Up in Flames

by Haley Fritz

Unless you were attending a meditation retreat in a cave last week, you have probably heard the devastating news of destruction in the Amazon rainforest. Over 9,000 wildfires raged simultaneously across the Amazon in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru -- spelling certain death for a multitude of its plants and animals.

These wildfires have clear implications for the future of our planet. Between the rainforest’s biodiversity and its counter-effects on climate change (trees in the Amazon exchange CO2 for oxygen, lessening the impact of greenhouse gas emissions), the Amazon stands as a testament to the condition of our environment. 

Photo courtesy of NASA

If these wildfires are any indication, the prognosis appears grim -- particularly for the 8.7 million animal species that inhabit it. Scientists say the Amazon rainforest contains 1 in 10 known species on our planet, some of which may not survive the flames.

Fortunately, many of the Amazon’s animals possess adaptations that could allow them to evade the danger. For example, some creatures can burrow underground or hide underwater until the wildfires pass, while others may be fast enough to outrun the threat. Still, others may not be as fortunate -- including the mighty jaguar.

Thanks to the popularity of cattle ranching, experts at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now classify the jaguar as Near Threatened. Ranchers have cleared much of the jaguar’s rainforest habitat to offer their cattle grazing land. What’s more, the jaguar preys on livestock, making the animal a popular target for farmers looking to protect their flocks. With the recent fires in the Amazon accelerating the destruction of the jaguar’s habitat, it remains unclear how much longer the species will continue to survive. 

Jaguars are not the only species threatened by wildfires: the flames are also victimizing amphibians, reptiles and fish. Unlike larger, faster mammals, smaller, slower animals like frogs, turtles, lizards and snakes cannot simply outrun the fires. To add insult to injury, the Amazon’s nearly 3,000 species of fish depend on a delicate balance of water temperature and pH -- one that could easily be disrupted by the aftereffects of these wildfires.

The importance of animal life in the Amazon cannot be overstated. Should these animal species perish as a result of wildfires, the Amazon’s flourishing plant population will also suffer. According to Newsweek, 80 percent of trees in the Amazon depend on animal movement to disperse their seeds. With fewer animals resulting in decreased movement, we may also see a decline in tree growth as well. Needless to say, the resulting increase in CO2 emissions and decrease in oxygen production will affect us all. 

So, what can we do to protect the Amazon amid this climate crisis? Firstly, it’s imperative that humans react quickly to the present damage. Once too much of the rainforest’s area is destroyed by wildfires, the Amazon will no longer be able to sustain its own life. Disruption to the water cycle, resulting from the loss of too much rainforest, could quite possibly perpetuate the slow and steady death of biodiversity initiated by the fires. 

Community and indigenous organizations based in South America act as the Amazon’s crisis response team, standing on the front lines of the wildfires to fight the destruction and protect our planet’s rainforest. Micro-grants funded by groups like the Rainforest Action Network help support these activities with donations from ordinary people all over the world. Donate to the Rainforest Action Network Protect-an-Acre Community Grant Program.

At home, vote with your wallet to protect the Amazon rainforest from further destruction. Choosing to reduce your wood and paper consumption makes a small, but important dent in the rate at which trees are chopped down. Meanwhile, practicing a plant-based diet -- or, at the very least, limiting your red meat consumption -- reduces the demand for livestock, preventing cattle ranchers from provoking further damage to the Amazon’s ecosystem. 

And planting trees can make a huge difference—trees provide oxygen and limit carbon in the atmosphere. Donate to the Green Spa Network Tree-Planting Initiative. 

The wildfires in the Amazon rainforest have had tragic consequences on biodiversity -- but if we take this tragedy as a wake-up call to alter our behavior, species like the majestic jaguar and more may live to see another day.

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