Brazil’s Pantanal Wetland is On Fire, Joining Other Places Where Wildfires Rage or Have Recently Burned Out of Control
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The West Coast apocalypse has crowded out much discussion of other wildfires. And as the southern hemisphere moves into its summer season, Australia is bracing itself that it doesn’t repeat last season’s armageddon. But many people are not aware that Brazil’s Pantanal – the world’s largest wetland which is only one of the natural wonders of that country, is on fire and has been burning since July, joining the Amazon in flames. In Brazil, it’s not just the Amazon that is burning. The world’s largest wetland is on fire too.
In June 2004, I took my first trip to Latin America, beginning with some birdwatching in Peru with my husband, and guided by Swedish bird guide Gunnar Engblom. After that trip, which included my first foray to Machu Picchu, I joined a small group tour, which ranged over Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, including an overland cross through the Pantanal, with a brief dip into Argentina to look at their side of the majestic Iguazu Falls. After saying goodbye to my tour mates in Rio de Janiero, I joined a friend, and we explored Rio and then Salvador da Baia.
So that I am saddened to report on its current travails. Over to Reuters:
A fire has been burning since mid-July in the remote wetlands of west-central Brazil, leaving in its wake a vast charred desolation bigger than New York City.
A team of veterinarians, biologists and local guides arrived in late August to prowl the bumpy dirt road known as the Trans-Pantanal Highway in pickup trucks, looking to save what injured animals they could.
Jaguars were wandering the blackened wasteland, they said, starving or going thirsty, with paws burnt to the bone, lungs blackened by smoke. They saw bodies of alligator-like caiman, jaws frozen in silent screams, the last act of creatures desperate to cool off before being consumed by flames.
This massive fire is one of thousands of blazes sweeping the Brazilian Pantanal – the world’s largest wetland – this year in what climate scientists fear could become a new normal, echoing the rise in climate-driven fires from California to Australia.
I well remember those caiman, who sometimes approached a bit too close for comfort. They’re not quite nearly as large or as dangerous as Australian crocodiles. And that’s a good thing for me. Because if they were, I would be unlikely be present to tell this amusing story.
One afternoon, our local wildlife guide took us to the shores of a lake, where I am ashamed to say, he showed the gringo tourists what piranha could do by attracting them with a small bag of meat. And then he wandered a bit inland off the shore, at one point leaving behind the remaining meat. I don’t fault him, as the bag was still heavy and he didn’t want to carry it. We turned to watch the guide.
And then we all turned back to the lake. From which several caiman had emerged, wanting some dinner. And they all froze. It was a bit like they were playing that children’s game – I believe it is called Red Light, Green Light. Everyone lines up, and someone plays leaders, and turns around, and screams out Green Light. And then all the players race to tag the leader.
Except, he can yell out Red Light, and turn to face her or his challengers, each of whom must STOP immediately. Otherwise if the leader catches them in motion, s/he can call them out and send them back to square one.
So here we all were, faced with a line of caiman, who were poised on their way to claiming that meat. Or for all we knew, us.
I’m here to tell the tale, and perhaps we were never in real danger, as the guide didn’t even raise his defense stick. But as recently as August 2004, the Pantanal was teeming with caiman. But perhaps no more. And no one seems to know for sure what the damage has been. As the fires are still burning, it will take some time before the damage may be assessed.
As Reuters confirms:
The fires are now threatening one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, biologists say. The Pantanal is home to roughly 1,200 vertebrate animal species, including 36 that are threatened with extinction. Across this usually lush landscape of 150,000 square kilometers (57,915 square miles) in Brazil, rare birds flutter and the world’s densest population of jaguars roam.
Including a plethora of bird life – I remember in particular , tall marabou storks, and many kinds of macaws – scarlet, blue, and hyacinth.
Including a particular hyacinth specimen who ruled over the campground where we slept. Her name: chica teta (IIRC), which I believe means little girl. (Forgive my spelling, I’m operating on memory here, and Google translate has been no help. Anyone who can help, please chime in in comments, and I will correct the spelling.)
Anyway, she was anything but a little girl, and held court behind the bar, unless one of the guides – with whom she was in love – was nearby. And she would then clamber onto his shoulder. As sometimes happens with large birds – especially rare ones that rarely see a mate – she had transferred her affections to a big strapping man. To everyone else, she was beastly. I mean, she delighted in grabbing cameras, binoculars, or sunglasses, and then taking them to a great heightt far above. Since she was more than a meter tall, she could fly quite high, even carrying something. She would then release her treasure which would shatter when it collided again with the earth.
I’m of two minds about posting a video produced by a zoo. I ‘ve opted to do so, so that readers who have never seen one of these beautiful, blue birds, can do so. I trolled through lots of vetoes to find this one, and it was the least offensive of the lot.
And, I regret to say, that alas, with the damage we seem determined to inflict on wildlife, we may only in futures be able so see these natural wonders in zoos. Which I, as an avid birdwatcher, find do depressing to say.
Massive Wetland Wildfires
Reuters tells us that the wildfires have been especially bad this year:
A record 23,490 square kilometers have burned through Sept. 6 – nearly 16% of the Brazilian Pantanal, according to a Federal University of Rio de Janeiro analysis.
And I emphasize, this is in a wetland, not in dry territory; it typically floods during the rainy season. Reuters again:
The Pantanal is known for being wet, not dry. The world’s largest flood plain normally fills with several feet of water during the rainy season from around November to April each year.
This year, the floods never came. Only a little bit of water pooled in a ditch nearby, he said. Now as water evaporates in the dry season, the Paraguay River that traverses the Pantanal has receded to its lowest point since 1973, according to Julia Arieira, a climate researcher at Brazil’s Federal University of Espirito Santo.
Ocean warming is causing the burning, the Atlantic equivalent of the Pacific phenomenon known as El Niño. As per Reuters:
Scientists blame the drought on warming in the Atlantic Ocean just above the equator that’s drawing moisture away from South America and will send it north, likely in the form of stronger hurricanes.
NASA scientist Doug Morton said this phenomenon is caused by shifts in ocean temperature known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation – the Atlantic Ocean’s equivalent of El Niño in the Pacific. Unlike El Niño, which typically happens every 2-7 years, the oscillation alternates between hot and cold roughly every 30-40 years.
When it runs hot, as it has been since the 1990s, the warming in the tropical North Atlantic is more likely to occur, contributing to South American droughts and fires.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonoro hails from the Donald Trump school of climate denial, and he has weakened environmental enforcement. So the only optimistic thing I can find to say about fires in the Pantanal is, according to Reuters:
No humans have died in the Pantanal fires, according to Mato Grosso state firefighting Lieutenant Colonel Jean Oliveira, who has been leading all government agencies in the fire response. Separately, local media on Thursday reported one fatality in the state.
But that doesn’t mean nothing has died, writes Reuters:
While there aren’t exact counts, at a minimum thousands of animals have perished, according to biologist Rogério Rossi at the Federal University of Mato Grosso.
The roving veterinary team is able to save only a tiny fraction of the injured animals. Many of these creatures are difficult to catch, far from accessible roads.
I encourage interested readers to click on the link above, which features a slideshow.
And the entire article is worth a read, if only as a reminder that climate change-fuelled fires respect no borders, although the US is not the only country to be saddled with climate change denialists.