In 1997, the conservationist and philanthropist Douglas Tompkins traveled to northern Argentina invited by the National Parks Agency of the country to visit large properties for sale. The North American, founder of brands such as The North Face or Esprit, was captivated by the Esteros del Iberá, a gigantic humid area formed by the ancient meanders of the Paraná River in the northeast of Argentina. When flying over the wetland, something came to his attention: he was practically empty of life.
Tompkins, who was already famous in Chile for buying large plots of land in Patagonia to protect them as parks, was made with several cattle ranches in strategic places of the Iberá basin. Its ultimate goal, as in Patagonia, was to donate the lands as a National Park and recover the wild life and lost beauty of the wetland. Then began an adventure that has turned the place into a huge natural laboratory for the recovery of biodiversity, including a pioneering experiment to reintroduce the largest predator in South America: the jaguar, which was abundant from the southern United States to Argentina but is each once more threatened, harassed by poaching and the destruction of their habitat.
"When Doug [Douglas] begins to ask him the list of all the species that became extinct in Iberá in the 20th century, such as the anteater, the yaguareté [así llaman al jaguar en Argentina], the tapir … There he gets excited, and sees in this place the potential of being a pioneer in rewilding doing an essay on ecosystem restoration with yaguareté, on a large scale ", explains Sofía Heinonen, the director of The Conservation Land Trust – Argentina (CLT), one of the foundations created by Douglas, who died three years ago in a kayak accident in the Patagonia, and his wife Kristine Tompkins.
The rewilding, which could be translated into Spanish as "re-silvestrar" or "re-naturalizar", is one of the recipes that have arisen to stop the dramatic loss of biodiversity on a global scale, which scientists already consider the sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet. The rewilding It implies let nature work, recovering its rhythms and processes, to heal the wounds caused by the human being. Many times, as in the case of Iberá, it implies reintroducing species that had been locally extinguished by human action.
In Rincón del Socorro, one of the first cattle farms bought by the Tompkins, the CLT team began to recover the pieces that were missing in the Iberá ecosystem. They started in 2007 with a charismatic species, the giant anteater. They brought orphaned bears, rescued in other provinces of northern Argentina, raised them by hand and released them, and a decade later there are more than 100 specimens living in a totally wild state.
In addition to the bears, they have already established populations of other species that became extinct in the area, such as the tapir, the red macaw or the pampas deer. "We were born with the vision that the important thing is the complete ecosystems, in which there is no lack of species and the ecological roles are working", says the Argentine biologist, who arrived in Iberá in 2005 after working for 15 years for the Parks Agency Nationals in the north of the country.
Among those species was key to reintroduce the top predator of the American continent, the jaguar. On the other side of Iberá, in another of the farms bought by the Tompkins, two jaguar puppies run around and play in a large captive breeding facility that began in 2013 to build the foundation. Constantly monitored through cameras by a team of biologists and veterinarians, they were born there in June 2018, and together with their mother they are learning everything they need for their future life in freedom.
The team hopes to release them when they reach two years, and the jaguar would return to Corrientes after decades of absence. "The yaguareté has lost 95% of its distribution area in Argentina," explains Sebastian Di Martino, the coordinator of CLT species reintroduction projects. It is the most threatened mammal in the country: it is estimated that there are barely 200 specimens distributed throughout the northern provinces in small and isolated populations, with a very uncertain future.
But Arami Y Mbarete -They are called puppies, with names in Guaraní chosen by children from Corrientes-, and the jaguars that arrive later, would have at their disposal a large territory wild with abundant natural prey and minimal human or livestock presence. The Iberá basin covers 1,300,000 hectares well conserved, a larger area than that of the Murcia region. From CLT defend that there are few places in all America that gather so much territory suitable for the species.
The social climate is also favorable: according to a survey commissioned by the foundation in Corrientes, more than 90% of the population of the cities and 70% of the farmers are in favor of the return of the jaguar.
"The same cattlemen who are against us use the image of the yaguareté as the most Corrientes, they use it as their identity", says the CLT director. In fact, in the restaurants, shops or bus stations of the region there are many signs with the slogan "Corrientes returns to Corrientes", a campaign that the foundation devised but that was quickly adopted by politicians and the local population. The posters alternate photographs of traditional culture with animals that are being reintroduced in Iberá, with the jaguar as the absolute protagonist.
At the same time that they were preparing the land to release the jaguars and other species, it was necessary to legally shield the territory with the maximum existing protection figure, that of the National Park. At the end of last year, CLT and Flora and Fauna Argentina – another foundation created by the Tompkins to buy land in Argentina – donated to the country the 157,000 hectares they own there, which became the Iberá National Park. Together with the adjacent Provincial Park, they form the largest protected area in Argentina, with a total of 700,000 hectares and around 30% of all species of flora and fauna in the country.