The fight to protect maned wolves in Brazil’s disappearing Cerrado: An interview with Bárbara do Couto Peret Dias from Onçafari

Picture a wild savanna, teeming with life. Millions of insects hum in the dense undergrowth, birds flock in the skies, and elusive mammals can be glimpsed through the tall grasses.

You might be picturing lions and giraffes, but this is not Africa. It’s the Cerrado savanna in central Brazil, and it’s in critical danger.

Brazil’s Cerrado is a vital carbon store and a biodiversity treasure trove, with more diversity of life than any other grassland in the world. One species which calls this paradise home is the charismatic maned wolf. These omnivorous canids face an uncertain future in Brazil, suffering from habitat loss as agricultural expansion lays waste to large areas of the savanna.

Facing it with them, is another inhabitant of the Cerrado – Bárbara do Couto Peret Dias. Bárbara talks about her journey in conservation so far, and about the irreplaceable value of one of Brazil’s most threatened biomes.

“I felt connected to nature ever since I was a child.”

Like many others, Bárbara’s path to working in conservation begins with her innate connection to the natural world. However, her ambition was set after studying Ecology during a university exchange year at the University of Leeds, England. Returning to her home country of Brazil, Bárbara was determined to use her education to protect its native wildlife and ecosystems.

While finishing her studies, Bárbara sought ways to contribute to environmental conservation in her free time, and jumped at opportunities to volunteer with national parks and conservation projects.

Starting an environmental education group gave her the opportunity to lead clean-up operations at waterfalls and on the coast, to give presentations about nature conservation, and to organise various educational activities. These experiences gave her both practical experience of volunteering and confidence in leadership and public speaking – valuable assets for when, after graduating from university, Bárbara worked as an ecotourism guide in Pantanal.

Onçafari began in Pantanal, in 2011 and has a well-established ecotourism program there, which offers guests the exciting chance to observe wild jaguars and learn about their conservation. When Bárbara crossed paths with Onçafari, she seized a chance to join the team.

A photo of Bárbara, who works in conservation and ecotourism.

Credit: Gabriela Longo.

“I’ve been living in the middle of the forest for five years now.”

Fast forward to now, and Bárbara has worked in all three of Onçafari’s ecotourism locations, and three of Brazil’s six biomes. She worked as project coordinator at the Atlantic Forest program for a year before settling in at the Pousada Trijunçao base in the Cerrado, as the coordinator of the maned wolf conservation project.

Living surrounded by nature is a big part of life at Onçafari, and Bárbara has found it to be a hugely positive experience. “We get a real connection to nature,” she explains, “To natural cycles, and to the animals. You get to understand deeply the animals you are studying.”

On top of the joy of waking up each day surrounded by a diversity of flora and fauna, Bárbara’s job is never boring. As project coordinator, her job is to oversee all the projects and teams working at the base, meaning no two days are the same.

“Every day is a surprise!”

At Onçafari, there is a whole variety of projects within the conservation of a species. Tracking and monitoring using camera traps, telemetry, and radio collars, are fundamental components of the organisation’s work. Another crucial aim is raising awareness. This is where ecotourism comes in.

Onçafari first began using ecotourism with jaguars in Pantanal. The idea was a success, as it generated funding for further conservation work, while also providing work for local people. Another advantage is that conservation tasks can be carried out simultaneously with eco-tours.

Monitoring goes alongside ecotourism conveniently, since tracking down individuals and observing behaviour is a goal of both researchers and tourists. Onçafari also set up local education events aiming to dispel fear of large carnivores like the jaguar and instead foster a culture that values them as an asset.

This model combining responsible tourism with conservation had great results in Pantanal, so Onçafari decided to try replicating it with maned wolves in the Cerrado.

A conservationist fitting a maned wolf with radio collar for monitoring.

Bárbara and the team monitoring the condition of maned wolves and fitting radio collars. Credit: Joao Almeida.


A conservationist and her team collecting data for conservation and ecotourism.

Bárbara and the team monitoring the condition of maned wolves and fitting radio collars. Credit: Joao Almeida.

Operating tours with the wolves brought new challenges for the team, since they are much harder to track down than jaguars. Bárbara says that this makes the sightings extra rewarding, for both the researchers and the tourists.

“I like to compare maned wolves to dogs, and jaguars to cats” she says. Maned wolves, though harder to find, are exciting to watch because they are always on the move, hunting, foraging, and patrolling their territory. Jaguars on the other hand, are easily spotted but spend a lot of their time peacefully relaxing, much like your average tabby! 

“People only protect the things that they know.”

Whilst it can be a lot of fun, ecotourism also has a serious purpose. Compared to Brazil’s most famous biome, the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado is a little-known ecosystem despite its great importance. Eco-tours give people a chance to learn about this fascinating region and be inspired to support its conservation.

“It’s difficult not to be touched” says Bárbara, describing the affect that seeing maned wolves in the wild has on visitors. “The biggest gift is to end a safari and see how people are changing”.

Maned wolves make a great ambassador for their endangered ecosystem, and increasing awareness of the disappearing Cerrado cannot come soon enough. Despite deforestation rates in the Amazon falling considerably in 2023, the Cerrado has seen no such relief. Less than 8% of its area is protected by law, leaving it at the mercy of agricultural developers.

Deforestation of the Cerrado has tragic impacts for its inhabitants, causing a decline in water availability as well as habitat loss. In 2023, Bárbara and the team experienced the deaths of 3 previously healthy maned wolves, a distressing loss. But Bárbara is not discouraged. “Somehow it gave us more energy and power to keep fighting”.

In the face of environmental destruction and biodiversity loss, it’s so important for conservationists to stay hopeful and determined, following Bárbara’s admirable example.

A conservationist radio tracking at sunset.

Credit: Onçafari.

“Keep studying. Don’t lose that curiosity which usually makes a conservationist move.”

When asked what advice she would offer aspiring conservationists, Bárbara explained how curiosity and passion had been so important in her career journey so far. “Do different things, know different projects, keep yourself in new challenges” she recommends, adding that collecting a variety of experience also helps people to know what kind of work they enjoy most.

Volunteering is a great way to get experience, plus it allows you to learn from people who already work in the field. Most of all, she urged budding conservationists to keep their curiosity about the natural world, as often this is what inspires us the most.

Find out more!


Main image credit: Bárbara C.P. Dias.


Author Profile | Freya Brodrick

Freya is an aspiring conservationist with a passion for environmental journalism and storytelling. She spends her free time volunteering remotely for environmental organisations, writing articles and managing communications. Freya is from the UK but loves to travel (as sustainably as possible). Her other hobbies include sketching and analogue photography.



Interviews, Mid Career, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Project Manager