Helping Ecosystems Recover From Wildfires
Wildfires pose the gravest of threats to our lives and to our world. So when fires rage, not only do teams work to put them out, but they also mobilize to save the animals and ecosystems in their path. It’s a dangerous, worthy endeavor.
So we had this big fire coming in, and we had made a big firebreak with machinery at the edge of the river. We had dinner, and that was a very scary moment that we went through. If you looked at the east, all the sky was in red. And I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s a big size of the enemy that we are fighting against.” And I was scared, but what can you do? You have to go forward.
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Wildfires are a devastating but natural phenomenon, burning regularly around the world since time immemorial. But as climate change has made the world hotter and drier, the threat has intensified, and we could see more out-of-control super fires that used to be once-in-a-generation nightmares.
They’ve hit all over the world over the last year: Kangaroo Island in Australia, California in the U.S., the Pantanal in Brazil, even the Arctic regions of Siberia. And in response, we’re seeing project teams work to mitigate the fallout—not only the firefighters, but also the teams working to protect wildlife and to restore the natural habitats that have been burned. The stakes are high here, because often the very areas under threat are also home to endangered species and thriving ecotourism economies.
Today we’ll meet two project leaders who have spent the year leading those mitigation and recovery efforts.
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This year in Brazil, the largest tropical wetland on the planet—the Pantanal—went up in flames. It was a crisis on many levels, one of which is that the Pantanal is home to a vast array of wildlife, including the world’s largest population of jaguars.
That made the fires especially potent for Rafael Hoogesteijn, Jaguar Program conflict director for Panthera, the global wildcat conservation organization. I spoke to him about the crisis and how teams can educate stakeholders to help prevent future fires—and protect the big cats and their habitat.
You’ve worked in the Pantanal for several years, so you’ve been through a few fire seasons. When did you realize that this year would not be like the others?
I’ve been working with Panthera for the last 12 years, and I already had fire experience from my professional work in the Llanos of Venezuela, which is a savanna system fairly similar to the Pantanal with six months of flooding and six months of extreme drought. But this year, we had very low rainfall, and seasonal water streams that are locally called corixo and the lagoons did not fill up with water, so they did not act as fire barriers as they normally do in normal flood and rain years.
Most of the fires were human-caused, but they came from other, faraway places—set up at the beginning of the dry season—and they began to get momentum. They got strength with the passing of the dry season. They advanced hundreds of kilometers, becoming all the time bigger, more monstrous, with a devastating effect that they had in our region between August and September.
As you saw the fires approaching, what steps did you take to protect the jaguars? Did you try to move them, or just focus on protecting the area?
We saw the fires approaching at the beginning of the month of August. We immediately hired two bulldozers. We already had two tractors where you can plow the ground. We had our own big truck with 3,000 liters of water tanks and water pumps on top of it. So, we began our firebreaking work in the end of July, and we had the fires arriving in our area at the middle of August. So we were prepared.
We constructed an extensive system of firebreaks because you cannot simply tranquilize a jaguar and put him in another place to create problems with the other local jaguars and creating social tensions. What we did is try to preserve the habitat of the ranch where the jaguars live as bigger area as possible. We fairly succeeded in that. We lost about 60 percent of the ranch, and we saved about 40 percent, and you would say, “Well, it’s not a big deal, only 40 percent.” But you have to take into account that other ranches in the area, they’re burned 100 percent, and they even lost cattle burned to the flames that they had to butcher later on.
We did not lose any cattle. Our savanna has a lot of grass, and we have a lot of gallery forest preserved that’s being used by jaguars and other wildlife. And even the good news is that one of the jaguars that was rescued, cured and released again, we were following him this morning, and he’s using a large part of our saved land that was not burned in the area of Fazenda Jofre Velho.
In our task of helping with firefighting, we had very good help from the Bombeiros, the firefighters of the states of Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, and the Fuzileiros La Marina, the Brazilian Marines, and also some of their military personnel to help us. In the beginning, they were sort of disorganized because they didn’t have any fire experience or control of fire in the savanna, and they didn’t have equipment. Being military, it’s not easy for them to accept civil authority, but we demonstrated to them that we had more experience, and we had the machinery to combat fire effectively.
