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Nearly 17 million animals died in wildfires in Brazil's wetlands last year

Birds fly past as a fire consumes an area next to the Trans-Pantanal highway in the Pantanal wetlands near Pocone, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, on Sept. 11, 2020.
Andre Penner
/
AP
Birds fly past as a fire consumes an area next to the Trans-Pantanal highway in the Pantanal wetlands near Pocone, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, on Sept. 11, 2020.

Nearly 17 million vertebrate creatures — animals like snakes, small birds and rodents — are estimated to have been killed throughout the wildfires in the Pantanal region of Brazil in 2020, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports this week.

Despite Pantanal encompassing the world's largest tropical wetlands and flooded grasslands, increasing temperatures and ongoing draught due to climate change have led to rampant wildfires, destroying the habitats of millions of animals and killing an estimated 16.952 million animals, the scientists say.

"During the last few years we have been witnessing an astonishing increase in intensity and frequency of wildfires, leading to a globally unprecedented amount of burnt area," they wrote.

For example, in 2019, fires burned nearly 6,300 square miles of the Brazilian portion of the Pantanal. In 2020, that number jumped to more than 15,000 square miles.

The scientists aimed to calculate how many vertebrates died directly from the wildfires, which doesn't include larger animals like jaguars and panthers that may have died later as a result of burns or destroyed habitat and lack of food. They collected data in the field, accounting for the number of carcasses found up to 48 hours after fire events in the region.

Though the changing climate has no doubt led to the conditions that produce more wildfires in the region, the scientists also point to other human causes. They include deforestation, incorrect ignition and use of fire, inadequate landscape management strategies, vegetation encroachment and the increased need of fire as management tool.

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Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.