World’s largest wetland Pantanal is in flames

World’s largest tropical wetlands, the Pantanal, have been burning for the last 10 months. The Pantanal wetlands, situated in west-central Brazil, sprawls over more than 1,50,000 sq km and also extends into Bolivia and Paraguay.

Since January, sweeping wildfires—likely set by farmers clearing land—have scorched nearly 22 percent of the young male’s habitat in the Brazilian Pantanal, part of the world’s largest tropical wetland. Stretching across Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, the 70,000-square-mile Pantanal has the highest density of mammal species on Earth. While the Amazon rainforest, which is 30 times the size of the Pantanal, usually makes headlines with frequent wildfires, such blazes are not as common in the Pantanal. The biggest fires in the Pantanal this year are four times larger than the Amazon’s biggest blazes, NASA satellites show.

The Pantanal is home to around 1,200 species of animals, about 40 of which are threatened with extinction. Photos of burnt animals found among the ashes, including rescued Brazilian jaguars with bandaged paws, have shocked the world and raised questions about Brazil’s environmental policies.

Before the fires, the Pantanal, mostly located in the central-west Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, was well preserved, with 83 percent of its native vegetation cover intact.

Its wetlands act like a big sponge, retaining floodwaters in its upper basin from October to March, creating natural flood protection for people and animals living downstream, before slowly draining from April to September. This fall and winter influx of water hydrates the region long after summer rains have gone, keeping its more than 4,700 species of plants and animals—such as anacondas, toucans, anteaters, macaws, and capybaras—alive. 

As part of its hydrological cycle, water levels in the Pantanal shift between high and low flooding every seven to 10 years. The cycle is now on a natural decline that will likely last another four to six years. But in the last two years, this biome—or large ecosystem—has received even less rainfall than expected.

Compounding such factors is the biome’s biggest drought in five decades: The volume of rainfall between October 2019 and March 2020 was 40 percent less than the average for the six-month period. (Read more about the world’s freshwater crisis.)

If the drought and wildfire pattern continue, the Pantanal could lose its annual flood pattern and, over time, become another Caatinga, a biome located in northeastern Brazil where species have adapted to scarce water.

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