Wildlife under threat from fires at Ibera National Park

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Photo: Matías Rebak/Fundation Rewilding ArgentinaPhoto: Matías Rebak/Fundation Rewilding Argentina
By Antonia González

Drought and high temperatures, coupled with out-of-control intentional burning practices, led to massive fires last month in the northern Argentine province of Corrientes that have so far consumed nearly 60 percent of Iberá National Park. The fires threaten South America's largest wetland, along with its grasslands and forests that are habitat for diverse wildlife, including a host of endangered species.

In an interview this week with Patagon Journal, Sebastian Di Martino, conservation director of Rewilding Argentina, explained some of the implications of the fire for the ecosystem and what his organization is doing to safeguard wildlife in the park.
Since 2010, Rewilding Argentina, a non-profit started by the late American conservationist and philanthropist Doug Tompkins and several Argentine conservationists, have been working to restore giant anteaters, pampas deer, green macaws, and several other native species that had become extinct to Iberá National Park.  
Yerbalito area in the Iberá marshes. Photo: Matias Rebak/Fundation Rewildin ArgentinaYerbalito area in the Iberá marshes. Photo: Matias Rebak/Fundation Rewildin Argentina
Photo: Matías Rebak/Fundation Rewilding ArgentinaPhoto: Matías Rebak/Fundation Rewilding Argentina
In 2017, the Tompkins Conservation foundation donated 138,140 hectares to Argentina to help form the national park which alongside the already existing 553,000-hectare Iberá Provincial Park make it the largest protected area in Argentina.
Today, Ibera National Park is now an important engine for development and jobs in the area. It’s extensive, rain-fed estuary is rich in floating and aquatic vegetation, which in turn absorbs large amounts of carbon, key to addressing the climate crisis. Moreover, the park contains more than 10 types of ecosystems that support more than 360 species of birds, approximately 1,600 plant species, 128 fish species, and 40 amphibian, 59 reptile, and 58 mammal species.
The good news, says Di Martino, is that many of the animals that his organization had been preparing for release into the wilds of the Ibera Park, such as the scarlet and green macaws, and the bare-faced curassow, have been found alive and in good condition.
He adds that as the fire advances toward San Alonzo Island - where the jaguar and the giant otter were already re-introduced there by Rewilding Argentina, they have been working to evacuate them and take them to safe areas.
Photo: Matías Rebak/Fundation Rewilding ArgentinaPhoto: Matías Rebak/Fundation Rewilding Argentina
San Nicolás area. Photo Matias Rebak/Fundation Rewilding ArgentinaSan Nicolás area. Photo Matias Rebak/Fundation Rewilding Argentina
"We are doing various actions to save the individuals we work with and especially paying more attention to the animals that are in the holding pens. When fire comes, these animals are more vulnerable because although the pens are large, they have nowhere to escape, so we have been taking them to other smaller pens that are safe from fire. We have also done this with species such as collared peccaries and anteaters,” said Di Martino.
In addition to environmental losses, six of the park's entrance gates (Carambola, San Nicolás, Cambyretá, Yerbalito, San Antonio and Galarza) were severely affected with infrastructure damage, losing dozens of kilometers of perimeter fences that are crucial for keeping out domestic livestock.
"When the fire passes, one of the big problems is that the animals that have not died are probably going to suffer starvation, because there is not many places they can go, and the little grass that we have there and the sparse water resources that exist there, it is going to be eaten and taken by the cattle, which is another problem for the wildlife, in addition to the drought and the strong temperatures. So now we must work together with the park service to recover the wire fences, because hundreds of kilometers of wire have been burned," explains Di Martino.
Another area that has been severely impacted by fire are the park's forests, which are not accustomed to the dynamics of fire, since they are very humid and shady areas. "Fire does not normally enter the forest, but now it is entering, and it is going to take a long time to recover. In some places it may not recover directly," said the Argentine biologist.
Photo: Matías Rebak/ Fundation Rewilding ArgentinaPhoto: Matías Rebak/ Fundation Rewilding Argentina
Photo: Matías Rebak/Fundation Rewilding ArgentinaPhoto: Matías Rebak/Fundation Rewilding Argentina
Restoring Iberá
Although fire is no stranger to Iberá's ecosystem, which contributes to the richness of the subtropical grasslands that shelter the marshes, the current fires are extreme in their scope and intensity.
These estuaries are probably the last, large-scale examples of subtropical grasslands that remain in a healthy state of conservation in South America. In addition to the multiple ecosystem and economic benefits they provide, it has also proved an ideal place to reintroduce locally extinct species.
Up until the rewilding projects of his foundation, Di Martino says there were no large fruit-eating and seed-dispersing species such as the scarlet macaw or the collared peccaries. He says these reintroduced species will be a major ally in regenerating the natural spaces inside the park once the fires are extinguished.
"Rewilding brings back species that have key ecological roles for the ecosystem. Today, with the return of these species, it is clear that these ecosystems are more complete and therefore more functional, healthy and much more resilient, helping us to combat environmental crises,” says the Argentine biologist. “It demonstrates more and more the importance of doing restoration work and having this knowledge.”
To help Rewidling Argentina, click here.



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