The fires that are raging through the Brazilian Pantanal threaten to destroy one of the world’s most beautiful and biodiversity-rich wildernesses.
They are also gravely damaging one of South America’s most popular tourism destinations.
Since the 1990s, the Pantanal – the largest floodplain on the planet – has grown from being an off-beat adventure travel option to become a mainstream holiday experience, drawing travellers from all over the world as well as Brazil’s densely populated coastal cities.
When Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014, it was no accident that one of the host cities was Cuiabá in Mato Grosso – the Pantanal’s main gateway. A brand new stadium was built in the fast-growing city, which is a cultural and commercial hub for the region.
Most travellers visit the Pantanal, however, not for the urban experience but to venture out on to the glistening waters of the flooded grasslands, home to more than 500 bird species – including macaw, toucan, rhea and huge flocks of wood stork – and some of the most eye-catching, and vulnerable, mammals in the world.
The Pantanal is one of very few spots where people can see the South American Big Five: jaguar, giant anteater, tapir, maned wolf and giant otter. Caiman and capybara, capuchin monkeys and anaconda abound in the wetland ecosystem, and a sophisticated infrastructure of lodges, floating hotels and motor-launches has been developed to support the booming bird and animal-watching tourism industry.
The pandemic might have provided a holiday for the wildlife, allowing rangers and scientists to concentrate on research and infrastructure. Instead, the Unesco-listed Pantanal Conservation Area has been devastated by out-of-control fires.
More than 15,000 fires have been recorded so far in 2020, triple the number recorded in the same period last year, according to data collected by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Given that 2019 was also a record year for fires, the statistic is particularly alarming.
Brazil’s National Centre for the Prevention of Forest Fires (Prevfogo) calculates that 7.2m acres (2.9m hectares) of wetlands and surrounding bush have been destroyed. NASA, using satellite imagery, estimates that more than one tenth of the Pantanal has been razed.
The fires are taking place during the most severe drought to hit the Pantanal in almost 50 years. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the water levels in the Paraguay River, one of the most important in the biome, were at “critical levels” in early August.
Hundreds of animals have been killed or gravely injured and thousands more have been forced to flee their habitats. The charred remains of jaguar, deer and reptiles lie along roadsides, while starving and thirsty animals can be seen wandering across blackened plains.
Forest fires often occur naturally at this time of the year but they are also deliberately started by ranchers, who scorch the fields to return nutrients to the land. Cattle have always co-existed with wildlife in the Pantanal. While it is difficult to prove where fires have burned out of control or have been deliberate started to clear more land, environmentalists allege that President Jair Bolsonaro’s vocal contempt for conservation has given ranchers carte blanche. To the current crisis, the Brazilian leader has reacted with denials, obfuscation and his trademark tantrums.
The Amazon forests have also been burning since 2019. According to Greenpeace, the current year could be even more devastating for the rainforest and the indigenous peoples who live there. The Brazilian Cerrado, the most biodiverse savanna in the world, is also on fire.
“Bolsonaro’s atrocious tactics have real consequences,” says Rômulo Batista, Amazon Campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil. “While firefighters, military and volunteers put themselves at risk to stop these devastating fires, Bolsonaro laughs at the catastrophe facing the Pantanal, and puts a death sentence on those working to protect both the Amazon and a healthy life on this planet. Global political and business leaders must immediately condemn his call for violence and demand an end to this destruction.”
After Rio de Janeiro and the central Amazon, the Pantanal is one of Brazil’s most talismanic tourism destinations. Tour operators choose it because the wildlife is densely concentrated and far easier to observe than in rainforest environments. A study carried out by scientists from the Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso, University of East Anglia and big cat charity Panthera argued that jaguar tourism should be “explicitly considered by government agencies as a major revenue generator in the Pantanal”.
At flagship projects such as Onçafari, tourism leaders and wildlife experts work with rural communities to encourage the protection of jaguars. Thanks to sustained and healthy wildlife sightings, ecotourism in the Pantanal has been a rare success story in Brazil, bringing with it jobs, opportunities and revenue to the region.
The out-of-control fires threaten to undo decades of harmonious development, says Stuart Whittington of Journey Latin America.
“The fires we are seeing in Brazil’s Pantanal at the moment are sadly destroying huge areas of precious tropical wetlands, vital ecosystems that remain home to some of Latin America’s most endangered wildlife. Over recent years, canny environmentalists have made giant leaps forward in developing ecotourism to conserve and rejuvenate populations of endangered wildlife in this area, but unfortunately the damage being done by these current fires risks a longer-term disaster for these world-class ecotourism initiatives, which help support the local communities, economy and conservation of declining native species.
“The unprecedented devastation being caused by these fires is not only a disaster to the wildlife and ecosystems today, it has the potential to decimate the sustainable tourism initiatives that are instrumental to supporting both the wildlife and local communities of the Pantanal.”