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Devastation as world’s biggest wetland burns: ‘those that cannot run don’t stand a chance’
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Devastation as world’s biggest wetland burns: ‘those that cannot run don’t stand a chance’

Perched atop blackened trees, howler monkeys survey the ashes around them. A flock of rheas treads, disoriented, in search of water. The skeletons of alligators lie lifeless and charred.

The Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland and one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, is on fire. Huge stretches of land resemble the aftermath of a battle, with thick green shrubbery now a carpet of white ash, and chunks of debris falling from the sky.

More than 760,000 hectares (1.8m acres) have already burned across the Brazilian Pantanal in 2024, as fires surge to the highest levels since 2020, the worst year on record. From January to July, blazes increased by 1,500% compared with the same period last year, according to the country’s Institute for Space Research.

Burned trees and blackened ground. View image in fullscreen

“The impact is devastating. Animals are dying, wildfires are vanishing huge areas,” says Gustavo Figueirôa, a biologist at SOS Pantanal, a non-governmental organisation. “We expect it is only going to get worse.”

Stretching across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal covers 16.9m hectares (42m acres) and harbours rich biodiversity. It is one of the world’s main refuges for jaguars and houses a host of vulnerable and endangered species, including giant river otters, giant armadillos and hyacinth macaws. Its ecosystem is also unique. Every year its “flood pulse” sees it swell with water during the rainy season and empty throughout the dry months. But the climate crisis, droughts and weak rains have disrupted this seasonal pattern, turning the land into a tinderbox.

With the blazes starting unusually early this year – in late May and early June, before the annual fire season between July and September – experts predict 2024 will be the most devastating in decades.

“The wildfires are a signal – nature is raising a flag,” says Pierre Girard at the Federal University of Mato Grosso. “We had fires before but now thousands and thousands of hectares burn every year. We are losing the battle.”

On the banks of the Paraguay River, several hours by boat north of the nearest city of Corumbá, three children stand in their garden, their bodies intermittently concealed by smoke. Their mother, Jane Silva, 53, watches from her blue, wooden house.

“This year’s fires are really bad. There is a lot of smoke and the children are struggling to breathe,” she says. Fifty of her animals died in a recent fire, and she has received no support from the state, she says.

A woman and her daughter standing on a grassy hill with green tree behind them. View image in fullscreen

“The fires get worse every year – we thought this year’s fires had been extinguished, but the wind has brought them back to life. Now it is getting close again,” she says. “The Pantanal is dying, but we have nowhere to go.”

Hospitals and health centres in Corumbá are crowded with patients suffering respiratory issues, with children under five and those over 60 most affected by the smoke. But while humans can usually flee the infernos and seek medical help, animals perish in their thousands.

Reptiles and amphibians face the greatest risk, while monkeys die from smoke inhalation, and jaguars, too, have been found suffering with third-degree burns. In the 2020 fires, known as “the year of flames”, which saw almost 30% of the biome burned, 17 million vertebrates were killed.

Deep into the charred wilderness, a team of volunteer animal rescue workers search for signs of life. Luka Moraes, a 26-year-old vet, says: “In one week I have already seen hundreds and hundreds of dead animals, maybe thousands. Reptiles, snakes, frogs – all the animals that cannot run – they do not stand a chance.”

The charred skeleton of a snake on the blackened groundView image in fullscreen

While naturally occurring blazes take place in the Pantanal, including those sparked by lightning, humans start the vast majority of wildfires. Ranchers use fires to clear land for their cattle – as they have for centuries – but those that were once contained by the wetland’s abundant water now rage out of control.

“They think that they can probably contain the fire. They have been doing it for generations. But dry matter is accumulating, and the fires spread quickly,” says Girard.

More than 90% of the Pantanal is privately owned, of which 80% is used for cattle ranching. Almost 95% of outbreaks in the first half of 2024 started in private areas, according to the National Institute for Space Research.

The wetlands have also lost 68% of their water area since 1985, and suffered a lack of rainfall over the past six months. “The Pantanal is getting drier and drier. It used to flood for six months, but now it floods only two or three months,” says Figueirôa.

A firefighter hosing a fire in the forest. View image in fullscreen

Fierce winds rip across the landscape at up to 40km an hour, fuelling the flames.

André Luiz Siqueira, a director at the conservation organisation Ecoa in Brazil, explains that dead vegetation accumulates during the flood period, becoming highly combustible during the dry season. The layers of dense, built-up material “can burn underground for weeks,” he says.

Along with the important role they play for biodiversity, wetlands are also of global importance for the climate, storing 20-30% of terrestrial carbon despite covering only 5-8% of the land surface. During the 2020 fires, 115m tonnes of CO2 were released.

Local people and experts are now calling for greater investment in fire prevention. Ivani Silva, 50, whose land in Porto Laranjeira has been thick with smoke for weeks, says she has been visited only once by authorities. “They gave us a leaflet with instructions, but that is it. They don’t help at all and do nothing to prevent it,” she says.

The government of Mato Grosso do Sul declared an emergency situation on 24 June, while the federal government has recently expanded its wildfires taskforce. The Brazilian air force airdropped 48,000 litres of water on to the burning land last weekend.

Firefighters work by the banks of a river, underneath the nest of a jabiruView image in fullscreen

Still, the fires burn on. Underneath the nest of a jabiru stork, the tallest flying bird found in South and Central America and the symbol of the Pantanal, the firefighter Cabo Sena, 30, works to douse the flames.

“We extinguish the fire and then, after 24 hours, it starts again,” he says.

Lucineia Oliveira, 50, who was born and still lives on the banks of the Paraguay River, says the fires have changed drastically in recent years. In 2021, she narrowly survived after a burning tree set her house alight overnight, trapping her inside with her 75-year-old mother and three-year-old grandson.

“The fire was far away when we went to sleep, but then the wind became strong and carried it to us. It happened fast,” she says. “I was desperate, we were covered in ash, my grandson was crying and my mother praying. We fell to our knees and held each other.”

Oliveira worries about what their future holds. “Every year is worse, and I am afraid,” she says. “The animals and plants and the land are dying, from the bees to the jaguars. We need even the smallest animals to be able to survive. The fires are destroying the beauty of the Pantanal.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X for all the latest news and features

  • An earlier version of this article mentioned emus, instead of rheas. It has been corrected.

Source: theguardian.com