Conservation good news: Giant anteaters are returning to south Brazil thanks to rewilding efforts

A female giant anteater roaming in a field with her baby on its back

— Recent giant anteater sightings in Rio Grande do Sul state indicate the species has returned to southern Brazil, where it had been considered extinct for more than a century.

— Experts concluded that the giant anteater ventured across the border from the Iberá Park in northeastern Argentina where a rewilding project has released around 110 individuals back into the habitat.

— The sightings emphasize the importance of rewilding projects, both to restore animal populations in specific regions and help ecosystems farther afield.

— Organizations across Brazil are working to protect and maintain current giant anteater populations, including rallying for safer highways to prevent wildlife-vehicle collisions that cause local extinctions.

Playing back hours of footage from a camera trap set in Espinilho State Park in the south of Brazil in August 2023, Fábio Mazim and his team banked on possible sightings of the maned wolf or the Pantanal deer and had their fingers crossed for a glimpse of a Pampas cat (Leopardus pajeros), one of the most threatened felines in the world.

What they didn’t expect to see was an animal long presumed extinct in the region. To their surprise, the unmistakable long snout and bushy tail of a giant anteater ambled into shot.“

We shouted and cried when we saw it,” the ecologist from the nonprofit Pró-Carnívoros Institute told Mongabay. “It took a few days to grasp the importance of this record. A sighting of a giant anteater was never, ever expected.”

Last seen alive in the southwest of the Rio Grande do Sul state in 1890, the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) has since been spotted 11 times since August 2023, although the scientists are unsure whether it’s the same one or different individuals. However, the sightings confirm one clear fact: The giant anteater is back.

It's a huge win for the environment. Giant anteaters play an important role in their ecosystems, helping to control insect numbers, create watering holes through digging and are prey for big cats such as jaguars and pumas.

The habitat of the giant anteater stretches from Central America toward the south cone of Latin America.

Its conservation status is “vulnerable,” although it is considered extinct in several countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala and Uruguay, as well as specific regions such as the states of Rio de Janeiro, Espirito Santo, Santa Catarina and (until now) Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil and the Cordoba and Entre Rios regions in Argentina.

A giant anteater crossing a field at nighttime
In the last six months, the giant anteater was spotted on camera 11 times in the Espinilho State Park in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. It was the first time in 130 years that the species has been seen alive there. Image courtesy of Fábio Mazim/Instituto Pró-Carnivóros.

In the last six months, the giant anteater was spotted on camera 11 times in the Espinilho State Park in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. It was the first time in 130 years that the species has been seen alive there.

Yet not only is it a triumph for conservationists to see these animals returning to Brazilian biomes, it’s also a surprising mark of success for a rewilding program about 150 kilometers (93 miles) away in neighboring Argentina.

Rewilding Argentina’s biomes

Iberá National Park in Corrientes province in northeastern Argentina is a 758,000-hectare (1.9 million-acre) expanse of protected land comprising a part of the Iberá wetlands with its swaths of grasslands, marshes, lagoons and forests. The region was once home to just a handful of giant anteaters after habitat loss, hunting and vehicle collisions decimated the population.

Since 2007, the NGO Rewilding Argentina, an offspring of the nonprofit Tompkins Conservation, has been reintroducing the species back to the area, most individuals being orphaned pups rescued from vehicle collisions or poaching.

So far, they have released 110 giant anteaters back into the wild. Nowadays, several generations inhabit the park, transforming it from “a place of massive defaunation to abundance,” Sebastián Di Martino, director of conservation for Rewilding Argentina, was quoted as saying in an official statement.

The project has been so successful that the giant anteaters appear to be venturing farther afield and moving to new territories beyond national borders, such as Espinilho State Park in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul region.

A man fixing a video camera with two men sitting on a field in the background
Fábio Mazim (right) sets a camera trap in Rio Grande do Sul. Initially, the researchers were hoping to spot a Pampas cat in the state park, but instead found a giant anteater, a species thought to be extinct in the region. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

It’s almost certain that this animal [in Espinilho State Park] has dispersed from the province of Corrientes, in Argentina, as part of the population reintroduced in the Iberá wetlands,” Flávia Miranda, president of the NGO Tamanduá (Anteater) Institute in Brazil and a giant anteater expert, was quoted as saying in an official statement. “The geographical proximity and the morphological characteristics we observed in the animal lead us to this conclusion.”

Walking such long distances isn’t out of the ordinary for large mammals, even for giant anteaters that don’t have particularly large territories, Mazim said.

To verify the origin of this giant anteater in Rio Grande do Sul, Mazim and independent researchers veterinarian Paulo Wagner and biologists Maurício Santos, Moisés Barp and Yan Rodrigues will carefully capture it and conduct a harmless genome test to check if it belongs to the same group.

