- Not seen by scientists since the first specimen was described nearly a century ago, Kaempfer’s woodpecker (Celeus obrieni) was “rediscovered” in the mid-2000s.
- Listed as a vulnerable species, this Brazil-endemic bird is threatened by the widespread agricultural conversion of the Cerrado savanna, its habitat, and by wildfires.
- In the Brazilian state of Tocantins, the Araguaia Institute, a conservation NGO, created the first protected area for the woodpecker after it managed to purchase the land — an increasingly popular strategy for preserving what remains of the Cerrado biome and its biodiversity.
Conservationist George Georgiadis vividly remembers the first time he saw Kaempfer’s woodpecker, a species once thought to be on the brink of extinction. He heard its drumming, then the bird flew out from the bush, filling the forest with its dramatic cackle. The encounter inspired Georgiadis, co-founder of the Araguaia Institute, a conservation NGO, to dedicate himself to the protection of the rare bird and its habitat, the Cerrado savanna in Brazil.
It’s been five years since several hundred hectares of Cerrado landscape in the state of Tocantins became the first sanctuary for Kaempfer’s woodpecker (Celeus obrieni). The area that once faced an ever-expanding agricultural frontier and the danger of wildfires became a reserve after the land was acquired privately. Although still facing risks, this area is now part of a growing network of protected lands safeguarding the woodpecker and other threatened species of the Cerrado.
An elusive woodpecker
With its wine-hued head, cream-colored body, and its wings striped in black and chestnut brown, Kaempfer’s woodpecker makes quite an impression. Yet, despite its conspicuous looks, the bird has managed to evade detection for almost a century.
First described by ornithologist Emil Kaempfer in the mid-1920s in the Brazilian state of Piauí, east of Tocantins, it was initially thought to be a subspecies of the rufous-headed woodpecker (Celeus spectabilis). But differences in habitat, behavior and plumage led some ornithologists to conclude they were looking at a new species. They didn’t have the chance to confirm it, however: with no further sightings of the bird recorded, they thought that Kaempfer’s woodpecker had disappeared.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that a fresh look at the differences between the two woodpecker species showed that Kaempfer’s woodpecker was indeed a distinct species endemic to Brazil. Then, in 2006, biologist Advaldo Prado captured a live individual in Tocantins, showing that scientists previously had just been looking in the wrong place.
Tulio Dornas, an ornithologist from the Federal University of Tocantins who has studied the species’ ecology and distribution, said an error in the early records may have contributed to the confusion. Kaempfer’s original specimen, he said, “was collected at the extreme edge of the Cerrado, during an expedition to the Caatinga, so ornithologists back then wrongly assumed it was a bird from that biome,” Dornas told Mongabay.
Yet even in the Cerrado, finding the bird can be a challenge, he added. The species thrives in the gallery forests that line the riverbanks of the Cerradão, a type of dry forest within the savanna ecosystem. They’re particularly fond of shaded areas with mature taboca bamboo plants (Gauda paniculata), which host the woodpecker’s main food source: ants. Reliant on only a few ant species that nest within the bamboo, the woodpeckers flit between thickets, drilling holes into the shoots to extract their prey.
As researchers narrowed down the bird’s habitat and intensified their search, sightings began to be reported from several Brazilian states, including Goiás, Matto Grosso, Maranhão and Piauí, indicating that while the woodpecker was rare, it wasn’t as endangered as previously thought. As a result, its conservation status on the IUCN Red List improved from critically endangered to vulnerable.
But with about 47% of the Cerrado’s original cover lost to agriculture, the habitat of Kaempfer’s woodpecker remains under pressure; today, it’s either severely fragmented or at imminent risk of agricultural conversion. As more details about the species came to light, concern about its future has also increased.
“We couldn’t find it in a single protected area, be it a national or state park, anywhere in Brazil,” Dornas said.
David Vergara-Tabares, a researcher at Argentina’s National Research and Scientific Training Council (CONICET) who has studied land-use impacts on woodpeckers globally, said the situation facing Kaempfer’s woodpecker isn’t uncommon in the region.
“Protected areas cover less than 10% of the regions where these birds are found in South America,” he told Mongabay. “Approximately a quarter of woodpecker species’ distribution ranges are affected by agriculture and urbanization. It’s a problem that has been worsening in recent years.”
A savanna stronghold
In the Araguaia Valley of Tocantins, where the Amazon Rainforest meets the Cerrado, lies Cantão State Park. Spanning 90,018 hectares (222,440 acres), the park includes a range of ecosystems, including rainforest, wetland and savanna, and is home to more than 390 species of birds and mammals, including jaguars (Panthera onca), giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) and tapirs (Tapirus terrestris ). But the 600 hectares (1,480 acres) of lowland Cerrado and semideciduous gallery forest surrounding Cantão are also important for biodiversity, as they provide a critical habitat for Kaempfer’s woodpecker.
