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Collective effort monitors Amazon wildlife in heavily logged Brazil state

  • Indigenous communities, the government and civil society organizations are working to identify the status and whereabouts of animals in one of the most deforested states of the Brazilian Amazon.
  • Devastated by the expansion of cattle ranching and soy farming, Rondônia has seen changes in the composition of its fauna due to alterations in the landscape.
  • The initiatives for surveying and monitoring Rondônia’s fauna are being carried out in conservation units, Indigenous territories and restored forest areas on private lands; the goal is to guide conservation policies.

The Brazilian state of Rondônia state ranks seventh in the country for deforestation and fourth for greenhouse gas emissions. Among the country’s nine Amazonian states, it’s third for deforestation, behind only Pará and Mato Grosso. These figures — published in 2023 in the Annual Report on Deforestation in Brazil from the MapBiomas Alerta initiative; in the System for Estimating Emissions and Removals of Greenhouse Gases (SEEG) from the Climate Observatory; and in TerraBrasilis from the Brazilian national space institute — confirm the trend of landscape change in Rondônia in recent decades.

In 1970, at the start of the SEEG’s historical series, Rondônia was in 26th place, out of 26 states in Brazil, for emissions, as it had little deforestation and livestock activity compared to the rest of the country. By 1994, it was up to third place, and over the last 10 years has never fallen out of the top 10 GHG emitters in Brazil.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, the farmers who colonized the state, mainly from the south, knew how to work with exposed land, so there was a lot of deforestation,” says Samuel dos Santos Nienow, a biologist and regional coordinator for ICMBio, the federal agency in charge of protected areas, based in Porto Velho, the Rondônia state capital.

“There were already Indigenous communities, quilombolas [rural Afro-Brazilian communities] and extractivists in our territory who were in the forest and had other models for extracting wealth, but they lost ground in the face of the strength of those who arrived and the policies that directed this way of acting,” Nienow says.

Rondônia, he adds, is home not just to the Amazon Rainforest; it also hosts savanna ecosystems and floodplain grasslands, and therefore also wildlife from these different biomes. However, changes in land use due to advancing deforestation have caused a decline in populations of animals such as tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), jaguars (Panthera onca) and various species of monkeys, while those more easily adapted to impacted areas or that migrate from other ecosystems have become more numerous. The latter includes the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), a non-Amazonian species that’s now present in this region.

“The bush dog [Speothos venaticus] and the quero-quero [southern lapwing, Vanellus chilensis], native to other biomes, have occupied Rondônia as a result of the expansion of cities and livestock farming,” Nienow says. “On the other hand, in the Guaporé Valley, on the border with Bolivia, the marsh deer [Blastocerus dichotomus], which lives in the flooded fields, is threatened by invasive species introduced there, such as buffalos.”

A swath of deforestation in the Rondônia Amazon in 2019. Image courtesy of Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.

Analysis of biodiversity in different ecosystems

To monitor these habitat changes and understand their impact on wildlife, both in terms of population numbers and species variety, it’s necessary to conduct surveys of existing species and carry out continuous monitoring.

In Rondônia, the first information about the state’s wildlife emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, during expeditions through the Amazon by Cândido Rondon, the military officer after whom the state would be named. However, it was only in the 1990s that the data were updated through the Rondônia Agricultural and Forestry Plan (Planafloro), scientific research, and the zoning of conservation units and Indigenous lands.

In the following decades, biodiversity monitoring became part of the Monitora program, a federal government initiative inside conservation units to verify the effectiveness of conservation actions and support management and planning, generating information and involving local communities as agents to carry out the monitoring.

In Rondônia, the Monitora program is at work inside protected areas such as national forests, extractive reserves, national parks and biological reserves. Among these is Jamari National Forest, where Nienow coordinated the program until 2022. Prior to the launch of Monitora in 2017, he’d already been monitoring wildlife here since 2014.

“We need to know what we have and talk about the importance of biodiversity,” he says. “Monitoring can bring knowledge to local populations, help identify species that are still unknown, and be a thermometer to check whether conservation strategies are being effective.”

In the Monitora Program, field trips include traps to capture and identify butterflies, photograph them, and then release them. Image courtesy of Zeziel Ferreira de Moura Silva.

Participatory monitoring

Jamari National Forest lies in the municipality of Itapuã do Oeste, a two-hour drive from Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia. Itapuã do Oeste is also home to Zeziel Ferreira de Moura Silva, who was born in the region and for the past eight years has been a part of the team collecting biodiversity data in the field. Every six months, Silva walks the same trails in the forest to look for mammals, birds and butterflies, recording them with photos, on paper, or through camera traps.

“I am passionate about nature,” he says. “Through monitoring, I came to understand how important nature is and that it is essential to take care of it. Those who are farther away don’t think that way.”

Having Silva and other residents near the conservation units lead the data collection is part of the participatory monitoring approach outlined in the Monitora Program. This approach facilitates labor logistics, values local knowledge, generates local income, and raises awareness among residents about the importance of the biodiversity where they live.

