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Ashes to Ashes

By Lindsay Renick Mayer on October 22, 2019   duration 11 min read

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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

Wildlife Rescue Efforts in Bolivia Underscore Devastation of Fires

At a government-run wildlife rescue center in eastern Bolivia, the veterinarians and biologists call the Giant Anteater with the third-degree burns Valentina. The three-week old Neotropical Otter pup who needs to be hand fed is little Paulo. The struggling Southern Three-banded Armadillo with the smoke-damaged eyes, that’s Josesano. And the baby White-lipped Peccary pulled from the flames from beside his mother’s body, who now follows humans around, he’s known as Chiqui. Valentina, Paulo, Josesano and Chiqui are among the more than 70 individual animals brought to the temporary wildlife rescue center near the fires that scorched Bolivia’s Chiquitania tropical savanna for two months, destroying the primary habitat of more than 1,600 animal species and 4,000 plant species.

Rescued Giant Anteater Valentina the Giant Anteater came into the rescue center dehydrated and with third-degree burns on all four of her legs. She is one of more than 70 animals that received medical attention at the Rescue Center for Biothermal Fire Victims in Roboré, Bolivia. (Photo by Daniel Alcaron and David Grumbaun/Instagram: danielalarconparquesnacionales)

Between mid-August and early October, the fires devastated 13.2 million acres of Bolivia’s wildlands, including the Amazon rainforest, Chiquitania and Gran Chaco lowlands, all of which are home to wildlife found nowhere else in the world. In July, the national government legalized slash-and-burn fires to turn forests into pastures for agriculture—almost all for cattle ranching to meet the beef demand primarily from China. This practice, in combination with drier microclimates as the planet warms, contributed to fires unlike the country had ever seen.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had to respond to fire, but the fires this year were different—they burnt so much, often leaving only ashes and a wildlife graveyard of those animals who could not escape the flames,” says Ivan Arnold, a native Bolivian and executive director of NATIVA, an organization that helps conserve landscapes across borders. “These fires are one of the most serious environmental, social and economic disasters of the last few decades.”

Combating wildfires in Bolivia More than 13.2 million acres of Bolivia's wildlands burned between mid-August and early October. (Photo courtesy of Oxygen Seven/Instagram: @oxygenseven)

Now in the weeks since the rains largely put out the fires, biologists and conservationists are trying to take stock of the full extent of damage not only to wildlife and their habitat, but also to the indigenous communities that live within—and help protect—these wildlands.

When Fight or Flight Is Not An Option

Before the fires went out, Panthera—an organization devoted exclusively to preserving wild cats—released a report estimating that at least 500 Jaguars had already been left homeless or killed in the fires in Brazil and Bolivia. Panthera scientists visited Bolivia’s greater Santa Cruz area and determined that the fires had destroyed more than 4.9 million acres of forest in one of South America’s few and critical “catscapes”—a region Panthera describes as having “the highest predicted density of cat species on the continent.” For Jaguars that were able to escape, Panthera says, they are likely to come into conflict with other Jaguars and may find less food. And they won’t likely have a home to return to, says Dr. Esteban Payán, regional director of Panthera South America.

“Sadly, the recovery of these lands isn’t assured, as they will likely be transformed for extensive agriculture, logging and livestock production,” Payán said in a statement. “The conversion of these wild places ensures Jaguars will probably never be welcome, permanently decreasing the species’ already dwindling distribution.”

Jaguar in Bolivia Between the fires in Bolivia and Brazil, more than 500 Jaguars lost their lives or their homes, and those that survived may have a tough time finding food. (Photo courtesy of Panthera)

If this is the devastating case for a larger mammal that can move pretty easily across the land, it may be harrowing to imagine the impact of the fires on smaller, slower moving wildlife. This question—what happened to the less mobile animals—spurred a team of 12 biologists from the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Cochabamba to visit the Chiquitania for two weeks to help assess what was left behind in the ashes. The Chiquitania, which is found solely within Bolivia and not shared across borders, was among the largest healthy dry forests in the world and, because it is at the intersection of the Amazonian and Andean regions, it is also home to more endemic species (those that are found nowhere else in the world) than in most other parts of South America.