Home to several breeding pairs of woodpeckers, the park’s periphery provides some of the most intact forest cover available for the species across its entire range.
“Modern agriculture only arrived in this region of Tocantins in 2013, and the nearest farm is 250 kilometers [155 miles] away. So, this was some of the most pristine Cerrado in all of Brazil,” Georgiadis said.
But as the agricultural frontier rapidly advanced across the state, and the Araguaia Valley sat directly in the path of this expansion, Georgiadis and his team were determined to protect the area — not just for Kaempfer’s woodpecker, but also for the other wildlife moving between the rainforest and the savanna.
The state park only granted protection to the seasonally flooded Amazon side of Cantão, but not to the Cerrado side, which was under private ownership and highly vulnerable to agricultural conversion. In 2016, Georgiadis said, following a survey in which they found Kaempfer’s woodpeckers in the Cerrado around the park, they realized they needed to do something to boost its protection. They learned the land was supposed to be sold to a neighboring soy farm.
Creating government-protected areas in Brazil is time-consuming and difficult, Georgiadis told Mongabay. The initial prospects of achieving that for the outskirts of Cantão were even slimmer in Tocatins, due to heavy bureaucracy and the high costs associated with land acquisition in a state whose economy is heavily reliant on agricultural exports such as soy.
Several international conservation organizations stepped in to support the Araguaia Institute. In 2017, after a year of navigating the bureaucracy, the NGO got the state’s approval and raised enough funds to purchase 190 hectares (470 acres) of Cerrado. Another year later, the area officially became the Canto Obrieni Reserve, the first protected area for Kaempfer’s woodpecker, and gained Private Natural Heritage Reserve (RPPN) status.
Purchasing private reserves is an important strategy for conserving biodiversity in the Cerrado, according to Marcelo Gonçalves de Lima, a research fellow at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation.
“Currently, only 8.61% of the 200 million hectares [494 million acres] in the Cerrado is legally protected across 482 areas, with 182 being small Private Natural Heritage Reserves,” he told Mongabay. “While occupying less than 0.06% of the biome, these reserves play a vital role in conserving [threatened] species like the Kaempfer’s woodpecker.”
Threatened by wildfire
Although safe from development, Canto Obrieni remained under threat from wildfires. In August 2019, a wildfire spread from a neighboring farm, scorching a total of 2,000 hectares (nearly 5,000 acres) of Cerrado. Believed to have started when a fisherman’s campfire got out of control, the fire grew, kindled by the savanna’s parched grass. Soon, the blaze was creeping closer to Cantão State Park.
It took the Araguaia Institute team three weeks to put out the fire.
“We were exhausted, but we couldn’t afford to stop. We knew that if we didn’t control the fire, the entire forest would burn down,” Telma Maria, a member of the institute and a volunteer firefighter, told Mongabay.
Authorities didn’t respond immediately, although according to Georgiadis they claimed that the army had been sent in to support firefighting efforts.
“After about 10 days, we realized no help was coming, so we used a drone to capture footage and send it to a news channel,” Georgiadis said. The video made the national news, and the following day, state firefighters arrived.
Championing Cerrado conservation
In the years after the fire, the Araguaia Institute has managed not only to recover but also strengthen its conservation efforts in Cantão. In the Cerrado landscape around the state park, the NGO has created four additional reserves, totaling 595 hectares (1,470 acres), by entering into leasing agreements with private landowners. Under Brazilian law, leasing habitat from landowners ensures the long-term protection of these areas as Private Natural Heritage Reserves, even after the land reverts to private ownership following a 10-year period.
The new reserves form a network of interconnected habitat corridors that link the woodpecker reserve with the wider Cantão State Park. This connectivity not only benefits Kaempfer’s woodpecker but also supports the survival of other at-risk Cerrado species, such as the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), as well as Amazon species that move to the Cerrado during floods, such as jaguars.
As the area remains vulnerable to wildfires, the team has built multiple firebreaks around the protected areas and is regularly monitoring an additional 10,000 hectares (about 24,700 acres) of Cerrado that could potentially become reserves in the future.
“Wildfires aren’t going to go away, so every dry season we prepare. We’ve had a few fires since 2019, but we’ve managed to bring them under control,” Maria said.
“Our conservation efforts for the woodpecker and the first reserve have paved the way for all the protected areas we manage today and the biodiversity they support,” Georgiadis said. “For us, this bird is the living symbol of our work, and seeing it out in the forest is the ultimate reward.”
Banner image: A view of the Canto Obrieni woodpecker Reserve. Image courtesy of George Georgiadis.
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