Saving giant armadillos through the fire and rain

05/11/2017 in Conservation

Above: An adult giant armadillo emerging from it's burrow - photo by Cristian Dimitrius

It has been a while since our last update on the giant armadillo project as we have been busy working out in the field. Over the last two months we have conducted two expeditions in the Pantanal, four short monitoring trips Cerrado, and weekly road surveys. In the office, we continue to work hard establishing partnerships, sharing data, communicating project results, and conducting environmental education initiatives. Recent environmental factors have not made this schedule any easier.

The past few months have been incredibly hot and dry. In September fires broke out in neighboring ranches and the hot temperatures, dry air and smoke made it hard to breathe. Large areas were burnt and became desolate. Thankfully, none of the animals we were tracking died, however Emmeline’s condition seems to have deteriorated. You may remember that when we caught her last year she had severe burns and was in a bad way. Despite our efforts she has never really improved. She appears to have received further burns in the recent fires and is much thinner than we would like (according to the camera traps). We continue to keep a close eye on her.

Above: Aerial view of part of the Pantanal affected by recent fires.

There was also frustration on the trip as the team was unable to locate Emanuel, a male that we captured last December. It turns out that that the GPS we placed on him during the last expedition fell off after only 2 days (they are expected to last 30 to 60 days). After some investigation we discovered that there was a fault with one of the fixings. At least we know why this happened and can be aware of this with future GPS devices.

The September trip wasn’t all bad news however, we did manage do monitor several individuals through a combination of telemetry and camera traps. However, the highlight was undoubtedly the discovery of a beautiful new large adult giant armadillo that the team named Amanda in honor of our visitor. Amanda was found while the team was trying to locate a large male called Caetano. Amanda is a very healthy and gentle adult. Interestingly she is occupying an area that we know as Wally, (named after a male we monitored two years ago in that region) We hope that as we monitor Amanda we may also find Wally again. This won’t be easy however, as this area is one of the first to flood, and become impossible to access.

Above: The Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team using telemetry to track giant armadillos carrying GPS trackers.

In October I joined Danilo and Nina Attias (a Brazilian biologist who is doing a post doc with us) and we ventured back out to the Pantanal.  It took five days of intense searching to locate Emanuel. The heat was almost unbearable and we spent hours on top of the truck trying to listen for a signal. One afternoon after lunch, under the blistering sun and suffocating heat our moods were at their lowest to say the least. As Danilo and I climbed on the back of the truck and set our receptors, they started beeping. Without having moved we heard the beep we spent days searching for! Emanuel was only 300m from us. Unbelievable! I should have know however, that although nearby, Emanuel wouldn’t make it easy for us, and, true to form, it took us a further four nights to capture him. I am not sure what did the trick. Was it the long tunnel we dug in the burrow before setting the trap? or was it Danilo’s crazy idea to bring a huge bucket of fresh sand from Renee’s burrow? Either way on the fourth and final night we managed to catch and fit him with a new GPS.

Above: Arnaud and the team placing the trap for Emanuel.

During the expedition, we had two days of rain. It was not refreshing!! On the contrary these first rains made us feel as if we were in a Sauna. However it did mean that we had two opportunities to search for fresh giant armadillo tracks. On both occasions I decided to prioritize searching for Tim and Isabelle. Just a reminder Tim is the baby giant armadillo we followed last year and who featured in the Hotel Armadillo documentary. He is Isabelle’s third offspring. We have not seen him or his mother since last December. On the first occasion we searched for six hours unsuccessfully. On the second occasion, we found tracks of an adult giant armadillo. We did our best to keep searching, but it’s important to remember that an adult can walk up to 7 km in a single night. Despite our excitement, we came back empty handed. We will of course keep searching at every opportunity we may have. We want to find Tim.

Two ranches away from Baia das Pedras, a large forested area is being converted to pasture. It is heart breaking. Everything is being removed, burnt, flattened. Nothing is left. We must however accept and understand these changes in the landscape. The owner, bought this land a few years ago and needs to increase the area of pasture to sustain the ranch. This is all legal, it is part of the small changes the Pantanal is slowly undergoing. The owner has always been very welcoming of the project and happy to know we work in the area. Unfortunately, the area being destroyed was where our male Caetano lived. He crossed and swam across the floodplain to an area without machines, noise and fires. We hope he does not disappear. Will he be able to find an area to settle in? I hope  we can keep monitoring him.

Above: Caetano's former territory in the Pantenal, now deforested and used for pasture

On a happier note it seems that two young armadillos we have been following over the last two years, Mafalda and Eric have been spending some time together.. During this trip we were surprised to find that Eric and Mafalda sleeping just 200 m from each other. Our camera traps caught pictures of Eric entering Mafalda’s burrow. It seems our young armadillos are reaching maturity and playing adult games! We look forward to following them and seeing what happens in a few months, it would be wonderful to be able to monitor another offspring.

Above: Gabriel Massocato in the Cisalpina reserve where the Giant Armadillo has recently been made the reserves' symbol. 

Whilst we were out in the field, Gabriel Massocato returned to the Cisalpina reserve to monitor the populations of giant armadillos there using camera traps. We had not been back in the reserve for two years and plan to place camera traps for a few months every year to monitor the population. We are very excited to share with you a paper published last month regarding this work.  The objective was to use camera traps to record the presence of giant armadillos  in the largest protected area in the eastern Mato Grosso do Sul state, Brazil, as well as document the importance of the species as an ecosystem engineer. The presence of giant armadillos was confirmed, individuals recognized and identified, as well as thirty-five different vertebrate species recorded using giant armadillo burrows. The preservation of this reserve is fundamental for the conservation of giant armadillos along the Paraná River tri-national Biodiver­sity Corridor, as this is the only area in the Brazilian territory within this corridor in which giant armadillos has been recorded. We are also thrilled to report that the reserve has now selected giant armadillos as the symbol and flagship species for the reserve. This is a species that they did not even know they had a few years ago!!! It is now their symbol and their pride and Joy. We are thrilled, and shows that all the hard work we put into communicating and environmental education is paying off.

Link to the article: http://www.xenarthrans.org/resources/newsletter/Massocato&Desbiez_Presenc%CC%A7a%20e%20importa%CC%82ncia%20do%20tatu-canastra.pdf

Thank you for all your support and interest in our project. I look forward to updating you on the Anteaters and Highways project in the coming weeks.

Until next time

Arnaud

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