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Brazil’s Pantanal is at risk of collapse, scientists say

A young jaguar.

This young jaguar’s “portrait” was captured by a remote camera as it headed for a favored napping place on a tree bough. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.

  • Though the Pantanal is 93% privately owned, this vast Brazilian tropical wetland remains a stronghold for jaguars and untold other species, and connects animals with the Amazon, Cerrado and other biomes.
  • A confluence of human activities in Brazil and worldwide — including deforestation and climate change — are heating and drying this watery landscape, threatening the entire ecosystem with drought, wildfires and habitat loss.
  • Now, a plan to dredge and straighten the Paraguay River that feeds the Pantanal could serve as the death knell for this vast wetland ecosystem.
  • There’s hope that president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who campaigned on an environmental platform, will initiate stewardship that stops Pantanal deforestation and the waterway project, helping curb greenhouse gas emissions.

PANTANAL, Brazil — We cruised the murky brown shallows of the Corixo Negro, the Black Channel, in an open boat, scanning the hyacinth-choked waters and low-hanging tree branches for wildlife. Dozens of jacaré caimans (Caiman yacare) sunned themselves on the shore or lurked partially submerged. A blue-and-russet ringed kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata) dove for a meal Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), those bulldog-sized rodents, munched greenery. Innumerable birds perched or soared: eagles, candy-colored spoonbills, squawking parrots and stilt-legged waterfowl. Jabiru storks (Jabiru mycteria) glided above on 2.7-meter (9-foot) wingspans. A family of giant river otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) fished their way downstream.

Then we glimpsed what had brought us here to Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands: rosette-spotted fur.

There lay a jaguar (Panthera onca), well-camouflaged, nearly imperceptible, calmly eyeing us from bushes bathed in dappled sunlight. As we silenced the engine and dropped anchor, a small cub ambled from the shadows and snuggled beside its mother. She groomed her baby tenderly, meticulously, ignoring us. Then the pair rose and disappeared into the thicket.

Photographer Steve Winter and I spotted an extraordinary number of jaguars during our September expedition through the northern Pantanal. This is an ecosystem we know well: I’ve long reported from here, and Winter began documenting the Pantanal’s jaguars in 1998, returning many times.

But changes that have occurred in the five years since our last assignment now place jaguars and this entire ecosystem in danger.

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‘A savanna shaped by fire, cattle and water’

The Pantanal, which means “great swamp” in Portuguese, is the world’s largest tropical wetland, even bigger than the state of Florida. Most of it lies in Brazil (78%), but the region also spills into Bolivia (18%) and Paraguay (4%). It’s a 185,000-square-kilometer (71,000-square-mile) mosaic of grassland swamp fed by rivers, streams and seasonal floods; and dense, low-forested savanna. Large cattle ranches dot the landscape, but ranchers and wildlife have coexisted relatively well here for more than two centuries.

On this trip, we arrived at the end of the dry season. Soon, months of rain would swell the Paraguay River and its tributaries by up to 4.5 meters (15 feet), inundating 80% of this vast South American floodplain. The Pantanal acts like a giant sponge, holding floodwaters from November/December to April/May. After this, the water slowly drains away during the dry season. Water is why this biological wonder teems with life.

“It’s a savanna shaped by fire, cattle and water,” says Fernando Tortato, a conservation scientist with Panthera, the wild cat conservation NGO. Seasonal floods sculpt a landscape also swept by yearly dry season fires and grazed by at least 4 million cows.

Discussions with local people and researchers revealed why we saw so many jaguars this year, and some of it was good news. Jaguar numbers here have been rising, largely because they’re the area’s ecotourism superstars. People flock here from all over the world to see them, pumping nearly $7 million a year into the economy in this remote region. That’s made some local ranchers more jaguar-friendly, even if the cats sometimes prey on their cattle.

But our many sightings also had a shadow side. A dark confluence of human activities in Brazil and around the world are now drying up and sizzling the ecosystem, says Alan Eduardo de Barros, who focuses on jaguar ecology at Brazil’s University of São Paulo.