More than 7 million acres of the Chiquitania burned, and what the team found was what they had feared: amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, small birds, insects and arachnids were particularly vulnerable to the fires.

“It was hard for members of the team to walk in this habitat just one week after the fires came through,” says Eliana Lizarraga, chief of museology and communications at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Obigny, a close partner of Global Wildlife Conservation. “The soil was still burning and it was harder to breathe. Even worse, the animals they found were dead because they could not escape, or they escaped one fire just to be surrounded by another. The fires just burned everything, so in many cases the team found bones they couldn’t recognize because the fires had burned most of the body.”

Devastation of wildfire The Bolivian fires destroyed or damaged the primary habitat of more than 1,600 animal species and 4,000 plant species. (Photo courtesy of Oxygen Seven/Instagram: @oxygenseven)

As this team assessed what had unfolded in the field, another team—led by Jennifer Luedtke, Global Wildlife Conservation’s manager of IUCN Red List assessments and Kelsey Neam, Global Wildlife Conservation’s program officer of Red List assessments—happened to be meeting in Cochabamba to reassess the extinction risk of Bolivia’s amphibians for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The effects of the fires figured prominently in their discussions about the increased risk of extinction for even species that are more widespread.

“Our colleagues said they never imagined that the situation could get so bad so quickly for these species,” Luedtke says. “In fact, they said that when they used to plan for multiple scenarios, the worst-case scenario was deemed highly unlikely. The situation now, though, is far worse than those worst-case scenarios.”

And while the Rescue Center for Biothermal Fire Victims in Roboré was focused on rescuing individual victims of the fires, the IUCN is looking at what the fires could mean for entire species. Two frog species are particularly vulnerable to extinction as a result of the fires: There’s the poison frog Ameerega boehmei, which is just three centimeters long, can’t move very far very quickly, and is only known from two populations, both in the Chiquitania. The other species, Dendropsophus rozenmani, was described only in September of this year, even as the fires blazed. At 20 millimeters, these frogs are even tinier than Ameerega boehmei and have very limited mobility.

Threatened frog from Bolivia Given their size, frogs can't move very far or very fast, making them especially susceptible to fires that blaze through their home. This is especially problematic for species like this, Ameerega boehmi, which is only known from two locations, both in the Chiquitania. As a result of the fires, their IUCN Red List status is set to change from Least Concern to Near Threatened. (Photo by Andrés Unterladstaetter/vamos.com.bo )

It won’t be until the rainy season starting mid-November that researchers will be able to determine how the area’s below-ground frogs fared, those living in burrows underground and only coming up during heavy rains to breed. Biologists aren’t sure how deep these frogs burrow and whether the heat of the fire may have affected them. Regardless, the fires have likely killed off the vegetation and food sources that sustain the frogs, Luedtke says.

A World on Fire

In July of this year, Bolivia established its first-ever indigenous protected area, called Ñmembi Guasu, with the Guaraní indigenous people. Ñmembi Guasu protects nearly 3 million acres and physically connects Kaa lya National Park of the Gran Chaco Americano—the second largest forest ecoregion after the Amazon—and the Otuquis National Park.

The establishment of the protected area, which essentially connects a conservation landscape of more than 24.7 million acres on the border of Bolivia and Paraguay, was hailed as one of the most important milestones for conservation in the region in recent years. In addition to helping protect one of the few viable Jaguar populations in the area, the region also safeguards the Endangered Chacoan Peccary, Vulnerable South American Tapir and Vulnerable Giant Eater.

Ñmembi Guasu is also home to the Ayoreos, the last indigenous group outside of the Amazon living in voluntary isolation. The group of between 110 and 200 individuals lives between the Bolivia and Paraguay border, and the indigenous protected area was established in part for their protection.

