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Jaguar stronghold in Brazil’s Iguaçu Park threatened by road reopening plan

  • A bill introduced in Brazil’s Congress calls for reopening a closed road that cuts through Iguaçu National Park.
  • The proposal poses a serious threat to jaguars, whose numbers have been growing steadily there; the area is home to one-third of the big cat’s remaining population in the Atlantic Forest.
  • Reopening the road, closed since 2001, will not only increase the animals’ risk of being hit by vehicles but also make it easier for poachers to hunt them — the main threat to jaguars.
  • It can also cause impacts such as noise and air pollution, soil degradation, and changes in local microclimate, experts warn.

In mid-July this year, camera traps from the Onças do Iguaçu Project in Brazil’s Paraná state captured images of two jaguar cubs (Panthera onca). In July 2020, the network of cameras installed in the forest had recorded three other cubs within Iguaçu National Park, a 185,000-hectare (457,000-acre) fully protected conservation unit. Home to the Brazilian half of Iguaçu Falls (spelled Iguazú in neighboring Argentina), the biggest in the world, the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

An estimated 230 to 300 jaguars remain in the Atlantic Forest, a patch that straddles the border region between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. A third of them live in the area that encompasses Iguaçu National Park and its namesake reserve on the Argentine side. This is thanks largely to conservation efforts carried out over the last few decades. “This is the only jaguar population that is growing in Brazil,” says biologist Yara Barros, coordinator of Onças do Iguaçu (Portuguese for “Jaguars of Iguaçu”).

In the early 2000s, the jaguar population in this region dropped sharply, as low as nine to 11 individuals in 2009. But the situation has since improved, and in 2014, a survey identified 17 jaguars. By 2016 there were 22, and by 2018 there were 28.

In this area known as the Green Corridor — which includes, in addition to the Brazilian park, Argentina’s Iguazú National Park and Urugua-í Provincial Park; other forest fragments located in the Argentine province of Misiones; and Turvo State Park in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil — the jaguar population jumped from 40 individuals in 2005 to 105 in 2018.

Barros says 85% of the ideal habitat for the species has already been lost in the Atlantic Forest. Eight percent of the biome is considered “marginally adequate,”  6% is “moderately adequate,” and only 1% is considered of high enough quality for their survival. And that 1% lies within the Green Corridor. “That is why the integrity of Iguaçu National Park must be maintained,” Barros says.

Yara Barros during fieldwork in Iguaçu National Park. Image by Emilio White.

Bisecting a national park

But the integrity that Barros says is essential to recovering the population of the biggest cat in the Americas is threatened by a bill now being debated in Congress. Bill 984/2019, introduced by Nelsi Coguetto Maria, a Paraná representative better known as Vermelho, calls for a new category of conservation units in Brazil: parkways. And the first example of this involves reopening the Estrada do Colono, a 17.6-kilometer (10.9-mile) road that cuts through the middle of Iguaçu National Park.

The road was built in the 1950s to connect the municipalities of Serranópolis do Iguaçu and Capanema, home to a combined 24,000 residents.

In 1986, federal prosecutors order the closure of the road, but it was illegally reopened in 1997. It was only in 2001 — by order of Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice and joint action by the police, the military and IBAMA, the environmental protection agency — that the road was finally closed. In its ruling, the court said Estrada do Colono “threatened the integrity of Iguaçu National Park and national security due to its proximity to the Triple Frontier.” One of the reasons prosecutors sought to close it was that it was being used as a smuggling route between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

The Estrada do Colono road, at the point where it enters the forest of Iguaçu National Park. Image by Marcos Labanca.

In the bill now before Congress, Vermelho says reopening the road will restore socioeconomic and tourism ties between the western and southwestern parts of Paraná. “Reopening the road will correct this historic injustice that was the closing of Estrada do Colono and respond to the decades-long social demand of the people of Paraná, restoring the region’s history and socioeconomic, environmental and tourist relations,” he says.

Agustín Paviolo, coordinator of the Yaguareté Project, which works on jaguar conservation on the Argentine side of the Green Corridor, says reopening the road would be a mistake.

“It is undoubtedly a step backward in the conservation of the species,” he says. “The road will not only increase the animals’ risk of being hit by vehicles but also make things easier for poachers, who are the main threat to the species. One of the most important areas for the conservation of the Atlantic Forest in the world will be impacted.”