Ecotourism in Pantanal.
Jaguars have become valuable in the Pantanal, with ecotourists flocking to see them and other wildlife during the dry season. Tourists inject some $7 million a year into the local economy. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.
A Pantanal stream.
The lush riparian tracts along Pantanal streams are important for many species, ranging from jaguars that hunt, find shade and shelter their young there, to capybaras that thrive on the lush greenery. Image by Sharon Guynup/Big Cat Voices.

The list of what he calls “a perverse combination of threats” is daunting, and includes industrial-scale agriculture, dams, and extreme climate-driven heat and drought. Unprecedented, catastrophic fires have charred forested areas. All this has forced jaguars in the northern Pantanal to congregate in unnatural proximity within remaining tracts of green along waterways — where we saw so many of them.

But another potentially devastating risk to the “kingdom of the waters” now looms. There have been small-step moves toward “developing” the Pantanal’s lifeblood, the Paraguay River, into an industrial shipping channel for big barges, says Tortato. The Paraguay-Paraná Hidrovía project would dredge and straighten the river to ship soybeans and other commodities southward to Argentina for export, mainly to China. This year, officials in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state issued preliminary approval for two large ports on the river.

“It’s madness that has been protested by lots of researchers,” says Rafael Hoogesteijn, who directs Panthera’s jaguar conflict program.

This is happening despite sweeping protections. The entire wetland is a designated national heritage site under the Brazilian Constitution: Use must be ecologically sustainable. President Jair Bolsonaro, in office since the start of 2019, has largely disregarded that designation, but president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who takes office Jan. 1 next year, has promised to turn back the environmental degradation and halt the deforestation conducted under his predecessor.

A jaguar grooms one of her two young cubs.
A jaguar grooms one of her two young cubs. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.

Record Pantanal fires bring ‘astonishing’ wildlife disaster

This wetland savanna lies in the heart of South America and boasts one of the continent’s highest concentrations of plants and animals. Some are endangered. Despite 3,000 ranches in the Brazilian Pantanal, and 93% of the land being in private hands, this immense wetland has remained a model of sustainable use. Four-fifths of the native vegetation remains.

Pantaneiros, cattle ranchers, have coexisted here with giant anteaters, marsh deer, tapirs and other rare animals since the 17th century. Tolerance of jaguars has been growing, nurtured by ecotourism and cattle-protection initiatives by Panthera. A long-established cowboy culture of “shoot and shovel” — killing and burying jaguars — has faded somewhat.

The Pantanal remains home to the largest cats in all jaguardom and is the big cat’s second-largest stronghold, after the Amazon. But in the last few years, normally occurring wildfires have escalated drastically, threatening jaguars and the 47,000-plus animal and plant species that inhabit this rich UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 2019, searing heat and drought, worsened by climate change, sparked massive blazes in the southern Pantanal. The next year, rainfall was the lowest in four decades, and catastrophic fires raged in the northern Pantanal, the worst in recorded history. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research detected 22,099 blazes that incinerated nearly one-third of the Pantanal, about 40,000 km2 (more than 15,000 mi2) — an area about the size of Switzerland.

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A jaguar on the prowl along a Pantanal river. Image by Sharon Guynup.

Graph of Pantanal fires.
Researchers charted changes in rainfall, fire and the impact on jaguars for 15 years to illustrate the extreme situation that occurred in 2020. Image courtesy of Alan Eduardo de Barros.

“The intensity of these fires was something we’d never seen,” says Fernando. “They spread so fast there was nothing we could do to stop them.” Many animals were unable to flee. More than 17 million died instantly, a rough estimate that researchers called “astonishing.”

But “we don’t know how many individuals were really affected,” says Ronaldo Gonçalves Morato, a coordinator at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation and co-author of the study. Researchers couldn’t account for animals that perished underground, or survivors that later died from lack of shelter, their injuries, or those that starved in a burned-out land.

