Conservation cutbacks put Brazil’s Amazon animals at risk
Brasilia: Benedito de Souza scoops back sand hiding a nest of baby giant Amazon River turtles that he had covered over weeks ago to hide from predators. Suddenly exposed, dozens of the tiny reptiles make a run for it.
During the dry season in Brazil’s Amazon, the Purus River snaking through the Medio Purus Extractive Reserve shrinks to leave vast beaches on which thousands of turtles lay their eggs every year.
The marks from their nocturnal activity can be seen in the sand by day from passing boats.
A local community leader who did his first environmental course in 2007, he watches over the Purus River beaches with his neighbours during the June-to-November season to protect the eggs.
The great Amazon River turtle, also known as the Arrau turtle, can grow to a metre in length.
Although not classified as endangered, “in fact, they are”, said Roberto Lacava, head of the chelonian program for Brazil’s governmental Ibama environmental agency.
His unit was created because populations of several species in the region were deemed to be imperiled.
With only 20 officers to cover eight vast Brazilian states, the programme relies on volunteers to carry out its work in the Amazonas state, a territory bigger than the whole of Peru.
But as Ibama funding has been cut back, some of those volunteers turned to the dark side, using their knowledge to become poachers instead of protectors.
“Many hoped to be paid, and when they weren’t, they became predators,” de Souza said, placing baby turtles in a tank for transportation to a lake where their odds for survival would be better.
This year, the federal government has announced a 43% reduction in the environment ministry’s budget on which Ibama depends.
And that comes against the backdrop of what critics say is President Michel Temer’s steady erosion of environmental protections.
“Poaching grows where there is an absence of the government,” said Ana Claudia Torres, with the fishing management programme for the Mamiraua Institute, based in the Amazon town of Tefe.
The programme was started in 1997 and is used to put checks on catches of arapaima fish present in five Brazilian states.
Weighing up to 220kgs, arapaima is one of the world’s biggest freshwater fish. It has been on the endangered list since 1975.
However, Torres said, “if we consider their number in terms of stock, in Amazonas state we could say their population has recovered and they are no longer vulnerable.”
In the Medio Purus Extractive Reserve, there are 200 lakes containing arapaima, 16 of which have managed fishing programmes, Jose Maria de Oliveira, manager for the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation in Medio Purus, said, adding that structuring and allowing limited sales of the fish had helped combat poaching, underlining that vigilance alone is not enough.
Investment in community projects is also required.
Ze Bajaga, the technical coordinator for Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (Funai in the town of Labrea, described an equally grim situation.
Bajaga said poaching is growing and “without vigilance, the managed programme will weaken.”
“The situation is really dangerous We are on the brink of an ecological disaster.” — AFP
Big catch: Fishermen loading an arapaima onto their boat in the Western Amazon region near Volta do Bucho in the Ituxi Reserve. —AFP