A mammal native to South America’s savannas, the maned wolf now lives in the Amazon Rainforest. That’s the finding of a recent study by researchers in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso, Amazonas and Rondônia, which recorded 22 sightings of maned wolves in the Amazon over the past two decades. Ten were in new territory, effectively widening the animals’ normal geographic distribution by more than 20,000 square miles.

Historically, the Amazonian biome marks the northern boundary of the maned wolf’s known range. But human occupation where the rainforest borders the Cerrado biome has brought about serious changes to the natural landscape over the past 50 years. Native rainforest vegetation has largely been replaced by pasture and grain monoculture, making it more appropriate for the propagation of native savanna species like the wolf apple. As the name suggests, this wild tomato species is a fundamental part of the maned wolf’s diet — another reason why it’s now being spotted well outside its normal range.

Intensive deforestation, fires, and a warming climate are wreaking unprecedented impacts on the Amazon. A study published last year in the journal Environmental Science and Policy shows how the shrubland and savanna of the Cerrado are bleeding into the Amazon as a result of these factors. As intense changes in soil use and coverage inside the so-called Arc of Deforestation spread, the study suggests that a new boundary be drawn, showing a different transition from one biome to the next than the currently accepted zone. As the maned wolf’s natural habitat is in grassland, shrub areas and savanna, the newly deforested areas and the transition from Cerrado to Amazon have made the species’ range expansion easier.

But some experts say the animals sighted are not necessarily part of established populations. They’ve been spotted occasionally, mostly in recently deforested areas that are becoming pastureland. In contrast, there are established populations in the Atlantic Rainforest, such as in Itatiaia National Park between the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, and in the Paraíba Valley between São Paulo and Minas Gerais states. In both regions, the maned wolf has occupied previously deforested but recovering areas, avoiding the damp rainforest.

Loss of habitat is greatest threat

The maned wolf, chosen to be on Brazil’s new 200-real bill that was issued in September, is considered near threatened on the IUCN Red List.

Loss of its natural habitat is the most significant threat to the maned wolf, South America’s largest canine species. There are an estimated 24,000 of the animals in Brazil, only 4% of them inside conservation areas. Gusmão says the conclusions of the new study warn that “changes in habitat can bring about many behavioral changes in wild species, as is happening with the maned wolf.”

In search of safe territory

Maned wolf conservation projects follow specific strategies to solve the problems in each region. The Lobos da Canastra project, which works in Serra da Canastra National Park in Minas Gerais, focuses on the part of the Cerrado with the largest concentration of the species, some 200 animals. At one point, the main problem there was hunting. Aside from research carried out on the animals, many environmental education measures were implemented to improve local inhabitants’ perception of the wolves, including individual actions to reduce conflict, especially with chicken farmers. Between 2007 and 2015, 150 chicken coops were built on farms adjacent to the park. Today, people rarely kill wolves in the region.

The Pro-Carnivores Institute in São Paulo state takes a “one health” approach, which focuses on health care for domesticated animals, wild animals, and the environment at large. In general, improving connectivity of native vegetation and the maned wolf’s habitats are the main objectives of conservation projects for the species.