Jaguars were heavily impacted. They lost more than 2,700 km2 (more than 1,000 mi2) of home range habitat, according to a recent study. “In some areas, you see only black trees,” says Fabricio Dorileo, a naturalist whose ancestors settled in the Pantanal some 200 years ago.

The cats require some cover. With much of the woodlands burned, they had to seek new territory to find shade, protect their cubs and ambush prey. “So the jaguars came to the rivers,” Dorileo says. Since much of their prey is aquatic, there’s plenty to eat there: capybaras, caimans and anacondas.

But jaguars are solitary except when mating or rearing cubs. Each cat needs its own territory, about 90 km2 (35 mi2), and will fight over it, so displacement is a problem. Repeated fires may create competition, and deadly conflict, says de Barros from the University of São Paolo.

A caiman.
The Pantanal’s rich habitats teem with life — and caimans are everywhere. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.

Colliding threats and the ‘tragedy of the commons’

Scientists recently sounded an alarm with a letter published in Bioscience, citing an ongoing “tragedy of the commons” occurring in the Pantanal. That oft-quoted phrase was coined 20 years ago in a paper warning that “apparently trivial [cumulative] decisions can lead to profound geographical, ecological and social consequences.”

That prediction was prescient for the Pantanal. “Those who benefit from development dismiss larger ramifications,” says Tortato, an author on the letter. “It’s just another dam, it’s just another law.” Development and the legal rulings that permit it, coupled with deforestation and escalating fires driven by climate change are creating “a convergence of threats that may lead to the disappearance of the Pantanal as we know it today.”

Tortato’s co-author, Brazilian sustainability expert Rafael Morais Chiaravalloti, called it “the termitization” of the Pantanal, likening the devastation to a massed termite attack on a single piece of wood.

Because ecosystems are inextricably linked, some of those attacks come from activities in other parts of Brazil, disrupting the Pantanal’s watery, life-sustaining pulse. The headwaters of the Paraguay River lie high on the Cerrado plateau, a savanna biome that cradles the wetlands below on three sides. During the yearly October-to-April rainy season, floodwaters from the Paraguay and its tributaries submerge huge tracts of the Pantanal wetlands for four to eight months.

Brazil biomes map.
Though the Pantanal is 93% privately owned, this vast Brazilian tropical wetland remains a stronghold for jaguars and untold other species, and connects animals with the Amazon, Cerrado and other biomes. Image by Vitor Vieira Vasconcelos via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

But unchecked industrial agriculture has devoured more than half the Cerrado, converting native grassland to cattle pasture and mega plantations of soy, cotton, corn, oil palm and other commodity export crops. The plantations, with their high water use, are desiccating the savanna, threatening the biome with desertification. That means less water courses from the Paraguay River into the Pantanal. Some 47 hydroelectric dams on its tributaries also limit flow, with another 138 proposed, planned or under construction.

Deforestation, which soared exponentially during the Bolsonaro administration, is also drying the Amazon Rainforest. Researchers discovered back in 1984 that Amazon trees absorb moisture and release it back to the atmosphere — creating a sky river of clouds that moves over the Andes and then swirls back to fall over Brazil. But an increasingly denuded Amazon now makes less rain, bringing greater drought to the neighboring Cerrado and Pantanal.

Global climate change is also altering weather patterns. According to U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models, rainfall in the Paraguay River Basin could dip by one-third by 2100, with temperatures rising by 5-7° Celsius (9-12.6° Fahrenheit). Extreme fluctuations in flood and drought are expected, caused by short, intense rainy seasons and long, searing dry seasons. Another consequence may be more frequent, intense fire, says Panthera’s Tortato.

In the past, yearly fires sputtered out, blocked by water channels acting as natural firebreaks. In 2020, temperatures soared, there was little rain, and the dried-out landscape became a tinderbox.

People add to the problem. About 80% of fires began within 10 km (6 mi) of human settlements or roads, de Barros notes, with many likely started by cattlemen wanting to expand ranches. A government policy that blocked small, preventive controlled burns also did harm. In 2020, the infernos even raged underground, charring roots. Trees, shrubs and grasses died.