“My encounter with the jaguar will stay with me for life,” Silva says. “When I spotted it, it was about 20 meters [66 feet] away, but it came walking toward me, got as close as 4 meters [13 ft], and then walked away. I was scared, but I felt lucky.”

While seeing a jaguar was a stroke of luck, spotting birds like guans (subfamily Penelopinae), curassows (subfamily Cracinae) and tinamous (family Tinamidae), or mammals like agoutis (Dasyprocta spp.), deer and tapirs is a routine part of his work and records.

The management plan for Jamari National Forest makes provisions for tourist visits, environmental conservation, mining, sustainable timber exploitation, and housing for traditional populations. However, it’s not uncommon to encounter illegal activities here, such as hunting, logging or mining. Silva says the habitat changes these activities bring about affect the wildlife: “The Hamadryas feronia butterfly, for example, is common in deforested areas. If we find it in a dense forest, it means there is no forest nearby.”

Zeziel Ferreira de Moura Silva takes a selfie of an encounter with tapirs during monitoring work in Jamari National Forest. Image courtesy of Zeziel Ferreira de Moura Silva.

Monitoring of game animals by Indigenous Paiter Suruí

Another front for monitoring biodiversity in Rondônia is in Cacoal municipality, seven hours from Porto Velho, on the border with Mato Grosso state. Here, the monitoring is carried out by Indigenous Paiter Suruí people living in six of the 32 villages inside the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory.

Since 2009, they’ve been recording the animals that they hunt for food and for making handicrafts. The monitoring work began when Indigenous residents posed a question to Israel Vale, a biologist who has been working with the Paiter Suruí since 2004: “If our population increases, will we have enough game for everyone?”

To answer the question, Vale, who is the coordinator for environmental and territorial monitoring at the Kanindé Association, an NGO that champions ethno-environmental issues, partnered with the community to develop ways for them to track the variety and volume of wildlife that they hunted over the years.

The analysis of the results has led to various insights, both for researchers and for the Indigenous community. For example, Vale initially thought that invasions by peccaries (subfamily Tayassuidae) into the community’s fields was a problem: “The Indigenous people explained to me that it is intentional, part of their management strategies. They prepare part of their crops for their own consumption and the other part to attract these wild pigs to they can hunt them.”

With the support of the Kanindé Association, the Paiter Suruí install and learn to use camera traps to identify animals on their land. Image courtesy of Israel Vale.

The Paiter Suruí, on the other hand, have noticed that it’s become more difficult to find monkeys, some of their preferred food animals. Illegal logging on their land and deforestation for illegal cattle pastures has devastated these tree-dwelling mammals’ habitat. (Primates were the subject of a species identification guide drawn up by a Paiter Suruí biologist for his master’s degree.)

As a result, Vale says, they began to talk to illegal logging companies and also tried to combat them. “When logging in the Indigenous territory decreases, more animals are present and rarer species are spotted. Residents notice a difference in their daily lives: if they used to walk 10 kilometers [6 miles] to find game, now they walk 4 to 6 kilometers [2.5-4 mi],” he says.

With each new data analysis, more questions and discussions arise to support the management of the Indigenous territory, aiming for the well-being of the people and the conservation of the wildlife. “We are curious to observe the hunting data during the major drought that hit the Amazon at the end of 2023,” Vale says. “We will see if, and how, rainfall and temperature indices affected activity.”

Monitoring restoration areas

In addition to conservation units and Indigenous territories, forest restoration areas on private properties in Rondônia have also been the target of biodiversity monitoring, since 39% of the state’s total area is covered by livestock pasture, according to mapping initiative MapBiomas.

Paulo Henrique Bonavigo is the coordinator of the nature and communities program at Ecoporé, an NGO that advocates for sustainable development of the Amazon. It’s in this role that Bonavigo carries out biodiversity monitoring on private properties, which, in the Amazon, are legally required to preserve 80% of their natural vegetation, known as the legal reserve.

“There are smaller and smaller forest fragments and few corridors connecting the areas. As a result, the loss of biodiversity is great, because there are animals that need large areas for food and to live,” Bonavigo says. “It’s essential to know if the restoration of permanent protection areas [such as riverbanks and springs] and legal reserves is beneficial for the whole ecosystem, with the return of fauna to the environment.”

He adds there are already primates in areas restored five years earlier, and jaguarundis (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) in an area that was pasture 10 years ago; today, it boast trees up to 10 meters (33 ft) high.

“These animals are using the environments to live or move, which is a very interesting result,” Bonavigo says.

He adds, however, that “there are many gaps in our knowledge of fauna throughout the Amazon. Monitoring known species needs to happen alongside surveys of existing fauna to provide increasingly reliable information and generate public policies and conservation initiatives.”

Banner image: A white-nosed saki (Chiropotes albinasus), a monkey species native to the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory, of the Paiter Suruí people. Image by Valdir Hobus via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on May 9, 2024.

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