The Pantanal: How forest fires devastated life in the world’s largest tropical wetland | World news

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A speedboat travels the waters of the Piquiri River in central Brazil; on board, a group of veterinarians and animal trackers.

The river, the forest and the wetlands are shrouded in a thick haze of smoke.

Forest fires have been burning here for months.

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Veterinarians and animal trackers tour the region by speedboat

They search for injured jaguars, a large cat known for its solitary existence and its preference to remain invisible to humans.

Everyone in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, is in dangerously bad shape.

The far-right leader of the country, Jair Bolsonaro, sparked widespread derision on Tuesday when he used a speech at the UN to blame the indigenous peoples of the Amazon for the fires in the rainforest

While conservationists say he encouraged illegal ranchers and land speculators to deforest the land, he accused the media of lying about the Pantanal, without specifying any coverage he deemed false.

In the region, animals have been burned out of their natural habitat and their usual prey has been killed or gone.

The animals attempt to make their way through the destroyed charred landscape to the riverbanks for water, food, and safety.

The world’s largest jaguar population is found here. Spotting them is incredibly difficult. Their beautiful, distinctive spotted coat ensures they almost disappear in one step into the undergrowth.

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Rescue team helps jaguars around the Piquiri River in Brazil

Some of the jaguars who survived the firestorm are now seriously injured and often hungry.

Passing in front of a burnt wood, we see a female jaguar.

Beside her, almost completely out of sight, are her two cubs.

Coming out of the woods, we can see that she was limping badly, but she has her sights on a family of otters that just landed.

She walks along the shore preparing to pounce, but the otters see her and run away for the safety of the water.

It is now too slow.

The fires have devastated the habit of jaguars who live in the area
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The fires have devastated the habitat of the jaguars that live in the area

The otters’ heads come out of the water and they cry out, a warning that a predator is nearby.

The jaguar sits down and casually watches the otters move away.

She will have to do better next time.

Vets say they’ve been watching this jaguar for the past few days and don’t care about her.

She hunts, she knows how to walk and her cubs seem to be doing well.

Surveillance will continue but for now they are worried about another jaguar in worse condition.

The monitoring and veterinary teams are specialists in the care of big cats.

Eduarda Fernandes and her team treat and injure a jaguar
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Eduarda Fernandes and her team treat injured jaguar
The team calms the jaguars before assessing their injuries
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The team calms the jaguars before assessing their injuries

They leave every day in search of animals that are currently suffering from the fires that have spread in the wetlands and meadows of the Pantanal.

“We hear from fishermen who see the jaguars and tell us that if they seem sick they take us to where they last saw them,” Eduarda Fernandes, the 20-year-old founder of the rescue group, tells me.

“There is a jaguar we are watching and who worries us. That’s what we’re looking for, ”she adds, pulling on the boat’s outboard motor and relighting it further down the river.

Fishermen report seeing the same injured jaguar nearby.

The team meets and thinks about their options.

They will calm the animal and assess its injuries.

Many jaguars who survived the firestorm are now seriously injured
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Some jaguars who survived the firestorm in the area are now seriously injured
Rescue team sedate jaguars in need of treatment
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Rescue team seduces jaguars in need of treatment

If it can be healed on the spot, they will and let it be. If it is worse than expected, a helicopter will be brought to the wetlands and taken to a specialized veterinary facility.

The team leaves.

We catch up with them and find the vets surrounding the jaguar, who is awake but heavily sedated.

He’s over six feet long and powerful – panting but unable to do anything while vets assess his injuries.

He has a few bite marks and one of his front legs is raw, swollen, and painful.

Working as a team, they wash off the jaguar’s wounds, spraying the bite marks with a silver mastic spray.

Rescue team helps jaguars injured in fires in Pantanal region
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Rescue team helps jaguars injured in fires ravaging the Pantanal region
Otters that live in the Pantanal region fall prey to jaguars
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Otters that live in the Pantanal region fall prey to jaguars
The Pantanal region was devastated by a fire
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Rescue team tries to help local wildlife

Ms Fernandes says it is likely that the jaguar got into a fight with another man or was injured while hunting.

“Because of the fires, the jaguars change territories, and there they can find other jaguars and dispute the territory, so we think that probably this jaguar has had this problem because of that, the fires, that maybe [it] fought with another man or woman. ”

They estimate this jaguar to be between four and five years old.

Next to him are the remains of a wild pig.

That’s a good sign – he’s able to hunt – and they determine that after the medicine and the antibiotics, he can stay here.

They repair it and then move it further into the Blackened Forest away from the river.

Caiman bodies are seen where they died escaping the flames
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Caiman bodies are seen where they died trying to escape the flames

For the next hour, they keep an eye on him as he slowly recovers from the tranquilizer and, at first, stands up unsteadily.

He’s going to recover, but so far the Pantanal haven’t.

Tens of thousands of square kilometers were destroyed by fire.

Drought and soaring temperatures have left an area the size of Wales burnt to the ground.

There are always dry season fires here, but nothing like it.

To date, 466 large individual fires have been recorded in Encontro das Aguas State Park.

But the Pantanal biome itself spans two states, and more than 15,000 fires have raged here virtually non-stop since June.

The bodies of caimans, a native alligator, lie where they died trying to escape the flames.

Caymans are seen lined up near a water source after the fires
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Caymans are seen lined up near a water source after the fires

Countless numbers of mammals, birds and insects have been wiped out.

The point is, the Pantanal is an integral part of life in this part of Brazil.

Humans, animals and vegetation depend on the health of the wetland. They all coexist.

“The Pantanal is nothing more than rubbish, waste; he is cremated, ”our guide Roberto Macedo tells me as we cross the smoky waterways.

“It’s very bad, it’s bad for everything; for tourism, for animals, for fishing, for the local population. It destabilizes our culture and everything here. ”

“The Pantanal needs water (but) it is dry for five, six months. No water and the vegetation is dry. It’s like gasoline, ”he says.

The Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland in the world
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The Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland in the world

Crossing the Pantanal is certainly depressing.

The extent of the damage is difficult to apprehend.

The large ponds, a vital source of water and food, are almost dry.

Eduarda Fernandes is the 20-year founder of the Rescue Task Force
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Eduarda Fernandes is the 20-year founder of the Rescue Task Force

Caymans, hundreds at a time, gather around the dwindling water supply. The birds jump among themselves in search of fish.

Every day without rain, the situation gets worse.

The Pantanal will survive this drought and fires for sure. Guides and vets here say when the rains come, life will return and the animals and the park will recover.

But the long-term concern is that these fires could happen again next year and then the year after.

These wetlands can survive one devastating year and perhaps another, but they cannot survive such devastation indefinitely.

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