Cascading effects, says naturalist Dorileo, include “fewer fruit trees, less insects, and less food for fish and small animals. It’s an imbalance that starts from the bottom up.”

With these combined assaults, no one knows how long this wetland will remain a keystone habitat for jaguars and other wildlife which link to animal populations in the Cerrado, Amazon, Chaco and other biomes, says Tortato.

Fire maps.
In these maps, Alan Eduardo de Barros and his colleagues showed how much jaguar territory was burned in the 2020 fires. Image courtesy of Alan Eduardo de Barros.

A possible death knell

Next could come a massive industrial waterway: a hidrovía. In January, environmental officials in Mato Grosso state issued a preliminary license to build the large Barranco Vermelho port on the Upper Paraguay River. In June, they sanctioned a second, the port of Paratudal. A third is planned.

The proposed Paraguay-Paraná Hidrovía requires dredging and straightening of a sinuous stretch of river to accommodate convoys of barges and ocean-going ships. It would transform one of the wildest spots on the river. The Paraguay runs through the Taiamà Ecological Reserve (protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands treaty) and the Pantanal Mato-Grossense National Park.

The hidrovía, heavily supported by the ruralistsas — agribusiness tycoons with strong lobbying ties to the Brazilian Congress — would speed up exports of soy, fertilizer and other commodities overseas, and lower costs.

Researchers call the piecemeal approvals of these “small” port projects an end-round maneuver to commercialize the Paraguay. This year’s port approvals have been likened to building bus stations so that lawmakers can then justify construction of a superhighway running to them.

Paraguay River
The Pantanal is fed by opaque brown waterways, chiefly the Paraguay River and its tributaries. Image by Sharon Guynup/Big Cat Voices.

Gustavo Figueroa, a biologist for the NGO SOS Pantanal, offered an example of potential impacts on wildlife. A population of jaguars in the Taiamà reserve specialize in fishing, he says, relying on bays formed by yearly floods that would disappear if the project moves forward.

Strong opposition from experts and local people is fighting a government process they say is rife with inadequate studies and unaddressed environmental damage. Technicians from the Mato Gross state environmental authority (SEMA) noted 111 issues in the environmental impact report.

“The preliminary approval ignores cumulative impacts,” de Barros argues. “The need for an integrated approach” — examining the combined consequences of river dredging and straightening, of building ports, and releasing an onslaught of barge/ship traffic — “has been demanded by scientists and conservationists for decades.”

The hidrovía isn’t a new idea. For more than a century, politicians and businesspeople have dreamed of a commercial waterway through South America’s heart. Then, in the late 1980s, the Paraguay-Paraná River Basin countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) initiated the process by creating the Intergovernmental Committee on the Hidrovía (CIH). Their goal: to cheaply transport minerals and agricultural products, primarily soy, to the Atlantic coast.

A 1997 CIH report on the proposed waterway failed to seek public input and overlooked environmental consequences and the needs of Indigenous residents. An independent study by Victor Miguel Ponce, a researcher at San Diego State University’s College of Engineering, enumerated dire impacts. Blasting, deepening and straightening would alter the river’s flood dynamics, draining the river faster. It would increase floods and quickly empty temporary lakes and sodden grasslands, harming the ecosystem.

Isidoro Salomão, a resident and coordinator of the Popular Committee of the Paraguay River, an NGO, fears irreparable damage. “I usually say that water is the blood of the Pantanal,” but this project will bleed the Pantanal to death, he commented in an interview with ((o))eco, an online Brazilian environmental news service.

Altering this large river would worsen local climatic changes, making the region more arid with less rainfall, Ponce noted. Savanna will spread at the expense of lusher greenery. Deer and other herbivores would become rarer. Animals and vegetation adapted to dry conditions might fare better, but such shifts would affect the entire food chain.

A Pantanal stream.
The Pantanal is a watery mosaic of swamps, grasslands, streams and forests, spread across an area the size of Florida. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.
A jabiru stork.
Massive jabiru storks are a symbol of the Pantanal: they can be seen there year-round. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.

