Protecting and Monitoring the Cantão Ecosystem

The Cantão Region lies in the Araguaia River basin of Central Brazil, where the Cerrado and Amazon biomes meet in a sharp ecotone. At the heart of Cantão lies an inland river delta which forms a 100,000-hectare wetland of flooded forests and oxbow lakes. This aquatic environment is exceptionally rich and productive, hosting over 300 species of fish, whose abundance is among the highest known for Amazonia. The combination of large oxbow lakes and abundant fish prey forms an ideal habitat for giant otters, as well as other endangered species like the Araguaia river dolphin and the giant arapaima fish.

The region is under multiple threats. Fish poaching is intense, depriving giant otters of their prey, and poachers often kill otters and river dolphins, whom they view as competitors. Since 2018, forest fires also became a major threat, due to a combination of climate change causing longer dry seasons and neglect of duty by the current Brazilian government. Fires destroy the forest and burn all the way to the edge of lakes where giant otters have their breeding dens - their breeding season peaks in August to October, which is precisely peak fire season. Ash from fires flows into the lakes with the first rains and provokes fish kills. Finally, the expansion of soybean farms in the region often reaches the edge of the wetlands, silting and polluting the water. Most of the Cantão wetlands are protected on paper by Cantão State Park, but the Cerrado side of the ecotone, as well as the ecotone itself, is all in private hands and is being converted into mechanized monoculture at an astounding rate.

Instituto Araguaia is a local conservation NGO funded in 2010. Our primary objective is to create and protect a corridor of privately protected areas (PPAs) along the most preserved part of the Amazon-Cerrado ecotone, bordering Cantão Park. We already own and manage four PPAs along the ecotone, totaling 1120 hectares, and are currently negotiating with donors and landowners to purchase more land. Our PPAs encompass the full range of Cantão habitats, from Cerrado grassland and dry forest to igapó flooded forest with oxbow lakes. All four of our reserves are home to breeding groups of giant otters. They are also the only protected areas where terrestrial species from Cantão Park can escape high floods, which happen every few years. One is happening right now in 2022 as a result of La Niña, and species like jaguars, ocelots, giant anteaters, tapirs, and peccaries are crowding into our reserves in large numbers.

Although our PPAs are now safe from being converted into soybean fields, protecting them from fish poachers and fires requires year-round patrolling, maintenance of patrol trails and cattle-exclusion fences, clearing of firebreaks and prescribed burns before each dry season, and firefighting whenever a fire threatens our reserves, which happened eight times since 2019. Instituto Araguaia's headquarters is a field station in one of our PPAs, and our team of rangers/firefighters from the local community patrols and protects all our reserves year-round. During giant otter breeding season we locate and monitor breeding dens and the lakes where the resident groups forage, protecting them from fish poachers and forest fires. Five to eight reproductive groups of giant otters reside in our PPAs each breeding season. We incorporate a 20 km stretch of river that connects our reserves into our monitoring and fire prevention, which inhibits fish poachers and protects additional critical giant otter habitat.

Like many Brazilian NGOs, our central challenge has been to secure funds for Instituto Araguaia’s core operations, such as ranger salaries, fuel, and food. Unlike many NGOs it has been Instituto Araguaia’s position not to accept public funds, as a way to preserve our independence from policy fluctuations which often happen in Brazil. However, most non-government funding sources will not cover these core needs, or demand that these be a small part of the grant. We find it easier to raise funds to purchase new reserves, build infrastructure, or buy equipment (like boats, tractors for firebreaks, or camera traps) than to cover the recurring costs of being in the field year-round protecting the reserves and their wildlife. With the purchase of a new reserve in 2021 (which contains three large oxbow lakes with resident giant otters) our current team of four rangers and one reserve manager is very overstretched, especially in the dry season, when fire prevention, fire fighting, and monitoring of giant otter breeding groups all overlap. Our priority now is to find a reliable partner to fund additional rangers and their expenses in terms of food, fuel, and vehicle and equipment maintenance.