Wild Fires with Wild Jaguars

Brazilian jaguar in sanctuary

In late August, as we gathered in our friends’ garden, ash began to rain down on us. It wasn’t a bizarre flurry blown in by a steadfast gust of wind, but a persistent sprinkling from the hazy skies above Denver. The Cameron Peak fire was the largest on Colorado State record, burning over 200,000 acres in 128 days. The ash had blown over 77 miles to Denver. Another alarm bell rang when our view to the mountains vanished. Throughout September the Rockies only peaked through the smog sporadically before disappearing into the haze for another handful of days. Alerts for poor air quality in Colorado persisted through the back end of summer and similar warnings have echoed over our planet for most of 2020.

The fires began in Australia in January 2020 followed by a dot-to-dot of blazes connected across the Earth. Flames consumed California, Colorado, Serbia and Brazil among others. As humankind locked ourselves away, sheltering from the COVID-19 pandemic, the fires raged widely damaging countless biomass. What stumbled out of the burning forests of Brazil was a jaguar, its paws burnt raw from the wildfires spreading through the swamp lands called the Pantanal.

He would have died. But he didn’t.

Brazilian jaguars in rescue center

Nex No Extinction Jaguars Rescue

In 2017, 4 of us squashed into the back seat of a wrangler jeep and drove an hour and a half west of the Brazilian capital, Brasília, to Corumbá de Goiás. We headed to a refuge called Nex No Extinction, a secluded sanctuary that harbours rescued big felines in Brazil. There are protocols in place to rehabilitate cats young and wild enough to be released again. But most of the time, the feline residents (mostly jaguars) are there for life. Rescued from car accidents, the exotic pet trade or casualties from run-ins with human populations. It costs Nex R$14,000 (US$3,000) a month to upkeep the refuge. There are 22 animals: 15 jaguars, 7 cougars, 2 jaguarundis (Amazonian wildcats), and 3 ocelots. Between them they need 40 kg of meat a day.

Nex No Extinction is nothing akin to what’s seen on Netflix’s hit series Tiger King. The entrance is barely noticeable, just a ragged sign that leads to a dirt road suitable only for 4×4 vehicles. There are maybe 2 to 3 volunteers hidden around the property and no scheduled feeding viewing session or even a place to buy tickets. Most visitors come chaperoned by a donor, as we were, or hitchhike in on guided tours strictly for educational purpose. You’d never hold a baby jaguar, and you’d never see anyone inside the enclosures.

The felines’ stories are wide-ranging, but with an underlying thread. Their lives collided with humans’. Naara the cougar was found during a drug raid in Goiânia, she was a pet. Jaguars Delilah, Carlota and Samson were transferred from Brasília zoo after overpopulation. Merlí was blinded when a fisherman shot him in Maranhão. The jaguarundi Pedrinho was bought in after surviving a collision with the rasp bar of a combine harvester on a sugarcane plantation.

Tucked in the back we found a surprisingly large enclosure shrouded in vegetation and with a pathway that climbs above the cage. In this enclosure were two juvenile jaguars, Pandora e Vivara, being primed for release. They had come to Nex after they lost their mother (most likely by hunters or a vehicle accident) and were scheduled for release within a year. Hopefully the discreet enclosure and relatively short stay would ensure they’d maintain a cautious distance from humans on release. The way it’s supposed to be.

Ousada the Jaguar is Released

Recently, our visit to the jaguar sanctuary sprang back to me when a video of a Nex No Extinction box appeared on the Brazilian national news in October 2020. In the clip, a lid is lifted from steal box and the face of Ousada, a jaguar peers out. Ousada was the jaguar found collapsed on the edge of the Brazilian wild fires. He was airlifted to Nex, nursed back to health by experts and cutting edge burn rejuvenation technology, to a point that he was capable of reintegration in the wild.

He’s not the only jaguar picked up in the 2020 Pantanal fires. Another it’s reported will never recover from third degree burns on her paws and will live the rest of her life in the NEX sanctuary. There are an estimated 173,000 jaguars left in the wild, and just 10,000 in the Brazilian Amazon and 6000 in Pantanal, the two greatest populations. Jaguars have lost more than 50% of their natural habitat.

Recently there has been a conscious effort to aid jaguars. Sustainable tourism in the Pantanal to spot jaguars brings in an estimated R$27 million (US $5.5 million) a year. Far outweighing the cattle farming profits in the same region at R$400,000 (US $80,000). This has vastly reduced revenge killings of jaguars that eat livestock. In 2020, WWF launched a regional plan to conserve the jaguar in Latin America. The plan stretches across 15 regions, many of which contain border land and require international collaboration. Things are being done, but global phenomena like COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires are endangering lives of jaguars already under threat.  

Ousada is still a step in the right direction for a species teetering on the brink of extinction.

Black jaguars or pantha in Nex No Extinction facility.

The Story of the Hummingbird

A wildfire spreads through the forest forcing animals to flee, gawking helplessly at the out-of-control fire. Then a cloud is seen rushing between the river and the fire. A hummingbird is filling its beak and throwing what is can at the impending flames. The other animals look on aghast, exclaiming “the droplets you carry are useless against this raging fire.” But the hummingbird replies, “I am doing the best I can”.

There are many challenges facing the world today. Climate change is an immeasurable beast, that no one is sure how to tame. Perhaps the blame for the wildfires was due to poor forest management, perhaps the trucks we drive. It may just be an unfortunate phenomena of insatiable droughts. But there’s always something you can do. There’s people picking up injured jaguars and people campaigning for policy change.   

What’s your mouthful of water to extinguish the fire?


Ousada the Jaguar returns to Pantanal After Paws are Burnt (published in Portuguese in Estadão Oct 20, 2020)

NGO shelters rescued jaguars has difficulty to feed animals (published in Portuguese in Correio Brasiliense July 19, 2020)

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