Editor’s note: The following story contains graphic images of animals that died in the fires.
Amid a record year for fires across South America, two blazes have spiraled out of control in Argentina, scorching a state park in the northeastern province of Corrientes. Within the park, an ecological field station that has carried out long-term primate research for decades narrowly escaped the flames, but roughly half of the park’s resident howler monkeys have likely died.
San Cayetano Provincial Park was only established in 2015, but the Estación Biológica Corrientes (EBCo)—a field station managed by the country’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research—first opened in 1975. While it has previously changed hands and names, since 2001 the station has served as an educational and research facility.
The first fire began on August 23, within San Cayetano itself. Over the next 24 hours, that blaze burned roughly 60 percent of the 76-hectare park to ashes. Several weeks later, in late September, a separate fire just outside the preserve scorched more than 1,000 hectares before entering the boundaries of San Cayetano on October 1, claiming a further 30 percent of the park’s total area. The patches left untouched include some fragmented forest as well as the research station’s main complex of buildings.
Martin Kowalewski, a primate ecologist and the field station’s director, was on hand to fight the fires, calling it a “strange universe where the fires are all around and you understand that you can do nothing, but you’re still there.” Because there are many fires burning throughout the region, help was slow to arrive, and within the park the fires were fought primarily by rangers, conservationists, researchers, and locals from the nearby town.
Both fires are thought to have been started intentionally by cattle ranchers before spreading out of control. The practice of burning grasslands each spring to prompt fresh growth is common. But while most landowners burn small plots of land to support a handful of cows, large ranching operations sometimes burn vast tracts of land, despite the practice being banned during extremely dry weather, Kowalewski says.
All these groups that we found, I knew everything about them. I knew who was the son, the daughter, the mother. The first [few days] I was crying all the time.—Martin Kowalewski, CONICET-Argentina
As ranching, logging, and agriculture have encroached on the field station, primatologists have documented these changes to the land through the resident population of black and gold howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya). This group represents the southernmost distribution for the species, and researchers have been tracking them for more than 30 years; Kowalewski himself has been working in the area since 1993.
When the fires were finally extinguished, he and his team entered the park to assess the damage. What they found, as documented through a series of posts on social media, caused Kowalewski profound anguish that he says ultimately turned to fury. Of the 20 different groups of howler monkeys being monitored from the field station, 10 were able to shelter in forests that did not burn. Half of the remaining groups, totaling between 40 and 50 animals, have died, while the other five groups remain unaccounted for.
“It’s difficult because we are doing science, looking for patterns in nature. But you can have this connection with your study animals too because we have been following them for 30 years,” Kowalewski tells The Scientist. “All these groups that we found, I knew everything about them. I knew who was the son, the daughter, the mother. The first [few days] I was crying all the time.”
In addition to primates that died in the fires, Kowalewski says, his team also came across monkeys that had been struck by cars or attacked by dogs as they fled. Others were electrocuted by power lines. Speaking to The Guardian, Kowalewski tallied other animals killed by the flames: otters, foxes, deer, caiman, turtles, snakes, and capybaras.
While the park itself is protected from development, the surrounding forest is fragmented, leaving few spaces for animals to retreat to and fewer protections for them outside the park’s boundaries. Kowalewski describes such preserves as “islands” in an increasingly urbanized world.
Those who carried out their research there recall what a unique oasis it was. “It was pretty amazing to wake up to howler monkey booms coming from the forest surrounding the field station,” Sahana Kuthyar, a PhD student at the University of California, San Diego, who previously carried out research on howler monkeys at the station, tells The Scientist in an email. “My experience at EBCo was definitely unique, and I made long-lasting friendships and scientific collaborations for which I am very grateful.”
With 90 percent of San Cayetano burned, the future of the field station is uncertain. The forests may recover, but it’s unknown whether an intact ecosystem could ever reestablish itself without help. Kowalewski intends to continue documenting the recolonization of the area by howlers; with so little forest remaining, he says, he expects to see increased conflict between groups.
Other researchers planning to visit the station are having to reassess. Carson Black, a master’s student at Central Washington University, would have traveled to EBCo to collect data for her thesis, which will look at the gut microbiome of howlers along a gradient of habitat health. Hearing about the fires, she says she felt “sheer and utter devastation.” The pandemic had already paused her trip, and now she will have to rely on previously collected samples sent to her from collaborators in Argentina.
“We heard so much about Australia burning last year and the Amazon, and I feel like a lot of people don’t realize that other places are at risk,” Carson tells The Scientist. “It’s extremely disheartening, but I just hope that . . . we can get the word out that we’ve got to make a change, or we’re going to lose a lot more than what we’ve lost in Argentina.”