Wildlife restoration and recovery at the Iberá Wetlands: the hope for jaguar conservation in Argentina

By Julia Salvador, Masters Student, Wildlife Ecology & Conservation Dept. 

The Iberá Wetlands are a mix of swamps, bogs, stagnant lakes, lagoons, natural slough and courses of water. Iberá is one of the most important fresh water reservoirs in the continent and the second-largest wetland in South America after Pantanal in Brazil. The natural reserve is known for its biodiversity, including four species that have been declared provincial natural monuments to encourage greater protection to the following species: the neo-tropical river otter, the maned wolf, the pampas deer, and the marsh deer. It is also home to the two Argentine species of alligator, the yacaré caiman (yacaré negro) and the broad-snouted caiman (yacaré overo), as well as the capybara (the world’s largest rodent), and about 350 bird species. But for various reasons related to human activities the Iberá Wetlands have lost many of their wildlife species.

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Photo credit: www.proyectoibera.org

The region has been historically threatened by illegal hunting, cattle ranching and land use change. These activities have caused the disappearance of some species such as the jaguar, the tapir, the collared peccary, and the anteater, among others. On April 15 of 1983 a portion of the Iberá Wetlands was declared natural reserve and since then many efforts have been done to conserve and restore the ecosystems and wildlife in this area. Currently, an interdisciplinary group of scientists, mostly Argentines, lead what they call the Iberá Project, which includes plans for reintroducing jaguars to Iberá in the near future. The group share a common mission: the conservation of Iberá through the recuperation of its landscapes and wildlife, the defense of the laws that protect the reserve, the diffusion of their values and problems, the construction of an infrastructure that allows the vigilance and public use of the reserve, and the promotion of alternative economic possibilities based on conservation and the cultural identity in the region.

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Carlos De Angelo

Last month at the Wildlife Ecology & Conservation seminar series, Carlos De Angelo shared his ongoing collaboration within the Iberá Project (gallery). The talk was focused on an inspiring story of how the Iberá project started with the initiative of Douglas Tompkins in the 1990’s, and how the ecosystems of Iberá are being restored thanks to the participation of many people with different backgrounds. The goal of the Iberá project is to contribute to the conservation of the Iberá Wetlands Nature Reserve by securing the donation of privately held wild land to the reserve, developing ecological restoration projects, and promoting economic sustainability for the local communities based upon the natural assets of the reserve. Specifically, efforts are focused on restoring the native wildlife of this region, including the anteater, the pampas deer, the collared peccary, the jaguar, and, in the near future, the tapir. The first three species have been successfully reintroduced, and are increasing in population size. On the other hand, the reintroduction of jaguar represents a bigger challenge and here is where Carlos and other specialists are collaborating to make this dream real. Carlos is a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in the Subtropical Biology Institute in Iguazú, Argentina. He specializes in large-scale analysis (landscape analysis), habitat models, and the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for understanding the main threats to endangered species in the Subtropical region of South America. As a participant of the Proyecto Yaguareté, Carlos developed his PhD studies to understand the effects of human activities in the Atlantic Forest (e.g., illegal hunting, cattle ranching, farming, habitat loss, etc) on the range-retraction of jaguars and pumas, and developing land-planning tools for preserving the habitat of these species in the North East of Argentina. Currently, Carlos continues the monitoring and conservation efforts of these large felids in this region. Carlos’ experience has proven invaluable for the assessment of reintroducing jaguars in the Iberá natural reserve and the large scale monitoring of other species at the Iberá Wetlands.

Carlos and his team have done analyses to assess the feasibility of reintroducing jaguars to the Iberá natural reserve. This work included looking at habitat and prey availability and also social assessments. Social assessments included the evaluation of possible conflicts between jaguars and cattle ranching in the area. Their research showed that there is available habitat for jaguars in Iberá (i.e., 600,000 ha connected by corridors) and a high level of support by local people for the return of this species to the region.

This project involves the establishment of an experimental breeding center for jaguars. The goal is to learn and develop breeding techniques so that captive-born individuals can be reintroduced in the wild. Tobuna is the first female jaguar in the breeding center. Tobuna has shown great progress in the adapting to her new surroundings at the breeding center and now she is waiting for a healthy male to begin the challenge of restoring the top predator of the Iberá Wetlands. The restoration of jaguars in Iberá will potentially restore a complete ecological process driven by the top-down regulation made by these predators in the ecosystem.

In the future, the researchers working with the Iberá project plan to monitor meso-predator populations (smaller predators, whose populations are kept “in-check” by larger predators like jaguars), animal behavior under predation risk, and large scale monitoring using aerial photography. The jaguars’ reintroduction in the reserve implies not only a unique opportunity for studying and preserving jaguars, but also for understanding the ecological role of these animals and how this ecosystem works.