Juazeiro, Brazil, Sept. 28 (Dow Jones) -- Weighing more than 100 pounds, big cats have long reigned over this hot, semiarid region of Brazil, developing tougher legs for the scorching earth and reaching speeds of 50 miles per hour to bring down wild boar and deer.
But nothing could have prepared them for the nearly 48-meter blades that now cut the deep blue sky above them.
Jaguars and pumas face extinction in the Caatinga, the scrublands of northeastern Brazil, as Europe and China invest in wind farms, drilling into the earth with vast turbines that are driving the animals away from the region's scarce water sources.
Particularly sensitive to changes in their habitat, jaguars and pumas abandon their dens as soon as wind farm construction begins, said Claudia Bueno de Campos, a biologist who helped found the group Amigos de los Jaguares and tracked the disappearance of the region's cat population. They then travel long distances across the dusty plains in search of new streams and rivers.
The weaker ones perish along the way. Others venture closer to villages, where villagers set traps to protect their small herds of goats and sheep, often their only means of survival in this impoverished region.
The wind power industry doubled its capacity in Brazil since 2018, which analysts expect will make the country the world's fourth-largest producer of such energy by 2027 behind China, the United States and Germany, according to the Brazilian Wind Energy Association, an industry body.
Thus, by helping to solve one problem, climate change, the wind industry threatens to create others, environmentalists warn. Recently, indigenous groups staged protests in Brazil over the installation of turbines on land they said is rightfully theirs, while environmentalists also expressed concern that wind farms installed on compacted sand dunes on the northern coast may have damaged groundwater reservoirs.
In the United States, the industry recently suffered a series of setbacks, from supply chain problems to spiraling costs.
"Wind power is a fantastic proposition and the Northeast certainly has plenty of wind . . . but wind farms must also take into account what's happening here on the ground," said Campos, who also works for the government-run Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation.
Killing jaguars or pumas, or most other wild animals in Brazil, carries a jail sentence of up to 18 months, but there is little enforcement, Campos said. "Normally, villagers bury or burn the bodies, they find a way to make them disappear."
There are now approximately 30 jaguars and 160 pumas left in Boqueirão da Onça, a protected area that is their main habitat in the Caatinga, according to Friends of the Jaguars. Since 2009, the number of jaguars in the Caatinga dropped 40%, while the number of pumas decreased 20%.
Although big cats are still abundant in the Amazon and Pantanal wetlands of Brazil, those in the Caatinga are unique, as they have adapted to withstand the intense heat. Jaguars have yellowish fur with black spots and are larger than pumas, which have a single brown to gray color. Jaguars are more sensitive to changes in their environment, biologists said.
The disappearance of the felines would throw the region's ecosystem out of control, leading to a proliferation of animals that serve as prey, such as wild boars, deer and armadillos, said Felipe Melo, a researcher at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, who has studied the impact of the wind industry in the Caatinga.
Because many jaguars and pumas were pushed into closer contact with communities, many villagers mistakenly believe their numbers are increasing rather than that they face extinction, making it difficult to persuade locals to save them, Campos said.
"My God, jaguars are everywhere now," said José Barros da Silva, 72, who lives in Laje dos Negros, a small community in the jaguars' ravine. He lost five calves last year, valued at about $2,500, equivalent to a year's minimum wage.
"Last week, my son went to check on the herd and one of the cows had claw marks on its back."
Few people in town admit to cheating. But resentment is growing.
"One of my goats disappeared three weeks ago, I know it was a jaguar," said José Ribeiro Marques, who has made a living in the nearby town of São Pedro for the past 20 years.
"It's heartbreaking," he said. "We raise our animals very carefully."
Much of the jaguar ravine is in an environmental protection area that prohibits most forms of commercial activity.
Wind turbines are an exception. France is one of the biggest investors in the Caatinga. Utility company Engie has two large wind farms and French oil company TotalEnergies signed a joint venture in 2022 with Brazilian firm Casa dos Ventos, which operates in the Caatinga. Spain's Elawan also commissioned a new wind farm in the nearby town of Sobradinho last year.
Engie and Casa dos Ventos stated that they had introduced conservation programs, among other efforts, to help preserve local wildlife. Elawan and TotalEnergies did not respond to requests for comment.
Chinese groups have also invested heavily and China General Nuclear Power operates a wind power plant just south of the conservation area.
Chinese investment in wind and solar power in Latin America and the Caribbean tripled to $3.8 billion between 2018 and 2022, with 55% of that cash going to greenfield sites, according to a recent study by Ipea, Brazil's government-run economic research institute.
With 26 gigawatts of capacity, Brazil's onshore wind power industry now ranks as the sixth largest in the world, accounting for 13% of the country's electricity. Of all Brazilian power generation, 53% comes from hydroelectric plants.
Elbia Gannoum, director of the Brazilian Wind Energy Association, said wind farms are not to blame for the decline in the big cat population and noted that regular visits to deserted areas by employees of wind energy companies help deter poaching.
"Yes, wind farms force jaguars and pumas to move to different areas, but after the construction phase, they usually return," he said, adding that conservation projects managed by the companies should help increase the big cat population.
Extreme poverty in the region means that local governments give the green light to wind farms with few strings attached, they say.