* Photo Essay https://reut.rs/2GR64Kp
POCONÉ, Brazil, Sept 14 (Reuters) - A fire has been burning
since mid-July in the remote wetlands of west-central Brazil,
leaving in its wake a vast charred desolation bigger than New
A team of veterinarians, biologists and local guides arrived
in late August to prowl the bumpy dirt road known as the
Trans-Pantanal Highway in pickup trucks, looking to save what
injured animals they could.
Jaguars were wandering the blackened wasteland, they said,
starving or going thirsty, with paws burnt to the bone, lungs
blackened by smoke. They saw bodies of alligator-like caiman,
jaws frozen in silent screams, the last act of creatures
desperate to cool off before being consumed by flames.
This massive fire is one of thousands of blazes sweeping the
Brazilian Pantanal - the world's largest wetland - this year in
what climate scientists fear could become a new normal, echoing
the rise in climate-driven fires from California to Australia.
The Pantanal is smaller and less-known than its famous
cousin, the Amazon jungle. But the region's normally abundant
waters and strategic location - sandwiched between the
rainforest, Brazil's vast grasslands and Paraguay's dry forests
- make it a magnet for animals.
The fires are now threatening one of the most biodiverse
ecosystems on the planet, biologists say. The Pantanal is home
to roughly 1,200 vertebrate animal species, including 36 that
are threatened with extinction. Across this usually lush
landscape of 150,000 square kilometers (57,915 square miles) in
Brazil, rare birds flutter and the world's densest population of
Fire is not new here. For decades, ranchers have used flames
to cheaply return nutrients to the soil and renew pasture for
their beef cattle. But those blazes, fueled by drought, now burn
with historic force, racing across desiccated vegetation. The
biggest fires in the Pantanal this year are quadruple the size
of the largest fire in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, NASA
A record 23,490 square kilometers have burned through Sept.
6 - nearly 16% of the Brazilian Pantanal, according to a Federal
University of Rio de Janeiro analysis.
Last month, Reuters witnessed a fire that flashed from
forest to pasture near the tourist gateway of Poconé in Brazil's
Mato Grosso state. The rush of air sucked in by the blaze spun a
strong wind into a tornado of smoke. The temperature on the
ground soared to 46.5 Celsius (115.7 Fahrenheit).
Dorvalino Conceição Camargo, a 56-year-old farmhand in a
straw hat common among local cowboys, helped beat back the
Sweating from the effort, Camargo said he had never seen
fires this bad.
"Everything is suffering," he said.
THE FLOODS NEVER CAME
The Pantanal is known for being wet, not dry. The world's
largest flood plain normally fills with several feet of water
during the rainy season from around November to April each year.
Camargo recalled navigating the waters as a child in boxy
canoes. Back on the ranch where he works, he showed the farm's
high-water mark - 70 centimeters (2.3 feet) off the ground -
hewn into the post of a cattle corral. Even in a dry year it's
typically about half that, he said.
This year, the floods never came. Only a little bit of water
pooled in a ditch nearby, he said. Now as water evaporates in
the dry season, the Paraguay River that traverses the Pantanal
has receded to its lowest point since 1973, according to Julia
Arieira, a climate researcher at Brazil's Federal University of
Scientists blame the drought on warming in the Atlantic
Ocean just above the equator that's drawing moisture away from
South America and will send it north, likely in the form of
NASA scientist Doug Morton said this phenomenon is caused by
shifts in ocean temperature known as the Atlantic Multidecadal
Oscillation - the Atlantic Ocean's equivalent of El Niño in the
Pacific. Unlike El Niño, which typically happens every 2-7
years, the oscillation alternates between hot and cold roughly
every 30-40 years.
When it runs hot, as it has been since the 1990s, the
warming in the tropical North Atlantic is more likely to occur,
contributing to South American droughts and fires.
Changing ocean temperatures are "a likely driver of the dry
conditions we've seen so far this year in the Pantanal,"
according to Morton, who leads NASA's biospheric sciences lab.
Morton said the warm spot could also be contributing to more
dryness in the southern part of the Amazon, where fires likely
hit a 10-year high in August; and in Argentina's wetlands where
the blazes are the worst since 2009.
More worrying still, Morton is concerned global warming
could disrupt the Oscillation and leave it permanently in the
warm phase, contributing to more fires.
Even if that does not happen, scientists fear global
temperature increases on their own would make vast burning ever
Destruction of the Amazon rainforest to the north is
exacerbating drought in the Pantanal over the long-term, said
Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at Brazil's National Institute of
Amazonian Research. That's because jungle trees recycle rain and
push the moisture back into the air as water vapor, which winds
then carry to neighboring regions in so-called flying rivers.
Amazon deforestation has surged 34.5% in the 12 months
through July, compared to the same period a year ago, according
to preliminary data from government space research agency
Under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has also
weakened environmental enforcement.
Bolsonaro's press office directed questions to the
Environment Ministry, which did not respond to a request for
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles visited the Pantanal in
August, saying that federal environmental agencies had sent five
aircraft and additional workers to assist the more than 100
state firefighters battling the blazes.
"The fires are causing great damage to fauna, flora and to
the Pantanal region," Salles said.
No humans have died in the Pantanal fires, according to Mato
Grosso state firefighting Lieutenant Colonel Jean Oliveira, who
has been leading all government agencies in the fire response.
The victims, he said, are wildlife.
While there aren't exact counts, at a minimum thousands of
animals have perished, according to biologist Rogério Rossi at
the Federal University of Mato Grosso.
The roving veterinary team is able to save only a tiny
fraction of the injured animals. Many of these creatures are
difficult to catch, far from accessible roads.
Veterinarian Jorge Salomão Jr. rattled off an inventory of
"We've seen a lot of dead animals, mainly reptiles,
serpents, caimans," he said. "We've seen a lot of dead deer,
dead tapirs, dead monkeys, dead coati," a cousin of North
In the burned expanse of 1,347 square kilometers (520 square
miles) near the town of Poconé, dead snakes are seen every few
Local guide Eduarda Fernandes, who is working with the
rescue team, wandered the area, feet sinking into the deep soot.
She picked up a snake petrified in the fire. It had bitten
its own flesh, in what a biologist said was likely an
involuntary reaction as it sought any escape from the pain of
being burned alive.
Asked what she thought happened, Fernandes responded, "Pain.
(Reporting by Jake Spring in Poconé, Brazil; Additional
reporting by Amanda Perobelli in Poconé, Brazil; Editing by
Stephen Eisenhammer and Marla Dickerson)