The burnt corpse of a caiman

When the Wetland Caught Fire © Edson Vandeira

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: When the wetland caught fire

In Edson Vandeira's Highly Commended image 'When the Wetland Caught Fire,' the burnt corpse of a yacare caiman is frozen in time on the remains of what was once lush wetland.

Unable to outrun the approaching flames and with no water to flee to, the caiman was burnt alive. 

Edson is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker. Stuck at home in Brazil due to the pandemic, he spent two months volunteering with firefighters and veterinarians, and in this time documented the consequences of the region's wildfires.

These fires were one of the most pressing environmental disasters in Brazil, burning at least a quarter of the floodplain. Edson emphasises that his image 'represents one of the greatest environmental tragedies in Brazil' and hopes it will stress the 'importance of protecting wetlands while we still have time.' 

Fires in wetlands may seem at odds with the environment, but for half the year, the wetlands are dry and prone to fire. In 2020 a period of drought combined with poor governmental policy resulted in one of the most terrible periods of wildfire in the area's history.

Many of the fires were started by ranchers clearing land for cattle or soya, a normal farming process for the area. Others are human-related but accidental – flashes from electrical cables, burning rubbish or fires set to ward off bees. With less fire services on hand due to the pandemic and no prohibition on setting fires, things quickly spiralled out of control. 

A team of volunteer veterinarians from Rerpocon capture a jaguar

Image © Edson Vandeira. A team of volunteer veterinarians from Rerpocon capture a jaguar wounded during the forest fires. This 110kg male, named Aju, had four paws burned which were already healing, After the treatment the animal was released.

What is the Pantanal?

The Pantanal is the world's largest tropical wetland. Covering an area bigger than Great Britain, it is located mostly in Brazil but also extends into Paraguay and Bolivia. It is home to the largest mixture of wildlife in South America. 

The Pantanal is the largest remaining area of wetland and natural vegetation in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with indigenous, river and quilombo communities living there. Traditional farmers practice sustainable agriculture by grazing cattle whilst tourists visit for the scenery and safaris. 

The wetland is an important site for species biodiversity. The Pantanal is made up of over 2,000 plant specimens, as well as 269 fish, 113 amphibian, 131 reptile, 580 bird and at least 174 mammal species. The rainy season, usually from October to April, swells the Paraguay River so that it becomes an important site for ecosystems found nowhere else on Earth.  

Species that rely on the wetlands include jaguars, giant otters, marsh deer and hyacinth macaws. Thousands of birds migrate through the wetlands and animals as diverse as caimans, capybaras and jaibiru storks call it home. 

It is an important part of the Paraguay River Basin and links the Atlantic Ocean through the Rio De Le Plata Basin. This means that it is essential to the health of South America due to its huge scale and the volume of stored water during wet season.

Fire on the roadside

Image © Edson Vandeira. Firemen and local people join forces to fight the fires. The wooden bridges along the road Transpantaneira were the main focus of the teams. If some bridges catch fire, there wouldn't be land access and many people would be isolated in the region between Porto Jofre and Poconé. Mato Grosso, Brazil.

What happened to the Pantanal wetlands in 2020?

In 2020 one of the worst ever fires broke out, affecting at least 65 million native vertebrates and 4 billion invertebrates, with profound results for the ecosystem. Climate change, poor government regulation and limited law enforcement all contributed to the area's vulnerability to wildfires. 

Normally the wetlands are hit by heavy rain between October and April which flood 80% of the area, but a prolonged dry spell left the land at risk of wildfire. Deforestation in the Amazon has changed rainfall patterns over the northern Pantanal and there are concerns that the region could be turned from wetland to savannah. 

This year saw the worst drought recorded in the Pantanal in 60 years and the wet season saw 57% less rain than normal. The fires have consumed a third of the land, with 1.7 million hectares of forest, savannah and shrub-land affected by the fires.

Many Indigenous territories and conservation facilities have been destroyed and conservation areas such as the Encontro das Águas State Park – which contains one of the largest jaguar populations in the world – have been reduced to ash. The smoke impacted air quality in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, while some states were hit by showers of black rain. 

The Pantanal caught fire once again in 2021, but efforts from government agencies, the local communities and not-for-profits have fortunately prevented a catastrophic event.  