Experts now hope that a giant anteater population can reestablish itself naturally in Espinilho State Park without the need for human intervention.

A giant anteater
The giant anteater is listed as vulnerable to extinct across South America and faces several threats to its survival, including habitat loss, conflicts with domestic dogs, and collisions with vehicles. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

“The giant anteater returning to Rio Grande do Sul shows the success of the work done in Argentina and how it’s viable, possible and important to do rewilding and fauna reintroduction projects,” Mazim said.“It is also an indication that the management of conservation units and also the agricultural areas of the ecosystems are working,” he added. “Because if large mammals are coming from one region and settling in another, it is because there is a support capacity for them. It is an indication of the health of the environment.”

Protecting populations

Rewilding is an effective way of building up diminished giant anteater populations. Education and working with local communities can then help maintain these numbers. This is exactly what the Wild Animal Conservation Institute  (ICAS) in Brazil’s Pantanal is doing.

About 1,400 km (870 mi) away from Espinilho State Park, conservationists in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul are working to protect current populations of giant anteaters in the Pantanal wetlands and Cerrado savanna by studying and improving human-wildlife coexistence.

A giant anteater walking through a marsh
The Iberá Park in Argentina contains wetlands, lagoons, and marshes, and is similar to the Pantanal wetlands biome in Brazil. It’s one of the giant anteaters’ preferred habitats. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

The Pantanal is vulnerable to climate change, which can provoke prolonged wildfires in the region. In the Cerrado, half the habitat has been replaced by pastures for cattle and soybeans as well as fragmented by a network of roads that increase the mortality of large mammals from vehicle collisions. Giant anteaters have poor vision and hearing and struggle to escape from fast-moving vehicles.

“When roadkill is added to other problems such as habitat loss, fire and conflict with domestic dogs, it becomes an aggravating factor,” Arnaud Desbiez, founder of ICAS, told Mongabay.

According to data collected from the roads of Mato Grosso do Sul, Desbiez and a fellow researcher estimated that approximately 40 giant anteaters die from vehicle collisions for every 100 km (62 mi) of paved road per year.

People are also impacted: Research from the National Initiative for the Conservation of the Brazilian Tapir found that between mid-December 2023 and mid-January 2024, five people in Mato Grosso do Sul died due to vehicle collisions with tapirs, South America’s largest mammal.

“These roads are causing local extinctions,” Desbiez said. “Our models show that they decrease population growth rates [of giant anteaters] by more than 50%.”

Surveys have found that truck drivers don’t intentionally run over wildlife but have little time to brake, rendering speed limits and wildlife signs ineffective. “The most efficient technique is getting animals off the road,” Desbiez said, by constructing fences in highway areas of critical stretches of wildlife accidents, he added.

While some progress is being made to include collision-prevention barriers on new roads, a lack of political will and funding are slowing the process down, experts say.

Conversations with the local community and educational initiatives are also key to building better coexistence between people and giant anteaters.

In 2023, a study revealed how a set of superstitions in rural Pantanal related to giant anteaters contributed to people’s negative feelings of the animal.

Of the 259 people interviewed by researchers, almost 40% saw giant anteaters as a symbol of bad luck and expected something negative to happen after seeing one, such as failing to hunt and fish or getting ill and experiencing general misfortune.

The repercussions of these feelings ranged from dodging the footprints to clobbering the animal, the research found, although no one admitted to killing one.

By understanding these beliefs, ICAS conservationists have created educational materials to help dispel myths and build better relationships between people and giant anteaters.

An aerial photo of the Espinilho State Park in Brazil
The Espinilho State Park in Brazil is largely made up of the Pampa biome, a vast grassland scattered with shrubs and trees. Agricultural activities have converted and degraded many areas of this environment. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina.

"When we’re talking about threats, people’s perception of a species is absolutely key to conservation,” Desbiez said. “People are less keen to try to protect something that they have a negative perception of than a positive perception.”

Concerted efforts to protect giant anteater populations are essential if this animal is to be saved, which includes international cooperation, especially across Brazil and Argentina as well as nearby Uruguay, which is close to both Iberá Park and Espinilho State Park and could also eventually see giant anteaters return from the Iberá rewilding initiative. “It can’t only be a national project,” Mazim said.

Mazim and his team are collaborating with Tamanduá Institute and Rewilding Argentina to better understand the population in Rio Grande do Sul and expand searches for anteaters in nearby Uruguay, where the anteater is currently considered extinct.

“It’s not an easy world for giant anteaters,” Desbiez said. “There are so many threats these animals have to face.” But there’s a glimmer of hope for the species with the recent successes of rewilding projects, and experts hope with cooperation and education, the current population can be maintained and thrive.

This article was originally published by Mongabay.

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May 25, 2024 6:15 AM
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