Protected area in Bolivia devastated from the wildfires Just months after Ñmembi Guasu was declared Bolivia's first indigenous protected area, the fires swept through. (Photo courtesy of NATIVA)

But before the groups involved in establishing the protected area could even put into place any sort of infrastructure or management plan, the fires tore through Ñmembi Guasu.

“You have to be able to respond rapidly because once a fire grows too large, there’s no way to turn it off,” says Ivan Arnold, executive director of NATIVA, one of the groups that had worked tirelessly over the last few years to make the protected area a reality. “Unfortunately, we didn’t even have time to establish a way to send warnings about an emergency like a fire.”

Local indigenous peoples homes affected by the wildfires Fires and other anthropogenic threats to forests are devastating to wildlife and to the local and indigenous people who live there and depend on the forests for their livelihoods. (Photo courtesy of Oxygen Seven/Instagram: @oxygenseven)

Since the fires started, some Ayoreos have been spotted closer to Paraguay, likely after being forced to flee the fires, Arnold says.

“Beyond the environmental effects of these fires, there are also profound cultural effects, such as the loss of much of the home of the Ayoreos burning with the fires,” Arnold says. “This is a unique place because it helps preserve a living culture that is voluntarily isolated from Western civilization.”

Fires of the Future

Bolivia’s fires may be out for now, but the dry season extends through November and without the political will to put an end to destructive agricultural practices, these fires could become the new norm in the years to come. That’s why the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny joined the College of Biologists and more than 30 other academic institutions in Bolivia to issue a statement asking the Bolivian government to repeal the recent law that allows the clearing of up to 49 acres of land per individual and a decree that authorizes the burning of forests for agricultural use.

“When we come together like this, we are stronger,” Lizarraga says. “In developing countries like Bolivia, culture and nature are the last of the government’s priorities. So especially when disasters like this happen, those of us working in conservation need to work together because if we don’t, we’re going to lose Bolivia’s precious wildlife.”

Canopy view of the wildfires The fires in Bolivia were in large part the result of slash-and-burn fires to turn forests into pasture for agriculture, primarily for cattle ranching. (Photo courtesy of Oxygen Seven/Instagram: @oxygenseven)

Today, Ivan Arnold and his team at NATIVA are assessing the damage to the Ñmembi Guasu protected area and beyond, and the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny is filing their results with the Natural History Museum in Santa Cruz to help develop a strategy for forest restoration.

Others, like Oxygen Seven, a non-profit organization focused on reforestation, are looking to help restore some of the areas of Otuquis National Park that were badly damaged, where possible. Oxygen Seven’s founder, Nick Rose, spent several days with a film crew in Bolivia to help document the fires.

“It has been shocking to see this unfold in person and it has changed me,” Rose says. “I want to be hopeful, I’m positive that the world is getting better and learning more about the issues. The global climate strikes are a great sign of unity. I believe the problem should be a global issue and not only Bolivia’s issue. The forests belong to the Earth.”

Wildlife rescue in Bolivia, including this White-lipped Peccary Chiqui the White-lipped Peccary was rescued with his siblings from the fires. (Photo by Daniel Alcaron and David Grumbaun/Instagram: danielalarconparquesnacionales)

And as for the rescued animals, little Paulo the Neotropical Otter has opened his eyes and is gaining weight and energy. Valentina the Giant Anteater is also making an incredible recovery. Her wounds are healing and if she continues to bounce back, she’ll be released back into the wild within a month, a testament to the commitment of a group of individuals not only to these specific animals, but to the future health of Earth.

“If the fires ravaging the planet caused by the insatiable global demand for beef represent the worst of humanity, then the best of humanity is found in the individuals and communities that have worked tirelessly over the years to protect wildlife and wildlands from a myriad of threats,” says Dr. Chris Jordan, Global Wildlife Conservation’s Central America and Tropical Andes coordinator. “It is time the global population recognized the passion and commitment of indigenous peoples and civil societies working to protect our planet. We must collectively find innovative ways not only to restore what has been lost, but to prevent similar destruction in the future.”

About the author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the Director of Media Relations for Re:wild and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.

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