Jaguar release is a step to saving the species in Argentina

Lela Nargi

THE WASHINGTON POST – Many of us were stuck at home in January because of the coronavirus pandemic. But a special mom and her two babies took a trip. They were driven a few miles from a breeding centre in northeastern Argentina to a 1.7-million-acre nature preserve called Gran Iberá Park. There the three jaguars were released into the wild.

Their release was the first reintroduction of jaguars in that part of Argentina since the species almost went extinct there 70 years ago. Scientists hope they can turn things around for this important apex predator, meaning one that is on top of the food chain. Only 200 to 300 jaguars remain in the country. They have been declared “natural monuments”.

“That is the highest category of protection that can be given in Argentina,” said Sebastián Di Martino. He’s the conservation director for Rewilding Argentina, which is one of the organisations helping to reestablish jaguar populations.

The jaguars’ journey started in 2018, though. That’s when the park was established in the Iberá Wetlands. Several-thousand jaguars once roamed there, along with other important species such as giant river otters, peccaries (piglike hoofed mammals) and macaws. But the jaguars’ pelts were valuable, so people hunted them. Then the land they needed to roam and to hunt on was cleared for cattle ranching. This threw the balance of the ecosystem out of whack.

“In the absence of this species, ecosystems stop working well and may even collapse,” Di Martino said. “The main prey of jaguar is the capybara and the caiman. They are very abundant due to the absence of the jaguar, which causes imbalances in the ecosystem.”

Mariua and her cubs Karai and Porã – all part of a captive-breeding programme – were released in January into Gran Ibera Park nature preserve in northeastern Argentina. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The park was the first step in getting jaguars reestablished. Then they needed to be bred. A female named Mariua was mated with a male jaguar from Brazil.

It sounds simple, but the reality is more complicated. Di Martino said that bred jaguars have to learn how to hunt and must stay unaccustomed to humans. Otherwise they will not have success in the wild.

At the breeding centre, “we provide live prey to them in captivity without their realising that it is people” who are doing it. In addition, “all the monitoring of the animals is through video surveillance cameras that are managed from several miles away.”

Mariua wears a radio collar so researchers can track her and her babies, Karai and Porã. So far, so good. She’s been hunting capybaras and wild pigs and is “raising her cubs very well”, Di Martino said.

The father will be released at a later time. So will six more jaguars. In all, Di Martino said his organisation hopes to release 10 to 15 jaguars.

“That’s enough for the population to be established and their numbers to be increased,” he said. The last part of the rewilding equation is trickier. People in the surrounding communities have to be persuaded that having jaguars around is a good thing.

So Di Martino and others are working to create jobs around ecotourism. They hope travellers will come to Argentina just to see the wildlife in Gran Iberá Park. Soon that will mean not just jaguars but giant anteaters, pampas deer and muitu birds, too.

Now there’s something to look forward to, after the pandemic, when we can travel freely again.