Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT: Brazil's Concrete Jungle

Fabiana Frayssinet* - IPS/IFEJ

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 13 2009 (IPS) - For the residents of Recreio, an upscale district on the west side of Rio de Janeiro, it is hardly a surprise these days to find alligators holding up traffic along their streets or slipping in for a dip in their swimming pools.

Capybaras wandering around Rio de Janeiro.  Credit: Rodnei Bandeira de Mello/IPS.

Capybaras wandering around Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Rodnei Bandeira de Mello/IPS.

The alligators, however, have never really gotten used to the human beings that invade their swamps and lagoons in growing numbers.

"We saw a huge one crossing the street and we had to stop the car," an alarmed neighbour said.

Alligators, once lords and rulers of this land, are becoming an increasing presence around the city, along with many other animals from the native forest.

The environmental group SOS Mata Atlântica says these and other reptiles are "essential in maintaining nature’s balance, as they control the population of insects and other invertebrates."

In the wetlands that used to be their breeding grounds, alligators live amidst the garbage dumped by people and the effluents discharged by sewers. They survive on whatever they can catch, or on the bits of meat that some people throw into their waiting jaws.

Denise Monsores, administrator of the Chico Mendes Park, where alligators and other native species are protected, explains that the Recreio real estate boom of the last 10 years shrunk the habitat of the alligators. Backed into a corner, they started to roam the city.

The park is practically the last refuge from humans that the alligators have left. Monsores blames the problem on poorly planned urban growth.

To develop Recreio, swamps and wetlands that were home to alligators and other species were drained or used as cesspits for the sewage discharged by buildings.

The capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), the world’s largest rodent, is another animal that has been forced out of its native environment and now often turns up in the lakes or beaches of the city’s affluent southern district, to the surprise of bathers.

Rio’s carnival culture quickly picked up on this new phenomenon. A lost capybara was the inspiration for the name taken by one of the traditional street ‘blocos.’ The Soapy Capybara Bloco – in allusion to the slick animal that slipped from the hands of the firemen who tried to capture it and return it to its habitat – wrote a samba in its honour.

Straying far from their home in the Tijuca forest, the huge red-and-white boa constrictors locally known as ‘giboias’ are also increasingly creeping up in urban areas, more often than city dwellers would like them to.

In late 2008, inhabitants of the Borel favela (shantytown) called on specialists from the National Tijuca Park to help them deal with "a profusion of giboias," recalls Ricardo Calmon, head of the nature reserve.

That was how they discovered that what drew the snakes was the burgeoning rat population, which thrives on the large amount of garbage accumulated in the area.

Rio de Janeiro sits on one of the world’s largest forests: the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest), which spans 17 Brazilian states and is an abundant source of water and plant and animal life. It is home to 1,020 bird species, 350 fish species, 340 amphibians, 251 mammals, and 197 reptiles, according to the Environmental Institute of Brazil.

But while it still stretches over 1.3 million square kilometres – roughly 15 percent of the national territory -, it has shrunk down to only seven percent of its original size.

The metropolitan areas of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Victoria cleared 793 hectares, according to the 2005-2008 Atlantic Forest Atlas ("Atlas da evolução dos remanescentes florestais e ecossistemas associados no domínio da Mata Atlântica") published by SOS Mata Atlântica and the National Institute for Spatial Research.

Sixty-two percent of Brazil’s population lives in the Atlantic Forest states. That is some 110 million people who destroy the very forest resources they need to ensure "water supply, weather control, and soil fertility, among other environmental benefits," according to SOS Mata Atlântica.

Human activity and real estate speculation, hunting and fishing, the expansion of farmland, and poor urban planning threaten some 383 animal species in this area, of a total of 633 endangered species in the country.

Some species are more adaptable than others and more capable of coexisting with human beings, says biologist Mario Moscatelli, head of the ecosystem management department at the Centro Universitário da Cidade.

Monkeys can be seen doing acrobatics on balconies and terraces in houses located near the Tijuca forest, trying to win or steal the fruit discarded by human dwellers.

Alligators make their way through the garbage that litters the water, ignoring the plastic bottles or other objects they drag with them. Vultures stand watch on the highway, perched high on lampposts, waiting for an animal to be run over by the passing vehicles.

But others like the ‘guará’ or scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber) – a bird that has practically disappeared from Rio de Janeiro – "are more vulnerable and, since they are too sensitive to contact with humans and the garbage and sewage they produce, they either leave or die," he adds.

"It’s not the animals that are invading the city. It’s actually the city that is encroaching on the last remaining fragments of what used to be their home," Moscatelli explained.

"Rio de Janeiro was built on mangrove swamps, wetlands, and forests," in a process that "after 500 years is now entering a new stage of occupation," he said.

The veterinarians working at the municipal zoo are well aware of the consequences of this process.

"The animal control bodies bring all the animals that come out of the forest to us," Víctor Hugo Mesquita, the zoo’s technical director, says.

"It’s very common for them to bring in monkeys, alligators, sloths, weasels, and several other species of mammals," he says.

Ironically, some species have been so heavily protected by new, strict legislation that they have not only been saved from extinction, but their populations have grown to the point of being superabundant, sometimes creating problems.

According to Calmon, certain primate species are now being targeted by sterilisation plans.

"As a result of this imbalance in the ecosystem and the absence of a natural predator like the jaguar (Panthera onca), which used to inhabit the forest, some species are starting to overpopulate the area. As the forest is fenced in by the city, it is no longer big enough to allow other species in the food chain to survive," the head of the Tijuca Park explained.

Moscatelli prefers not to call these animals "pests," and instead uses that term to refer to human beings, who are responsible for "upsetting the entire food chain."

The "animal populations must be redistributed to other areas" so they "don’t pose a problem in urban environments," he says.

Wild species can spread diseases, such as rabies or spotted fever – which is transmitted by capybaras through ticks -, or they can attack people, as alligators sometimes do to protect their young.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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