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Locals may have cooked rarity`s goose

Fires consume last refuges of one of Earth`s rarest birds…

Barueri, SP, Brazil ? The two known remaining refuges of the Critically Endangered Brazilian Merganser Mergus octosetaceus have been badly hit by fires, leading to serious concern for the continued survival of the species, already estimated to number fewer than 250 individuals. Sightings of the duck, which was previously found in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, have plummeted over time, and the bird is now thought to remain only in tiny numbers at several sites across Brazil. The two last major strongholds, Serra da Canastra National Park in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, and Jalap?o State Park in the northeastern state of Tocantins. Fires lasting several days have devastated both of these areas, and up to 70% of Jalap?o, a 53,000 sq km park, almost twice the size of Belgium, has already been burnt. The fires are thought to have been deliberately started by farmers clearing the land for agricultural production.Hopes for the merganser`s continued survival in the wild are fading fast at BirdLife International, which has made considerable efforts to locate and study the species. Six pairs were recorded in the last expedition to find the bird in Serra da Canastra, and it was only first recorded at Jalap?o in an expedition last year. Until a BirdLife expedition two months ago, it was thought that the merganser had an additional stronghold along the tributaries of the S?o Francisco River in the northeastern state of Bahia, where 34 individuals were reported by surveys during the late 1990s, but no record of the species was found. Even the Veredas do S?o Francisco Wildlife Refuge in Bahia which was created to protect the state`s tiny merganser population, is now devoid of the species.The species has dwindled as a result of hydro-electrical plants destroying the clear, fast-flowing rivers they rely upon, or due to agricultural development and deforestation degrading and polluting their habitat. Though the Brazilian Merganser may not be as severely affected by fires as other species in these areas since it lives on or near the water, BirdLife and the Brazilian conservation group, Terra Brasilis say that an evaluation of the real impact of fires on the bird is imperative. This is all the more necessary since July`s expedition discovered no trace of the bird along the S?o Francisco river tributaries, placing even more importance on the two fire-hit sites. Jalap?o is even more vulnerable as only one pair was found in the expedition.Given that Canastra National Park and the Jalap?o area hold the stronghold of the Brazilian Merganser population, the effective protection of these areas should be a priority for the Brazilian Government, says Dr Jaqueline Goerck, Programme Officer for BirdLife in Brazil. Every year we face the same problem with fires in these areas, bringing devastating results. A national strategy should be developed for a quicker response to these fires, and indeed, to ensure that such fires are completely avoided. The future of the Brazilian Merganser will largely depend on its protection in both Canastra National Park and the Jalap?o area. Brazil is now in the unenviable position of being number one in the world for threatened bird species. It would be a tragedy for Brazil and for bird life globally if the Brazilian Merganser were to become extinct because of the destruction of its habitat.For further information please contact, BirdLife Brazil: tel. 011 3815 2862; 011 9652 3196: e-mail birdlifebrasil@uol.com.br

4th July 2014