January 12, 2006

World’s Largest Wetland Under Threat

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- The world's largest wetland, Brazil's Pantanal, is being destroyed by increased farming, ranching and mining, according to a report by the environmental watchdog Conservation International.

The threat mirrors the more publicized situation in the Amazon, where ranchers and loggers have cleared vast areas of the rain forest at an alarming rate.

The Pantanal, an area of low-lying forests, marshes, and dry plains, covers about 77,230 square miles in the western Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul near the borders with Bolivia and Paraguay.

It is home to a huge variety of wildlife, including jaguars, anteaters, tapirs and crocodiles, and it floods in the rainy season.

The Conservation International report said deforestation had destroyed 17 percent of the natural vegetation of the Pantanal and if it continued unchecked, all the original forest would disappear within 45 years.

Scientists used satellite images to compare the deforested areas with those that still had natural vegetation.

"They concluded that agriculture, cattle grazing and coal mining are the major threats to the Paraguay River Basin, a significant hydrographical drainage of the South American continent," it said.

Overall in the Paraguay River Basin, which includes the Pantanal, ranching and agriculture has destroyed almost 45 percent of the original vegetation.

The destruction had put wildlife and the ecological system at risk.

"These locations contribute to wildlife populations and serve as refuges for the fauna during unfavorable seasons, sheltering species that migrate to avoid floods and climate extremes," said Sandro Menezes, manager of Conservation's Pantanal program.

It mentioned the hyacinth macaw, which is threatened with extinction because the manduvi tree where it shelters and breeds is being wiped out.

Calling the Pantanal situation critical, the report urged action at local, state and government levels to stop the destruction and to restore damaged areas.