Carla searches for a place to treat an injured coati

Image © Edson Vandeira. Veterinarian Carla Sássi and the Group of Animal's Rescue in Disasters (GRAD) found this coati (Nasua nasua) with its paws severely burnt on the roadside of Transpantaneira. At that moment Carla was searching for a place where the animal could be treated, but sadly couldn't find one time. Poconé, Mato Grosso, Brazil.

What needs to be done to save the Pantanal wetlands?

More research is needed to understand the causes of these fires, and to develop affective fire-management strategies. By bringing together research from fields as diverse as ecology, economics, risk analysis and climate change, scientists can help to reverse some of the damage and protect the region in the future. 

While fire seasons are growing longer and fires more frequent, budget cuts affecting firefighting efforts, poor fire management and changes in land use have contributed too. Edson partly blames 'the authorities in Brazil lying shamelessly about the real situation' but also 'how disrespectfully we, as humanity, are treating other species and the environment.' 

He hopes these images will 'call people's attention to the huge impact of uncontrolled wildfires on biodiversity, not only in the Pantanal but worldwide.'

This is the first sighting of this jaguar (Panthera onca) cub with its mother

Image © Edson Vandeira. This is the first sighting of this jaguar (Panthera onca) cub with its mother after the fires that devastated the state park Encontro das Águas. The fires reached around 85% of the territory where the highest density of jaguars of the world is found. This finding renews the hope and shows the resilience of these animals under such a big tragedy in the Pantanal. Porto Jofre, Mato Grosso, Brazil.

On the frontlines of the fire: Luciana Leite and Chalana Esperança

Luciana Leite formed the Chalana Esperança project, roughly translated to 'vessel of hope', after arriving at the Pantanal as a tourist only to find it ravaged by fire. A biologist and nature lover, she felt inspired to do something and with her husband, as she tells it, 'started documenting what we saw and started a crowdfunding campaign to channel funds to local communities.

'Within weeks we bought and donated a water truck to help firefighting, a boat to rescue injured fauna, food and water supply to indigenous communities, PPI to volunteers and much more.'

Cancelling her holiday, she joined the frontlines and began working with the other volunteers. Chalana Esperança is made up of Luciana and three other female biologists: Daniella França, Cecília Licarião and Lua Benício.

Together, they began 'returning to Pantanal every other month promoting environmental education, assisting with the development of sustainable ecotourism, women empowerment and, during the fire season, equipping communities so they stand a better chance against the flames.'

She stresses how difficult it was to witness 'the carcasses of animals that died in the fire. Especially in 2020, the landscape was devastated and covered by ashes. Pantanal is one of the biomes with the highest densities of vertebrates on the planet so the number of dead animals we encounter on areas that were lost to the flames was heart-breaking.'

Today, Chalana Esperança have 12 volunteers. During the fire season they work to support locals to fight the flames, protect unburnt areas and assist other NGOs with the rescue and rehabilitation of injured fauna. The rest of the year they focus on education in public schools, giving local children a chance to observe the wildlife.

She says, 'Many of the children that live here never had the opportunity to join these amazing animals in the wild. They were afraid of jaguars because sometimes they predate their dogs. But the long-term conservation of jaguars depends on these children to grow up loving and understanding the importance of these animals.'

'For us, it was sad to see foreigners coming from all over the world and paying significant sums to observe jaguars while local youth did not have this opportunity. So, we made these children our guests and watching their excitement and happiness observing these animals and many other species during the field expeditions is among the most rewarding things I've done in my life!'

The group also have a project called 'crocheting the future' which empowers women in traditional communities by teaching them to crochet animals from the Pantanal to sell to tourists. She notes that, 'Women in these locations are frequently excluded from the local economy and spend most of their time inside their homes, caring for their children. Crocheting is something they can do from their houses, and through which they can gain financial independence.'

The final strand of the group's work started in 2022 and aims to educate 'fishermen, river dwellers, professional and sports fishermen about the different pressures fish in the Pantanal are under and how by respecting the minimum and maximum sizes established by law, we can maintain healthy rivers.'

How you can help

Edson says it is his 'great desire that these images, despite being so sad, can touch people and that this may generate positive actions and changes.'

Eating less meat can make a difference as grazing space for cattle is one of the main causes of deforestation. Public knowledge about the issue could be more widespread, so talk to your friends and family about how they can protect the wetlands. You can also support organisations working to protect the Pantanal, whether that's financially or through allyship.

You can find out more about the work of Chalana Esperança including how you can help by emailing