Rewilding Jaguars: the initiatives succeeding in bringing back the Americas’ largest predator

Environment | Forests

By Hannah Corsini, Kingfisher Writer

Published May 14th, 2023

Despite South American forestland’s gradual disappearance, a study has recognised that the Baritú–Tariquía corridor between Argentina and Bolivia has been a success for jaguar conservation in America.

The jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas, with some stretching to two metres from tip to tail. Jaguars are listed as Near-Threatened by the IUCN, with habitat fragmentation and hunting by farmers and ranchers being two of their primary threats to existence.

In the 1960s and 1970s, an estimated 15,000 jaguars were killed per year for their fur. Now, it is believed that there are only around 15,000 left in the world. In Argentina, jaguars are considered to be Critically Endangered, whilst in the bordering country Bolivia they are considered a Vulnerable species.

Ibera, Argentina, where jaguars are currently being rewilded by the NGO Rewilding Argentina. | Phillip Capper / Wikimedia Commons

The Yungas region, (in its literal translation: ‘warm lands’) stretching across Argentina, Bolivia and Peru, is a particularly biodiverse area of the Andes mountains. The Yungas is home to forests inhabited by various birds, amphibians and mammalsㅡincluding jaguars.

The land has been targeted for decades by mass logging efforts. In Argentina, since logging efforts began, the forest had been reduced 31% by 2010 and 35% by 2021. Meanwhile in Bolivia, 32% of the greenery had been lost by 2021.

Wiping out vast expanses of forest land means that habitat connectivity is low, negatively affecting the ability of animals to traverse between different areas of the region. This is particularly significant for jaguars, who have a very large home range, recorded in Brazil as reaching up to 142 square-kilometres.

‘Jaguars need land to prowl, and that land is vanishing.’

Jaguars need land to prowl, and that land is vanishing. One 2018 study estimates that up to 50% of the birds and mammals in the Argentinian region Gran Chaco, also known as ‘hunting grounds’, which lies eastwards of the Yungas, could be lost in the next 10 to 25 years.

It is not all bad news. In 2005, an initiative proposed by both Argentina and Bolivia saw the creation of a new wildlife corridor, named the Baritú-Tariquía corridor. The corridor is 4,212 square-kilometres and connects Baritú and Tariquía, two biodiversity hotspots that are also highly populated by jaguars.

Infrastructure in this area has been rehabilitated to prevent soil erosion and reduce floods, whilst training programmes for local farms have been introduced to enable more sustainable cattle-rearing and reduced forest exploitation.

A prowling jaguar. | Richard Broderick / Flickr

The corridor has yet to gain legal protection, perhaps because of the difficulties in establishing cross-border collaborations. Despite this, a recent study has demonstrated its importance to Bolivia and Argentina jaguar communities.

A team of scientists trekked the corridor and carried out a camera-trap survey; placing various cameras along mountain ridges, trails and streams to capture jaguars in action. The team travelled several kilometres with heavy backpacks laden with tents, GPS equipment and food, often requiring climbing equipment to continue their journey.

Fortunately, the trek paid off. Jaguars were recorded at six sites in the Baritú-Tariquía corridor, identifying at least three different individuals. The fact that they were recorded at multiple different sites confirms that the jaguars use the Baritú-Tariquía corridor to traverse between the two sites.

‘The corridor is 4,212 kilometres squared and connects Baritú and Tariquía, two hotspots of biodiversity populated by jaguars.’

It seems as though the jaguar is finally having its comeback era in Argentina. Fundacion Rewilding Argentina is a local NGO that has been releasing jaguars raised in its breeding centre into areas such as the Iberá region. These initiatives aim to rewild the land to the state when it once was called El Impenetrable (the impenetrable). Other animals, such as the red macaw and otters, have also been released, restoring biodiversity to a landscape once fading in colour.

However, wildfires in February 2022 threatened the NGO’s work. The jaguar breeding centre was evacuated and half of the Iberá National Park was destroyed. The wildfires were undoubtedly a consequence of human activity.

Drought in the region had dried out the land, and small fires set by cattle ranchers to control grasses quickly spread and consumed thousands of hectares of land. Many animals died from either the flames or the subsequent lack of water, consequently setting back the work done by Rewilding Argentina.

North Yungas Road, Bolivia. | Florian Delée / Unsplash

Thankfully, the rewilding work which had already occurred meant that recovery was more swift. Rewilding makes ecosystems far more resilient, and self-regenerating rather than needing the input of humans. Jaguars are apex predators, and so can keep populations of other organisms in the food web in check, in something known as a trophic cascade.

Locals are also supportive of the reintroduction of the jaguar, which is iconic enough to Argentinian history and culture that it even features on some of their banknotes. To many Argentinians, the jaguar represents strength and power.

The project also represents an opportunity for ecotourism, and a way to restore a landscape decimated by human interference and climate change. Biodiversity in these areas is thriving once more, even despite last year’s wildfires.

‘The wildfires were undoubtedly a consequence of anthropogenic climate change.’

Stories like these form a strong support for rewilding initiatives and protected corridors of land such as the Baritú-Tariquía. There is even talk of bringing the jaguar back to some of the southern states of the USA, where only a single jaguar exists in the entire country.

This jaguar’s name is Sombra—meaning shadow—and he wanders the Chiricahua mountains of Arizona, searching for a mate, not knowing that the last female jaguar in the USA was shot dead in 1963. The Center of Biological Diversity has now called for an experimental jaguar population to be released into the Gila forest in the neighbouring state of New Mexico, and for wildlands such as those in which Sombra roams to be legally protected.

Conservation initiatives have breathed life back into Argentina and Bolivia, we can learn from their successes. The bounceback of jaguar populations in these countries is a glimmer of hope in environmental news which is so often depressing and macabre. What has been done can be undoneㅡas long as we work, as a collective, towards that goal.

Featured Image: George Chapman | Flickr

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