Jaguar, Brazil

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Natural World Safaris

Josh Wright

11 Oct 2019

Fires in the Pantanal Are Placing Jaguars Under Threat – Here's How You Can Help

The 2019 Amazon Rainforest wildfires, which have now been burning since January, are the latest series of environmental disasters that compound the global climate crisis. Although wildfires have occurred naturally throughout history, today most are the result of human activity – as much as 90% in the United States, according to the Department of the Interior. While US wildfires are often the result of accidents or negligence, in the Amazon it is slash-and-burn – a destructive and often illegal method of clearing forest for agriculture, livestock, logging and mining – that produces most of the wildfires.

Satellite image of fires in the Amazon and Pantanal, August 2019 | © NASA Earth Observatory, Wikimedia Commons

This year, an unusually long dry season combined with above average temperatures have resulted in a disastrously high number of fires throughout the Amazon. On August 29, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research reported more than 80,000 fires in Brazil alone, a 77% year-to-year increase for the same tracking period in 2018. Fires are also raging in nearby Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January, has also been implicated in the ongoing disaster due to his pro-business policies that favour deforestation, the weakening of environmental protections, and the disregard of indigenous rights.

Still from a video shot by Onçafari in the Caiman Ecological Refuge | © Onçafari Project

Although scientists refute the oft-repeated claim that the Amazon produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, we should still be horrified at the impact that the 2019 wildfires are having on our climate. Michael Coe, an earth system scientist who directs the Amazon program at the Woods Hole Research Centre in Massachusetts, describes the Amazon not as a pair of lungs but more like “a giant air conditioner”. By pulling in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, trees help to cool the planet – and thus mitigate the effects of climate change. And while the ongoing loss of forest in the Amazon (estimated at over 3,500 square miles at the end of August) is disastrous enough, the excess carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions that are now choking the atmosphere also pose a danger. On the ground, the 306,000 indigenous people living in Amazonia are threatened with the destruction of their ancestral home, one of the world’s richest centres of biodiversity.

Jaguar in the fire-scarred earth of the Caiman Ecological Refuge | © Onçafari Project

While the 2019 Amazon wildfires have drawn international concern, with a number of governments and organisations pledging millions of dollars in support, we shouldn’t lose sight of the individuals facing the flames on a daily basis. It is not just the Amazon that is in danger either – the Pantanal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that stretches between Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, saw fires intensify towards the end of August, exacerbated by a huge drought that had preceded the arrival of the blaze. Just like the Amazon, the Pantanal is a biodiversity hotspot, and serves as the focus for many of our Brazil safaris. As news filtered through, we were devastated to learn of the damage caused to the Caiman Ecological Refuge, where the Onçafari Project is based. Shocking footage of the fires and the destruction they caused can be viewed here.

Onçafari van, Brazil

For six years, the Onçafari Project has been working to protect jaguars in the Brazilian section of the Pantanal, which at somewhere between 54,000 and 75,000 square miles is the largest wetland system in the world. The species is today found throughout Central and South America, from the northern reaches of Mexico all the way down to Argentina. However, it is the jaguars living in the Brazilian Pantanal that have been the subject of a conservation initiative spearheaded by the team at Onçafari, designed to protect and study the species while promoting ecotourism.

Wetland landscape in the Caiman Ecological Refuge | © Onçafari Project

More than 95% of the Pantanal in Brazil is privately owned, which means ecotourism has huge conservation potential here. If tourist dollars become a significant source of additional revenue for local landowners and communities, it is in everyone’s best interest to protect the ecosystem here and nurture the jaguar population that lives within it. This is exactly what Onçafari are doing – and to great success. Through the use of camera traps, radio collaring, respectful habituation techniques and even rewilding projects, Onçafari have helped to develop a flourishing jaguar population in the Caiman Ecological Refuge.

Collared jaguar, Tristan Whitworth

Unfortunately, the remarkable progress of the Onçafari Project, and the jaguars that they work so hard to save, are now faced with disaster. 60% of the Caiman Ecological Refuge’s 53,000 hectares have been destroyed, and although the fires have now been dealt with thanks to the courageous efforts of staff, neighbours, firefighters, the army and the police, Onçafari are now faced with the daunting task of rising from the ashes. Rebuilding and restoration projects – including buildings, jaguar enclosures and water sources – along with scientific research into the Pantanal’s rebuilding capacity will cost tens of thousands of dollars. With a disaster of this scale, it can be difficult to determine how best to help.

Jaguar, Lawrence Weitz, Brazil

Thankfully, all of the jaguars that Onçafari monitor have been found alive and well, but their rewilding enclosure has been destroyed. It was only thanks to the heroic efforts of staff members that its resident jaguar, Jatobazinho, was rescued safely. After consulting with Onçafari, Natural World Safaris have chosen to make a donation that will go towards the construction of a new rewilding enclosure. With it, Onçafari will be able to provide critical care for rescued jaguars and rehabilitate them for an eventual return to the wild. These big cats, an enduring symbol of South America, are threatened not just by fires but also poaching and habitat destruction. For the sake of the species and the incredibly dedicated team at Onçafari, who do remarkable work every day to study, monitor and protect Panthera onca, we ask that you join us in pledging whatever you can to ensure the jaguar's survival.

Further Details

You can join us in making a donation to Onçafari’s new rewilding enclosure fund here. For more information on the Onçafari Project, you can visit their website, read our Onçafari blog, and take a look through NWS Tristan’s trip report from his Brazil safari, when he spent time in the Caiman Ecological Refuge.

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