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‘Everything is on fire’: Flames rip through Iberá National Park in Argentina

Fires burning in Iberá National Park in Argentina. Image by Matias Rebak / Rewilding Argentina.

  • Fires in the central Corrientes province of northeast Argentina have burned through nearly 60% of Iberá National Park, home to protected marshlands, grasslands and forests that hosts an array of species.
  • Many of the fires originated from nearby cattle ranches, and spread across significant portions of the park due to a prolonged drought.
  • Conservationists are working to relocate a number of reintroduced species, including giant river otters and macaws, to places of safety.
  • While experts say they expect a substantial loss to biodiversity, they add that the park should mount a rapid recovery thanks to all the rewilding work already done.

The fires were still several miles away, but Talía Zamboni and her colleagues wanted to work fast. Early in the morning on Feb. 23, they traveled to San Alonso Island in Argentina’s Iberá National Park, where several giant river otters were being housed in a large enclosure, awaiting their release into the wild. But today wasn’t the day they’d be let loose. When the otters turned up at their usual spot for food, Zamboni and her colleagues ushered them into wooden boxes and drove them to another enclosure where they’d be safe.

“They were very nervous and vocalizing a lot,” Zamboni, the conservation coordinator for Rewilding Argentina, told Mongabay. “But we hope that when they are reunited as a family, they will calm down and be less stressed.”

Fires began to burn in Iberá National Park last month, threatening a considerable portion of the 158,000-hectare (390,000-acre) region of protected marshlands, grasslands and forests in the central Corrientes province of northeast Argentina. Nearly 60% of the park has now been burned, and about 10% of the entire province, according to Sebastián Di Martino, the conservation director at Rewilding Argentina.

Satellite imagery shows that fires burnt through a substantial portion of Iberá National Park in January and February this year.

Since Jan. 3, there have also been 1,629 hotspot alerts from NASA’s VIIRS satellite imaging system, which is considered “unusually high” when compared to historical data.

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“What is happening now in Iberá is because of climate change,” Di Martino told Mongabay. “We have been suffering [through] a drought for more than two and a half years. So now there is no water in Iberá. Everything is so dry, and when the fires started [they affected] a very big area. And that is combined with the high temperatures that we are also facing because of climate change.”

At least one fire was ignited naturally by a lightning strike, but others were deliberately set on cattle ranches surrounding the park, Di Martino said.

“If you want to do cattle ranching [near] Iberá, then you have to manage the grasses, and people do that using fire,” he said. “Small cattle ranchers, small producers, they don’t have other technology rather than fire to manage their investments. So what they do is they go outside and they look at the grassland and if they consider that they don’t have enough grass for the cows, then they burn.”

But what started out as controlled burns on cattle farms quickly got out of control as the flames spread into the park. While the fires have mostly affected the grasslands, they’ve also burned some of the forested areas, which will take a longer time to recover, Di Martino said.

A red-and-green macaw taking refuge in a tree during the fires. Image by Matias Rebak / Rewilding Argentina.
Firefighters working to put out flames burning through grasslands. Image by Matias Rebak / Rewilding Argentina.

Established in 2018 by Tompkins Conservation, Iberá National Park has been the site of a great rewilding project led by Rewilding Argentina and partner organizations. Many different species have been reintroduced to the park, including jaguars (Panthera onca), giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), Pampas deer (Ozotoceros bezoarticus), bare-faced curassows (Crax fasciolata), red-and-green macaws (Ara chloropterus), and of course, giant river otters (Pteronura brasiliensis).

The team at Rewilding Argentina has been working to move many of these reintroduced animals away from the fires. One of the most challenging rescues was moving nests filled with red-and-green macaw chicks, said Zamboni.

“The team had to travel in the middle of night, walking [through] very tall grass, and they walked about two hours to get to the forest where the animals are,” Zamboni said. “And they had to take the chicks inside their backpacks and move quickly before the fire started.”

The rescued macaws are now in quarantine and receiving oxygen treatment for to smoke inhalation, she said.

Other animals haven’t been as lucky. The rescue teams have encountered dead capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), armadillos, caimans and many other species that didn’t survive.

“The problem is that they don’t have places where they can find refuge,” Di Martino said. “In normal situations, they move to another patch that is not burning, but now everything is on fire. Or they go into the water, but now there’s no water.”

Not only are many animals unable to escape the flames, but many can’t find any water to drink, Zamboni said: “They are dying from a lack of water as well.”

A caiman moves across the scorched land. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.
A barren landscape after fires devoured grasslands and forests in Iberá National Park. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

While the team at Rewilding Argentina have not been able to assess the extent of the damage to biodiversity, Di Martino said he expects there will be a “substantial loss.”

Members of the army, firefighting teams, conservationists and community members have been working together to put out the flames, and Di Martino said he thinks the worst is over.

“The fire is under control, but not because we control the fire — but mostly because everything that was there was already burnt,” he said.

He added that teams were standing by to see if the fires would spread to San Alonso Island, from where the otters had been evacuated.

While the fires have been quite devastating to Iberá, Di Martino said he expects the region to mount a recovery.

“Because of all the rewilding projects [in Iberá], it is much more resilient and will recover better and sooner after a catastrophe like this,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to have healthy and complete ecosystems — not only because they help us fight the environmental crises like climate change, biodiversity losses or the spread of pandemics, but also because these ecosystems are much more resilient.”

A capybara who survived the fires in Iberá National Park. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

Correction (02/24/2022): A previous version of this article indicated that 50% of Iberá National Park has burned, but this has been updated to say that nearly 60% has burned.

Banner image caption: Fires burning in Iberá National Park in Argentina. Image by Matias Rebak / Rewilding Argentina.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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