Race to rescue animals as Brazilian wetlands burn

PORTO JOFRE (AFP) – Wildlife guide Eduarda Fernandes steers a speedboat up the Piquiri river in western Brazil, scanning the horizon for jaguars wounded in the wildfires ripping through the Pantanal, the world’s biggest tropical wetlands.

Fernandes, 20, is part of a team of volunteers working to find and rescue jaguars wounded by the record-breaking blazes, which have burned through nearly 12 per cent of the Pantanal.

“Our goal is to reduce the impact of the fires as much as we can, by leaving food and water for the animals and rescuing the wounded ones,” she said.

The state park where she and her team are working, Encontro das Aguas, is known for having the largest jaguar population on Earth.

In normal times, it is home to at least 150 jaguars, a species classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature because of its declining numbers. But now the fires have burned through 85 per cent of the 109,000-hectare park, and many of the jaguars have disappeared.

A veterinarian holds a deer calf as an ariranha giant otter calf is fed at the Animal Rescue Centre in Mato Grosso, Brazil. PHOTO: AFP

No one knows if they are dead, wounded or have fled elsewhere.

After a two hours searching by boat, the team finds a male jaguar resting on the river bank beneath a tree hanging with vines, his spots standing out against a pile of leaves left dry by the region’s worst drought in decades.

They photograph it and evaluate from afar: the jaguar has an injured front paw that may need treatment.

Capturing a jaguar is no small feat. It takes tranquiliser darts, at least three boats and a lot of force.

The tranquiliser takes about 10 minutes to kick in, and during that lapse jaguars have been known to try to swim away.

They are excellent swimmers, but risk drowning when the drug takes effect. “Everything can go wrong,” said veterinarian Jorge Salomao of the charity Ampara Animal (Animal Support).

As the team assesses the situation, sweating in the hot sun and surrounded by semi-scorched vegetation, the jaguar gets up to drink from the river.

That gives the veterinarians a chance to make a more precise diagnosis: he is walking gingerly, but does not appear to be in acute pain.

“He can probably recover on his own. Better to stand down” from capturing him, said Salomao.

He will return in a few days to see how the big cat is doing.