Rewilding effort sees jaguars return to Argentina's Iberá wetlands for first time in 70 years

Chris Moss
·4-min read
Jaguars, the largest wild cats in the Western hemisphere, are found in 18 countries - Getty
Jaguars, the largest wild cats in the Western hemisphere, are found in 18 countries - Getty

The release of jaguars into the Iberá wetlands of central Argentina earlier this month, following a 70-year absence, marks a significant moment. For centuries, development in this famously fertile southern nation has been largely defined by clearing land for growing crops and grazing, and protecting stock from predators.

A female jaguar Mariua, brought to Argentina from Brazil by Tompkins Conservation in early 2019, was allowed to step out into the wild on January 6. Early the following day she returned for her two captive-born cubs, Karai and Pora. She had apparently made a kill – of a capybara – during that first foray and was taking the cubs to share it. (The news of her release was only made public this week after permission was granted by the national parks authority, which is run from Buenos Aires.)

A region's capybara might be in for a shock - Getty
A region's capybara might be in for a shock - Getty

In recent years, rewilding has been gaining ground in Gran Iberá Park, a 1.7-million-acre wilderness protected as National and Provincial Park in the province of Corrientes. Green-winged macaws were recently reintroduced and there are schemes afoot to expand the tiny populations of tapir, anteater, collared peccary, marsh deer and other once widespread species.

Jaguars, the largest wild cats in the Western hemisphere, are found in 18 countries, according to big cat charity Panthera. Their numbers have been decimated by illegal hunting, loss of habitat and the eradication of wild prey, and are categorised as “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List – though may soon be upgraded to “vulnerable” – across the Americas. The jaguar is critically endangered in Argentina, with fewer than 200 left in the wild.

Tompkins Conservation has supported the creation of 13 national parks in Argentina and Chile, calling for the establishment of wildlife corridors to break up the vast swathes of ranch lands and cereal and soya farms. Rewilding an apex predator such as the jaguar helps foster the natural interactions between species, keeping prey in check and impacting all other fauna and flora.

The Ibera wetlands - Getty
The Ibera wetlands - Getty

“The return of the jaguar will also help restore full ecosystem health to one of South America’s largest wetlands, much as the return of the wolves did to Yellowstone,” says Kristine Tompkins, president of Tompkins Conservation and UN Patron of Protected Areas.

“We are excited to see this important strategy of rewilding embraced by Argentina as a tool to combat the extinction crisis and move towards a healthier and wilder planet.

“We see rewilding as the future of conservation; with so much at stake, we need active stewardship. After working to rewild jaguars for ten years, it’s incredibly fitting that it should happen in tandem with the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.”

Whether the reintroduction of jaguars turns out to be a positive blip or the start of something significant depends on political will and on farmers, a powerful lobby in Argentina. In Corrientes, at least, local people as well as political leaders – notably senator Sergio Flinta – have been supportive.

“Rewilding represents a key strategic aim for the provincial government,” says Corrientes tourism minister Sebastián Slobayen.

“Ours is a unique situation in Argentina, in that we’re able to strengthen regional environmental goals and bolster our position in the forefront of wildlife tourism and ecotourism. The Iberá project is a symbol of this vision.

“Rewilding and conservation, just as much as raising cattle or agriculture, are opportunities for social and economic development, and what we call ‘producing from nature’ – and all of it is connected to local culture and communities.”

Potential tourism revenues could help convince naysayers. Brazil’s Pantanal region is a well-established jaguar conservation zone and one of the country’s tourism honeypots – though out of control fires during 2019 and 2020 have severely reduced the area where jaguars are able to roam and hunt.

A jaguar in the Pantanal - Getty
A jaguar in the Pantanal - Getty

The Iberá wetlands, which have a handful of tourist lodges and are popular with horseriding and birdwatching groups, remain a relatively untapped resource. Wildlife tourism, a growing sector, is worth an estimated £88 billion globally and Argentina’s hard-pressed economy needs any hard currency it can get.

“The Iberá wetlands are one of Latin America’s undiscovered gems and an ideal candidate for reintroduction of species like the jaguar and giant anteater,” says Edward Paine, founder and director of tour firm Last Frontiers.

“Conservation and tourism provide employment and opportunities for local communities, whose support is vital for the long-term viability of this and similar projects.”