So they accepted our guidance and under the organizations of the ranch manager, Elizeau Evangelista Da Silva, we did a very good job with them. And I want here to personally thank, also, all the donations we received from Climb for Conservation organization and the Jaguar ID program and the persons of April Kelly and Abigail Martin that sent us a lot of donations they got in the States and all around the world and that help us to defray all the costs of the rented machinery, the bulldozers, fuel and all the food for those people that work here at the ranch combating fire.
With large areas of your own ranch burned, as well as the broader Pantanal, how has that affected the jaguar population? How are teams—and even local residents—helping the animals?
Despite the magnitude of the fire, a lot of jaguars survived. Abigail Martin of the Jaguar ID program did a study on the number of jaguars she saw, and the number of jaguars has not diminished. And many new jaguars have been seen in the state park and surrounding areas. The capybara and jacare populations, since they went into the water, they survived well. A few pockets of good habitat remain in the state park, and our ranch has been an island where a lot of habitat has been preserved. So the jaguars, despite the fire, are doing okay. Of course, there will be more social pressure for the unburned areas, but jaguars can disperse, and there’s a lot of habitat available in the whole Pantanal.
We have an interesting case of a jaguar that burned his paws, and he entered one of the houses of the local inhabitants. And a big difference that shows the conservation mentality that the people here at Porto Jofre have—nobody had caused any harm to the jaguar. The jaguar was kept without any trouble, without harming or harassing him, until the rescue organization came. The jaguar changed houses, was first in an abandoned house, then went into an inhabited house, so the people moved to the other side of the house, left the jaguar alone. The same day, or next day, a rescue organization came, tranquilized the jaguar and took him to the zoo for recovery.
So, that shows very much the good disposition that people have regarding jaguars in our area because they are such an important tourist asset, and they create so many working jobs in our area that these jaguars, locally, according to a study developed by our team, [led] by the biologist Fernando Tortato, are producing annually an average income of $7 million. And the projected loss of jaguars predating on cattle in the same area doesn’t reach $150,000. So, jaguars are really very important. We have a truce with jaguars in our area. We have a coexistence system with jaguars in our area where tourism works from boats, and the jaguars are habituated to see the tourists from boats, which is very comfortable way of seeing the jaguars, and it’s working very well.
With climate change, there’s a debate about whether wildfires of this size will remain a once-in-a-generation type of event or something that you might see again in just a few years. How does that uncertainty change the playbook for the region to prepare for that possibility that wildfires like this won’t be the outlier they have been previously?
It’s a matter of debate if fires of this size and magnitude will come back, and it’s a matter of global warming. If global warming continues the way it is, and we have shorter rainy seasons with more rain concentrated during less months, and we have a much drier and hotter dry season, where the dry season is extended and it’s very, very hot during many months, yes, this fire will come back, and we will have extended fires like we had this year for the years to come. So we have to be prepared.
It’s a matter of prevention, education with the local communities and the cattlemen, not to set fire during the beginning or the middle or the end of the dry season. If they have to set fire during some plots in some areas, they have to get authorizations, and they have to be done with proper supervision. Some prescribed burning in some areas would be convenient, taking the measures of burning at night in areas that have been provided with firebreaks around. But the best way would be to not have any fire at all, which is very difficult, but it’s feasible. On the other hand, more fiscalization is needed to get the culprits that set up criminal fires and process them, and we will have to take measures to having the proper machinery and equipment to fight fires if the case comes that we have fires of this magnitude coming back again.
Across the globe in Australia, the bushfires on Kangaroo Island also devastated a region celebrated for its unique and exceptional biodiversity—headlined by koalas and kangaroos, but also including the small and furry dunnart.
Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt spoke with Pat Hodgens, a fauna ecologist at Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife in Kingscote, about how teams are collaborating to save the dunnart and help Kangaroo Island recover—an effort that was number 11 on PMI’s 2020 list of Most Influential Projects.
Let’s talk about the Kangaroo Island dunnart. Your organization focuses on this animal in particular. How were they affected by the fires, and what projects have you been working on to help them recover?
So this little guy is a small, carnivorous marsupial and lives in a very small geographical range of western Kangaroo Island, and very little is known about this species pre-fire. The bushfire basically took out 93 percent of the dunnarts’ known and predicted home range, and that’s a pretty significant event.