Vermelho’s bill isn’t the first attempt to legislate the reopening of the road. A bill introduced in 2010 by Assis Couto, also representing Paraná, made the same case for reopening the road. The bill was approved by the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, and was sent to the Senate, where it has languished since 2013.

The yellow dotted line marks the original route of the Estrada do Colono, which may be reopened under new legislation. Image via Google Maps.

‘No logical reason to reopen’

NGOs, environmentalists and conservation experts have been unanimous in criticizing Bill 984/2019, which the Chamber of Deputies voted to classify as “urgent” in early June.

“There is no logical reason to reopen the road,” says biologist Angela Kuczach, executive director of Brazil’s National Network for Conservation Units, or Pró-UC. “It’s been covered by the forest; it no longer exists. It cuts through the heart of the park and is right in the middle of the jaguar occurrence area. That’s political opportunism based on electoral interests, at a time when environmental issues are receiving negative votes in Congress.”

Working with other organizations and companies in the Iguaçu area, the Pró-UC Network created the campaign #EstradaRasgaParqueNão (“No road cutting through the park”). They launched a website to draw Brazilians’ attention and also produced a video with artists from Paraná rejecting the proposal and warning that, if approved, the bill could set a precedent for opening roads through other Brazilian conservation units.

“Their goal is human mobility rather than conservation,” says Aureo Banhos, a professor at the Road Ecology Project of the Federal University of Espírito Santo (Ufes).

Critics have also taken issue with Vermelho’s notion of a parkway, which the representative has modeled on the U.S. concept of a road that runs through areas of scenic beauty with minimal or no further development around it. This is the case, for example, of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs along mountain ranges, valleys, canyons and rivers in the states of Virginia and North Carolina.

“A parkway does not mean opening a road in the middle of a park, much less when it will change the landscape precisely in the intangible zone of a conservation unit where there can be no impact because it has the highest degree of pristineness and better-quality habitat,” Kuczach says.

An estimated 230 to 300 jaguars remain in the Atlantic Forest, a patch that straddles the border region between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Image by Emilio White.

UNESCO World Heritage Site status at risk

Another concern is that the reopening of the road, and the threats it would pose, could see Iguaçu National Park lose its status as a World Heritage Site. There’s precedent for such concerns: In 1999, two years after the road was illegally reopened, UNESCO placed the Brazilian park on its list of “World Heritage in danger.”

Tourism activity in the park is limited to what’s known as the public use area, which accounts for just 3% of the total park area. The Cataratas Group holds the concession for managing tourism activity here, and recorded 1.8 million visitors in 2019, a 6.5% increase over the previous year. Most of park’s visitors come for the waterfalls.

Asked for the company’s response to Vermelho’s proposal, the Cataratas Group said it “has no control over this area or power in this discussion. It is a matter for the federal government, the Ministry of the Environment and ICMbio, which are responsible for the conservation unit.”

ICMBio, or the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, is the federal agency in charge of all protected areas in Brazil. Mongabay contacted ICMBio for comment but did not receive a response. Mongabay also contacted Vermelho, but the congressman did not respond to a request for an interview.

A jaguar in Iguaçu National Park. Image by Emilio White.

Impact of roads on wildlife

“The problem with opening roads goes far beyond animals hit by vehicles. That’s just the most visible issue,” says Aureo Banhos from Ufes. Several international studies have shown that roads are vectors for biodiversity loss. A 2016 paper in Nature calculated that impacts can radiate out to at least 1 km (0.6 mi) from a road’s edges; in 14% of cases they extended up to 5 km (3 mi) away.

In addition to animals becoming roadkill, there’s also the issues of pollution — noise and air — as well as soil degradation and changes in the region’s microclimate, with a possible increase in local temperature, especially closer to the road.

Banhos says just the process for reopening the road will have a major impact on the area, which is home not only to jaguars but also to a huge variety of other species such as wild cats, ocelots, pumas, giant anteaters, and tapirs. The peccary, for example, a wild pig that was extinct in the region for 20 years, has been observed again in Iguaçu National Park since 2016.

“Mitigation measures will never be able to protect all these species,” Banhos says. “The impact will be inevitable — perhaps minimized for large mammals, but not for birds, reptiles or amphibians. It is impossible to prevent animals being hit.”

Banner image by Emilio White.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Aug. 5, 2021.