Beep. Beep. Beep.
It is hot. The wetlands thrum with the secret messages of a thousand wild sounds. You do not need to see her to know that she is near. The GPS collar she wears gives her away.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
She might be 50 meters away, or 100, camouflaged in the tall grass and the reeds.
“The mystery of the Jaguar is something you don’t feel with other species,” says Sebastián Di Martino, conservation director at Rewilding Argentina. “The grasslands are so dense you don’t see her, but you feel the presence and it’s incredible.”
Jaguars have returned to the wild of the Iberá wetlands in Argentina’s Corrientes province — for the first time in 70 years. The effort to rewild jaguars in this part of the world is 10 years in the making; a venture shared by Rewilding Argentina and Tompkins Conservation.
On the morning of Jan. 7, 2021 a mother Jaguar led her little family of three through an open gate into the 1.7 million acres of protected wilderness that makes up Iberá National Park. The GPS collar around her neck feeds information back to the team at the Jaguar Reintroduction Center, where Di Martino and the team at Rewilding Argentina track her movements through the park.
She is called Mariua. Her cubs, Karai and Porã, are strong enough to follow close behind, but still young; their size prevents Mariua from wandering too far without them. This is a key part of the strategy to anchor a new genetically diverse population of healthy jaguars to Iberá, where rewilding the species has enormous significance to the local ecology, to the local culture, and to the economy.
The Iberá wetlands are a sprawling maze of marshes and lakes, lagoons and bogs and watercourses that command the horizon as far as the eye can see. The decades-long absence of the jaguar from this environment means that there is an over abundance of prey animals for Mariua and her cubs to sustain themselves on. In time, she and at least six other Jaguars due to be released into Iberá National Park this year will help restore balance to the wild in the Iberá wetlands.
This is the lesson at the heart of rewilding.
“It’s not enough anymore just to protect the jewels out there,” says Kristine Tompkins, president of Tompkins Conservation and UN Patron of Protected Areas. “We have to restore and protect or rebuild what’s been decimated.”
There was once a time when the Jaguar roamed the length of a biological corridor that stretched from the Southwestern United States all the way to Argentine Patagonia. Forty percent of the Jaguar’s original habitat has been lost worldwide. Today the species is extinct in Uruguay and El Salvador. In Argentina, the jaguar is considered Critically Endangered; only 200 remain, and they have lost more than 95% of their original range.
Reintroducing a keystone species like an apex predator influences the behavior of other animals in the ecosystem. The Jaguar’s presence in Iberá will regulate populations of herbivores living in the wetlands, take pressure off of local vegetation, reduce soil erosion, and mitigate the spread of disease.
“When they [top predators] are absent from a natural ecosystem – when they go extinct – the ecological role they fulfill in the ecosystem disappears. The ecosystem starts to degrade, and sometimes it even collapses,” says Di Martino.
In Iberá, it was hunting and habitat loss that drove the jaguar to extinction. The Jaguar’s return presents a new source of income and jobs for local people, who are in the best position to lead ecotourism initiatives across Iberá. No one knows the land better. It is also a matter of pride.
Senator Sergio Flinta, representative of Corrientes province, expressed his appreciation for the project:
“In truth, what excites me the most is the reaction of the people of Corrientes when they find out about the news. They have closely followed the whole process, it really generates a sentiment of belonging, to regain the identity of Corrientes.”
The Jaguar has long been a symbol of strength and power in Corrientes. When Tompkins Conservation started the work necessary to rewild the species, Kristine Tompkins says that they anticipated resistance to the idea that jaguars could roam free across the Iberá wetlands again. What they discovered was something else.
“The people of Corrientes wondered why it took so long,” says Tompkins. “You look at all the really tough rewilding projects around the world, and this was a circumstance that I think was highly unusual. It really helped in every way that you had school kids painting their faces with jaguars. The whole province took it on as a point of pride.”
Top photo: Mariua and her two cubs, the first Jaguars to live in the wild of the Iberá wetlands in 70 years. (Photo courtesy of Tompkins Conservation)