More than 17,000 wildfires have been recorded since the start of the year in the Pantanal, a vast stretch of tropical wetlands in southwestern Brazil, which is considered a sanctuary to a remarkable array of biodiversity, including a large population of jaguars. Faced with this unprecedented crisis, volunteers are working around the clock to rescue the wild animals injured or displaced by the fires.

Devastating wildfires have ripped across the Brazilian Amazon and other tropical forests like the Pantanal, which covers parts of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. This year alone, fires have destroyed over 13,000 square miles, or 23 percent, of the Brazilian portion of the Pantanal. This represents an ecological disaster, since the Pantanal is home to an wide range of wildlife, including 656 species of birds, 159 species of mammals and 98 species of reptiles.

Environmental experts were quick to understand the gravity of the situation and mobilised to help the animals trapped by the flames..

"The Pantanal looks like a forest of ash. There is nothing left for the animals to eat”

Twenty-year-old Eduarda Fernandes works as a tour guide at the Encontro das Aguas Park, the world’s largest sanctuary for jaguars. For the past few weeks she’s been leading groups of volunteer firefighters and veterinarians across the Pantanal.
 
In June and July, we started seeing the fires from afar, but we never imagined that they would become so massive and that it would be so hard to put them out.

In some places, the flames reached a height of 25 metres. Right now, the situation is calmer than it was a month ago. The fire passed through our area and has now moved on to other locations.

Right now, the Pantanal looks like a desert of ash. There are no plants left for the herbivore animals to eat. Last month, I got the idea to leave food and water for the animals in the area. We started by using our own money to order a gigantic amount of fruit. Now, both private individuals and associations are helping us out, either by donating or actually helping us to distribute food.

I also put together a group to help wounded animals. We go out to look for them but we are very careful about our method. For example, if an animal has burns but can still get around then we don’t intervene. We only capture the animals who we find lying down, who are no longer able to go and get food and water for themselves. The area where we are is very remote so we need cars, boats and cages to help the animals. The veterinarians working with us have professional anesthetics. We picked up a jaguar, for example, in an area that is only accessible by boat. We had to get it out of there, put it in a cage, put the cage onto a boat and then bring it to a place accessible by helicopter. The cat was then transported to a treatment center.
 
"We’ve never seen so many animals die”

Some people have been saying that there are fires in the Pantanal every year. Yes, it’s true that every year, there are a few isolated fires. But they are controllable. This year, the fires were out of control. We’ve never seen so many animals die. The worst-affected were the reptiles and the amphibians. They usually seek refuge in holes in the ground. And then when the fire comes, they end up trapped.
Our work in the Pantanal garnered a lot of interest on social media as well as in traditional media outlets and other groups have started doing similar work. Now, we are working with a huge group of people, which enables us to cover a large area. AMPARA Animal (an animal rights group) helps us with logistics. We are also now working with GRAD teams, who are volunteers trained to save animals during natural disasters.

In the future, we want to set up reforestation projects. The fires ravaged gigantic swathes of land and even if the Pantanal is capable of regenerating, we want to accelerate the process. We also need to build enclosures for the animals who won’t be able to return to life in the wild.

"It’s the first time that we’ve received jaguars in such a critical state"

Two injured jaguars were transported from Pantanal to Corumbá de Goiás, located near Brasília, where they were admitted to a veterinary clinic specialized in the care of big cats run by the NGO Nex No Extinction.

Silvano Gianni is the executive director of this organisation:
 
We’ve been treating two jaguars who were hurt in the fires the Pantanal, even though that’s about 1,000 kilometres from where we are located. They were transferred here by van because both had serious burns. Right now, they are receiving medical treatment financed by our partner organisations.

One of the jaguars, who we named Amanaci, arrived with severe burns. She could no longer move by herself. There was almost no flesh left on her paws; you could see her bones.

The other jaguar, who we named Ousado, arrived two or three days later. He was in better health, with just second degree burns. He is almost ready to go back to the wild. The problem is that his habitat caught on fire. So we are trying to come up with a plan to reintroduce him back to the habitat where he was living by giving him food so that he can survive.

It’s the first time we’ve received jaguars in such a critical state. They would have probably died if they weren’t brought here. The jaguars we’ve saved are symbolic, they are like two icons in the fight for conservation.




On September 22, during a speech at the virtual opening of the UN General Assembly, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro played down the fires ravaging the Amazon and the Pantanal and blamed indigenous farmers for starting them.

However federal police in the Pantanal are currently focusing their investigations on five large-scale farmers, suspected of having set fire to the vegetation to transform it into pastureland. The Brazilian president also complained that the government was victim to a “brutal campaign of misinformation” about the fires.

On September 14, the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, where the Brazilian Pantanal is located, declared a state of emergency. This will make it possible to mobilise more means and materials to respond to the crisis. The same week, the government allocated nearly 13.9 million Brazilian reals (equivalent to €2.1 million) to help the two states combat the fires.

Article by Maëva Poulet