Conservation news

Big mammals flourish as Cerrado park’s savanna comes back

  • The study examined a state park in the Brazilian Cerrado, which contains land used in recent decades for eucalyptus plantations, cattle ranching and charcoal production.
  • The researchers used camera traps, recording the dry season presence of 18 species of large mammals.
  • In a subsequent analysis, they found that the number of large mammals found in the ‘secondary’ savanna was similar to numbers found in untouched regions of the Cerrado.

Part of Brazil’s most altered landscape has proven that it’s capable of regenerating after the effects of farming, timber plantations and ranching, according to a recent study.

The research demonstrates for the first time that recovering areas in the savanna-anchored ecosystem known as the Brazilian Cerrado can support about the same numbers of large mammals as pristine sections. The findings, published online in June by the journal Biotropica, offer a bit of hope for biodiversity as the number of human-altered landscapes rises worldwide.

A lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), one of the threatened mammals that inhabit the ‘secondary’ savanna found in the Cerrado’s Veredas do Peruaçu State Park State Park. Photo courtesy of Guilherme Ferreira.

A lot of research has shown that secondary tropical forest – that is, the forest that returns after humans have cleared what had been standing – still provides a viable habitat for many animals, though it’s less robust than primary, or old-growth, forest.

But the Cerrado has remained a mystery, despite the fact that it covers between 20 and 25 percent of Brazil and half of it has been converted for agriculture. That’s a larger proportion than the conversion that’s occurred in either the Amazon or the Atlantic Forest, lead author Guilherme Ferreira said.

“We didn’t know anything about secondary Cerrado,” said Ferreira, an ecologist with the Zoological Society of London and the Biotropics Institute in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Carnivores, like this puma (Puma concolor), were also caught by the team’s camera traps. Photo courtesy of Guilherme Ferreira.

An analysis of Global Forest Watch data reveals tree cover loss of more than 17 million hectares (65,637 square miles) between 2001 and 2015 – nearly 11 percent of the Cerrado’s tree cover – which reflects both deforestation and the harvesting of tree plantations. According to a 2016 report by the NGO Climate and Land Use Alliance, the Cerrado is a massive cog in Brazil’s agricultural machinery, responsible for more than half of its soybeans, 40 percent of its beef, and 84 percent of its cotton.

Ferreira has been working for more than a decade in the Cerrado’s Veredas do Peruaçu State Park, part of which had been cleared to grow eucalyptus, raise cattle, and make charcoal until the park was established in the early 1990s. Based on his observations, Ferreira suspected that this ecosystem had recovered to the point that it now supports a level of large mammal biodiversity similar to what’s found in untouched parts of the Cerrado.

To test his hypothesis, he and his colleagues set up camera traps in 50 locations within the 310-square-kilometer (120-square-mile) park for roughly 30 days during the dry season. The images and video revealed 18 different species of large mammals, and an analysis of the 10 most frequently seen revealed a statistically similar chance of finding them in old-growth versus secondary Cerrado areas.

For large mammals at least, “The results show that there is no difference between these kinds of environments,” Ferreira said.

Even threatened mammals were represented in the mix, including the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) and the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), which are all listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

But Ferreira cautioned that Veredas do Peruaçu State Park may be a unique case.

“I don’t want to be unrealistic,” Ferreira said. “I don’t want people to think we can cut everything down and everything will be fine.”

The eucalyptus plantation that eventually became part of the park was only present for a relatively short 15 years. Also, the park, as a protected area, is currently managed to protect the life within its borders. And critically, banks of primary Cerrado are nearby, providing a source of the large mammals that Ferreira and his colleagues found there.

Other uses, such as cattle ranching, which is common in the Cerrado, might make it more difficult for the ecosystem to bounce back. Ferreira explained that ranchers often use hardy strains of fast-growing African grasses to pasture cattle. These invasive species can be tough to get rid of.

Still, the study shows the potential of natural regeneration in the Cerrado.

“When you abandon the pasture, it can take some time, but the Cerrado will return, even if it’s not a perfect and primary Cerrado,” he added. “If you give it enough time, I would say that wildlife will return as well.”

Data from Global Forest Watch reveals that the Cerrado lost more than 17 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2015, a figure that includes the harvest of trees from plantations as well as deforestation. Source: Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA, accessed through Global Forest Watch.
A map from Global Forest Watch and Transparent World shows the locations of tree plantations in the Cerrado.

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Banner image of a maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) and video of giant anteater (Mymercophaga tridactyla) courtesy of Guilherme Ferreira.