Wildlife & Biodiversity

‘US beef market is why the Pantanal is burning’

Down To Earth speaks to MK Ranjitsinh and others who have visited the iconic wetland of South America

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Monday 31 August 2020

Leading conservationists and others associated with wildlife in India have expressed concern over the burning of the Pantanal wetland in South America.

According to the news agency Bloomberg, in July, the number of fires burning in the Pantanal, which spans about 210,000 square kilometers, reached the highest for the month since the data started being collected in 1998, according to Brazil’s Spacial Research Institute, known as Inpe.

“If the developed countries of the world, especially the United States, stop importing beef from South American countries like Argentina, the burning of ecosystems like the Amazon and the Pantanal will stop,” MK Ranjitsinh, the architect of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, told Down To Earth (DTE).

“There is enough beef in Argentina to support itself. It is the market abroad that drives more clearance of natural ecosystems like the Pantanal,” he added.

The fires have continued to burn during August and will burn in September as well, the Bloomberg report said.

The report also blamed commercial farmers for the fires since they lit them to clear vegetation during the annual dry season to graze cattle and grow crops for export.

Things have been complicated as this year as South America has been hit by a bad drought.

Conservationists and others have expressed concern for the wildlife of the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland area located in southwestern Brazil and parts of Bolivia and Paraguay. Special concern has been expressed for the jaguars of the area as it is home to their largest and healthiest population.

“The resident jaguars may be able to escape the fires. But what about their prey?” asked Ranjitsinh, who visited the region in 2009 and has described about it in his book, A Life With Wildlife, which came out in 2017.

“Their prey base including marsh deer and caiman, will get affected or dispersed. Because their own territories will be destroyed, the resident jaguars will impede on each other’s territory. This will lead to territorial quarrels and intra-specific deaths. They will also kill more livestock. This will lead to the vaqueros or local cowboys to kill the ‘El Tigre’. This could be catastrophic for the jaguar population,” he warned.

He also warned about other species. “How will the turtles, terrapins, caiman and ground-dwelling birds move. They will be roasted alive in the fire?”

Like Ranjitsinh, conservationist Vivek Menon also tweeted his concern.

Sachin Rai, a professional wildlife photographer from Bengaluru, visited the Pantanal in October 2018.

“I spent four nights in the Pantanal. Tourists to the region are housed in houseboats and for game trials, they get to travel in a speed boat. Jaguars are seen only when they come close to the rivers to hunt caiman. So you are perpetually on the river, always travelling on a speed boat. On both sides is the forest which actually is largely owned by private ranchers, who farm cattle,” Rai told DTE.

Rai said the fires would definitely have an impact on the wildlife population. “Land means food and water and all these go for a toss when such places burn. That is true for not just jaguars but other animals like capybara, tapirs, pumas and others,” he said.

“It is unfortunate that the world is not looking at disasters such as the Amazon and the Pantanal as a serious problem. We think that vegetation once burnt, will come back next year. But fact is, there is a very serious impact,” Rai said.

Rai’s opinion is seconded by Dhritiman Mukherjee, a Kolkata-based photographer who visited the Pantanal two years back.

“We humans like to put a cost on everything. But can we really put a cost on such places? A natural ecosystem takes years to form, with its intricate web of relationships between various living organisms who are part of it. When a fire or another disaster happens, such relationships snap and cannot be formed again. The process is irreversible,” Mukherjee said.

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