We set to work fairly quickly soon after the bushfires. We went out to these locations where we had previously been monitoring dunnarts, and we basically went out to assess the damage. But as we were also going around, we were looking for any signs of any unburnt patches of vegetation because we knew that in these little unburnt patches of vegetation that was where we would be finding species trying to seek refuge. And within a couple of days, we were really lucky at one of our sites to have detected a Kangaroo Island dunnart. It was basically three days after the fire, which was an incredible thing to find, just to know that they had survived.
We knew that the predation pressure for these little surviving animals was going to be huge. And so not only from native predators—we also knew that we had really invasive predators like feral cats. We were looking at all of these different options, but we knew that we had to act very quickly. So our strategy essentially was to continue monitoring the dunnarts within this little patch, putting in lots of cameras to see how many there were or whether they were actually still surviving. And then we also then decided that probably rather than taking the dunnarts from this patch, we were really keen to see if we could keep them alive in this patch. We decided that the best option there was to create a feral cat exclusion fence around this little patch of bushland, which is a pretty massive project in itself. We started very quickly, working with fantastic non-government organization, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and they were very quick in their response to assist us with whatever we needed.
Within a couple of weeks after the fire, we had a team of very skilled ecologists from across Australia that had been flown down to assist us in the work that we were doing. And also had a feral cat officer that was able to work with us to remove feral cats. After about six weeks after the fire, we had this 14-hectare patch of bushland that probably, at that time, some of the most significant vegetation that was left on Kangaroo Island protected from feral cat predation with this probably very small population of dunnarts safe within it.
And it’s not just organizations and the South Australian government that’re working on the island’s recovery. You’re working with private landowners, too. With so many stakeholders, how are all of these different teams collaborating?
It’s been an unprecedented event. It has potential to be very chaotic, lots of people doing lots of different things and not everyone having time to communicate with each other and tell everyone what each other’s doing. But, I guess we’ve been fairly lucky that for the Kangaroo Island dunnart in particular, very soon after the bushfire, all the people working on this species came together and formed the Kangaroo Island Dunnart Recovery Team—a group of experts that we can all come together and basically share data and share information and just inform everyone of what’s happening and workshop ideas or plans.
What are teams working on in order to limit the effects of future bushfires? Just not only with the dunnarts, but also across these ecosystems that have been affected by the bushfires?
I think everyone on the island all agrees, regardless of what background people have come from—whether you’re a farmer, whether you’re a conservationist or whether you are in the tourism industry—everyone from all of these different areas are all very much agreeing that we cannot see another event like this happen again in the future. We have to learn from this experience to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
For us, it’s developing a fire management strategy to protect what is left. There still is fairly large swathes of bushland that are unburnt that could burn again, potentially this summer. The SA government are undertaking prescribed burns already within some of these unburnt patches to prevent large-scale wildfires happening again. Hopefully we can save species like the Kangaroo Island dunnart and some of the other rarer species, but if this happens again and these wildfires become more frequent and more intense, then we may not see them.
What are some of the lessons learned that others that could face similar challenges or are currently facing similar challenges could use as they work to fight wildfires or recover and help these ecosystems recover?
It’s really difficult. We’re dealing with a changing climate, so we are seeing these fire events not only in Australia, but all over the place, which is just disastrous. There just needs to be really good decisions and I guess resources put into bushfire prevention. There’s not a lot you can really do once you’ve got an intense bushfire on a catastrophic fire day.
But when it does happen, the lessons that we’ve learnt is that you have to act very quick. Time is of the essence. If we’d waited around for a week or two weeks or a month then found these little patches and put camera traps in there, we may not have found these dunnarts. They might have slipped through our fingers and disappeared because we didn’t move quick enough.
It is heartbreaking to see bushfires affecting threatened species across not only Kangaroo Island, not only Australia, but large parts of the world. We’re seeing areas in the world like the Amazon, the Pantanal that just shouldn’t be burning. Across the world, we do need to really tackle the issues of climate change and be really serious about it, and that’s obviously from a global perspective. It’s very easy to become really pessimistic about that. I’ve got three young children, and I really hope that their generation is going be the generation to really take really good action.
Turbocharged wildfires are a growing threat around the world, menacing both our cities and our wide-open spaces, fields and forests, majestic jaguars and humble dunnarts. So it’s good to see project teams working with communities to step up and fight back.
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