BAHIA NEGRA, Paraguay – The fires raging in Paraguay’s portion of the Pantanal, an enormous wetlands shared with Brazil and Bolivia, threaten the jaguar and the giant anteater, two endangered species.
The blazes have turned the delicate ecosystem into a barren landscape of charred palm trees and ashes.
The giant river otter, armadillo, puma and swamp deer are among the other animals in critical danger of disappearing from the Pantanal, which sprawls over 340,000 sq. kilometers (131,275 sq. miles).
A team of five forest rangers stationed at Tres Gigantes, a biological research station operated by non-governmental organization Guyra Paraguay on the shores of the Negro River, had been monitoring the endangered species before the fires started.
Tres Gigantes is located in an isolated section of the Pantanal that can only be reached by canoe.
The forest rangers told EFE that animals have been killed by both the flames and smoke inhalation, but they said no specific figures were available on wildlife deaths.
The Pantanal provides habitat for the endangered jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas and one of the most threatened species in South America.
The last jaguar sighting in the area was made in January at Tres Gigantes by rangers.
Jaguars are found from Mexico, where it is considered the national cat, to Argentina, but the big predator’s numbers have fallen in recent years in Paraguay due to the expansion of cattle ranches and trophy hunting.
The giant anteater is another endangered species threatened by the blazes in the Pantanal because the animals tend to become disoriented and wander into fire zones.
The fires, which started in mid-August, have burned about 62,000 hectares (153,086 acres) in Paraguay’s portion of the giant wetlands region, forcing animals to move into other areas to avoid the spreading flames.
Some animals were forced to cross the Negro River, which failed to stop the flames from spreading and ended up with both banks being charred.
Forest ranger Carolina Alvarez told EFE, however, that she was confident that the animals’ survival instincts would kick in and help them save themselves.
“I think the animals are wise and they know better than anyone how to protect themselves and how to defend themselves in case of fire,” Alvarez said, adding that she saw deer and other animals crossing the river weeks ago to escape the fires.
In addition to forcing animals to flee, the fires have destroyed nests and lairs, and reduced the trees and plants that herbivores need to survive.
In the past month, forest rangers have intensified efforts to find endangered animals and have used camera traps to monitor wildlife movements.
“In the days after the fire, it was really tough to be in this place, especially for the co-workers who have been here a long time, but it’s incredible how the fauna returns and how every gets green again,” Alvarez said.
This is one of the worst fires in the region since 2009, when blazes charred a large area due to high temperatures and a drought.
Guyra Paraguay said the fires were part of a cycle, with large blazes occurring every decade and helping vegetation regenerate.
Alvarez said she was already seeing the first signs of new life, with certain plants beginning to sprout, providing food for land and aquatic life.