In the heart of the 2016 dry season, thousands of man-made fires started daily in the Beni Department of Bolivia as ranchers burn their grasslands to improve pasture for their livestock. These fires pose a direct threat to the Barba Azul Nature Reserve, where the Barba Azul field team, firemen, helpful neighbours and even field biologist waged a 7 hour relentless battle with the flames to save the endangered savannah and forest habitat of the reserve.
The lingering effect of “El Niño” made this year´s dry season particularly harsh on cattle-ranchers as forage grew scarce even in the lush Beni savannah. To ensure quick re-sprouting of grasses and short-term pasture improvement, thousands of man-made fires were lit in the region.
According to the Bolivian Forest Service, there was an 800% increase in the number of wildfires since last year. Studies also suggest that there is a strong connection between human induced climate change and the increased number of wildfires. Millions of hectares of burning land radically increases air pollution in large areas causing literally doomsday like scenes in urban areas several kilometers away from the wildfires.
Other than posing a serious health hazard, wildfires also release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere exponentially raising temperatures in the future. Higher temperatures translate to higher potential of wildfires threats to the Llanos de Moxos ecosystem.
In order to protect this endangered tall-grass savanna habitat, fire protection is one of the main priorities for the Barba Azul Nature Reserve, as seasonal, uncontrolled burning goes hand in hand with large habitat loss of this endangered Beni savannah eco-region.
Although the prolonged dry season increases the risk of fires, it also increases the period to execute land management activities as the soils were sufficiently dry to move heavy equipment. We were able to significantly improve the firebreaks surrounding the reserve’s perimeter and important forest areas crucial for the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw. Our firebreaks consist of a 20-meter-wide ploughed area to prevent fires from crossing over to the reserve’s boundaries.
In Barba Azul North, 15 km of firebreaks have been improved by doubling its width and increasing them in length. Additional firebreaks have been established at other areas of the reserve. One of these improved firebreaks proved to be essential to halt a fire started on the 25th of July at a ranch north of the reserve.
The self-made firebreak successfully protected the most important foraging habitat of the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw, the gallery forests of Isla Barba Azul. However raging flames burned the savannah tall-grass habitat north from the island. Extending our firebreaks to the north is primordial in order to protect larger areas of tall-grass habitat, crucial for the vulnerable Cock-tailed Tyrant, Sharp-tailed Tyrant and Black-masked Finch.
The situation was much more critical at the southern boundary, due to a fire being lit during the rare southern winds of a cold front. Flames, fuelled by extremely strong winds and 1.5 mtall-grass, proved to be unstoppable at a first approach. Seven local firemen alerted by Armonía field staff were dispatched from nearby Santa Ana, and engaged in firefighting.
The operation was concluded after 7 hours of tireless effort of helpful neighbours, Armonía personnel, and even researchers present at the time in the reserve battled the 3 meter tall flames with hand operated water pumps and flame beaters in the scorching heat.
Fires do occur naturally in savanna habitat at a rate of once every 3-4 years mainly during the wet season, when occasional thunder strikes ignite the rotting biomass. During the wet season the fires don’t get out of control, or burn the important top soils with all its nutrients. Man-made fires with a frequency of almost twice a year during the dry season, burn away nutritious organic material from the soil increasing its tendency to erode and dry vegetation to ignite.
To be able to fully control fires at the reserve, the reinforcement and constant maintenance of the firebreaks is a constant and urging priority just as the monitoring of the fire outbreaks. For this purpose, Armonía is seeking continuous support to execute our conservation activities to fully protect the endangered Beni Savanna Eco-region.
Please consider to support us to protect the foraging habitat of the Blue-throated Macaw from man-made bushfires.