Glimmers of hope amid great challenges

Deregulation and the dismantling of environmental agencies has been rampant under the Bolsonaro administration. But Lula’s victory in the election in October “brings us some hope that the federal government will give more attention to the environmental agenda,” a source told Mongabay, speaking confidentially out of fear of reprisal; Bolsonaro remains in power until Jan. 1.

President-elect Lula had a good environmental record during his first two terms in office, from 2003-2010. This time around, he campaigned on a pro-environment platform, promising to address deforestation in the Amazon and other biomes. “He knows that [his government] needs to act strongly to protect the Amazon and the Cerrado in order to recover Brazil’s image abroad,” one expert told me. To that end, Lula sent representatives to the COP27 U.N. climate summit in Egypt and attended himself, even though he hasn’t yet taken office.

Approval of the hidrovía is a federal responsibility, unlike the ports which only require state approval. The scientific community and local people hope that their arguments will convince Lula to reevaluate and cancel the planned waterway. “While the demand for international commodities is high, we need to regulate it, or control it in a way that you still have enough wild areas to maintain ecological cycles,” says Panthera’s Hoogesteijn.

There’s also hope that Brazilian laws and international agreements will be honored, including wetland protection under the Ramsar treaty. The Pantanal’s designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve requires that sustainable use be balanced with biodiversity conservation. Brazil ratified the U.N. Convention on Biological Biodiversity in 1998, promising to protect 10% of the Pantanal by 2010, with the 2011-2020 Aichi Goals advocating for 17%. That has not happened: just 5% is currently preserved in protected areas, says Tortato, noting that the conserved area needs to at least double.

A river otter eats a fish.
The Pantanal is a mega diverse landscape, home to about 4,700 species, including the giant river otter. This long, lithe member of the weasel family can reach 2 meters (6 feet) long. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.

Environmental protection is also embedded within the 1988 Brazilian Constitution. It guarantees the right to an ecologically balanced environment; grants the right to “defend and preserve it for present and future generations”; and requires the government to “preserve and restore ecosystems, ecological processes and protect species.”

In contrast, Mato Grosso state passed a bill in August that permitted ranching and tourism within Pantanal protected areas. Governor Mauro Mendes also vetoed a law that prohibited small hydroelectric plants along the Cuiabá River, an important Paraguay River tributary. But there was opposition, as many local people now value biodiversity because of tourism dollars.

The disastrous 2019-20 fires also forged conservation collaborations. The blazes were “a historical event that no one wants to see repeated,” says Tortato. “Cattle rancher unions, nonprofits and universities are now working together to manage fire.” Some cattlemen are returning to the centuries-old practice of burning underbrush early in the wet season, when fires don’t easily spread, which means less tinder in the dry season.

A cattle rancher.
About 93% of the land in the Pantanal is privately owned, with about 3,000 cattle ranches. A “pantaneiro” cowboy culture that once shot jaguars is changing slowly, with the cats bringing tourism income to the region. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.

More than 25 new fire brigades have formed. Newly installed cameras in remote areas alert officials to fire before they spread. “It’s crucial to fight fires within the first hours,” Tortato explains. “Even one or two days [lost] may be too late.” In 2020, some initially undetected fires burned for two months. In contrast, quick response by firefighters and airplanes had a blaze in a state park under control within two days.

“Only an ecosystem-wide strategy will shield this mega diverse wetland from destruction over the long term. We need a specific law protecting the Pantanal — now,” Tortato says.

In September on our last day in the Pantanal, we watched a nearly grown female jaguar cub dozing in the bushes, her mother sprawled above on a tree branch. That young female holds promise for the future: she may bear a dozen cubs in her lifetime. We hoped that human actions will give her and her offspring the opportunity to thrive.

A Brazilian tapir.
Related to horses and rhinoceroses, the Brazilian tapir is endangered, but thrives in the Pantanal. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.

Banner image: This young jaguar’s “portrait” was captured by a remote camera as it headed for a favored napping place on a tree bough. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic/Big Cat Voices.


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