants. But there are no studies, so it is hard to make an assessment.”
He warns that fires do increase the risk of extinction for threatened species such as the various types of anteaters who live in the region, the local wolf known as ‘lobo-guará’ and birds such as the blue arara.
In fact, the only estimate was made by Instituto Arara Azul, an NGO that founded and manages a refuge called Refúgio Ecológico Caiman (REC), the largest breeding center of the blue bird in the Pantanal region, spanning 54 thousand hectares. Currently, there 98 registered nests, 52% of which are natural and 48% artificial.
“The fire reached our farm on September 10,” says biologist Neiva Guedes, president of the institute and a professor with the post-graduation program in environment and development at Universidade Anhanguera Uniderp (Universidade para o Desenvolvimento do Estado e da Região do Pantanal), in Campo Grande. In her first report on the impact of fires, Neiva said in total 16 babies and 23 eggs were destroyed by the fires.
Neiva says future generations will be affected by this year’s losses since the dead babies will not be reproducing in nine or ten years’ time. “We also need to know what will happen to their food sources, which was never a limiting factor. But with the fires, hectares of the acuri palm tree were totally destroyed. This plant is key not only for blue araras but also for other species who feed off their pulp, including cattle,” she said.
According to the government of Mato Grosso do Sul, the forest fires erupted in various directions and at a scale never seen before. They were caused by the dry period as well as arsonists.
Roadside fires represent a danger to drivers as well. At points, they reach 10 meters high and form a smoke screen that turns day into night and drastically reduces road visibility.
The situation has become so dire that the state government declared a state of emergency. According to the secretary of environment, economic development, production and small-time farming, Jaime Verruck, most of the fires are criminal and started by farmers to open up more farmland. Reduced rainfall, which was down to 30% of what is normal at this time of year, made the situation worse.