By far the most rewarding part of my career is being able to see joint conservation efforts come to fruition. To form part of a skilled team, be it a local effort or a global collaboration, and to see these projects succeed with large tracts of land beautifully restored to their natural state and the original wildlife rightfully returned is a tremendous privilege.
When likeminded individuals and organisations work together, we can absolutely leave our world a better place. I am truly proud to have witnessed and played a vital role in countless conservation victories in Africa (here are just some of the highlights over the past three decades). Then, in 2011, being asked to assist with the groundbreaking mass translocation of 50 gaur (Indian wild cattle) to successfully restore the species in India’s Bandhavgarh National Park was another career highpoint and now, several years later, to see &Beyond’s proven impact model and conservation best practices now successfully being used on a third continent (South America) is the ultimate cherry on top.
Undoubtedly South America’s largest and most famous feline, the jaguar had become locally extinct in parts of Argentina. Many threats including hunting, habitat loss and human conflict had caused the loss of 95% of the big cat’s original distribution and only an estimated 200 individuals remained. This was back in 2016, when our good friends at Tompkins Conservation invited me to help start a conservation revolution with them to help save the jaguar from extinction. That is exactly what Ignacio Jimenez Perez, the Conservation Coordinator for Tompkins Conservation, said to me when he invited me to South America.
Having established Conservation Land Trusts (CLT) in both Chile and Argentina, Tompkins Conservation’s strapline “Protecting over 2 million acres in Chile and Argentina in perpetuity” certainly grabs the attention of any conservation lover. I was truly honoured to form part of their revolution. I often talk about how privileged I am and I truly mean it. This must be the largest private conservation land holding in the world; most certainly the biggest one that I have ever heard of.
So, rewind back to 2016. The purpose of my trip to join the Tompkins team is best described by Ignacio himself: “Thanks again for helping us to start a conservation revolution in South America. The political climate is extremely positive in this regard nowadays, and we need to keep pushing forward!”
So what did Ignacio want help with? Well it seems that there was little to no expertise or experience in translocating large predators in Argentina, yet they wanted to reintroduce the jaguar to the immense Iberá Wetlands in the Argentinian state of Corrientes. All the relevant conservation and research stakeholders would be attending a workshop to finalise the release process and post-release management of the jaguars and I was to form part of that prestigious workshop.
I have never translocated a jaguar, but I have translocated many of Africa’s three big cat species: the cheetah, lion and leopard. The fact that most of their concerns were related to how the local farmers and communities would manage the potential conflict between the jaguars and the livestock meant that my African experience was exactly what they were looking for to guide them through the process. It is an honour to be able to share &Beyond’s long-standing conservation traditions and our proven translocation model with wildlife partners on other continents. Globally, we all need to work hand in hand for conservation in order to protect our precious planet for future generations.
Before we travelled into the wetlands for the jaguar workshop, I gave two presentations in Corrientes. The first evening we were hosted at the University of Corrientes by Dr Rios (the Dean of the Veterinary Faculty) and Senator Flinta (the local representative in Parliament). The presentation, which was about the importance of vets in the translocation of wildlife, was well attended and the 200-seat lecture hall was full to the brim.
The CLT were pushing that they needed to develop the veterinary capacity to manage translocations on a large scale to be able recreate the biodiversity for future national parks, and this topic was right up my alley. I really enjoyed the question and answer session after the presentation, as I was able to give examples of solutions to each question from my experience in Africa.
The next morning saw us setting up for a workshop in a hotel overlooking the mighty Parana River. The topic was the role of ecotourism in conservation, as well as the role of wildlife in making destinations more attractive or unique. We were hosted by Senator Flinta and Inez Presman, the Minister of Tourism for Corrientes State. Minister Presman handed me my passport to Corrientes in her very warm welcome. The workshop went well if I take the level of questions as an indicator of success, but as everything was translated into Spanish I couldn’t immediately gauge the audience response. My hosts Ignacio and Sofia were very happy and kept thanking me for being flexible as we took the workshop where the questions went and only used the script as a guide.
Then it was time for the jaguar workshop at Estancio San Alonso, a private camp situated on an island in the middle of the Iberá Wetlands. This is the second largest wetland in South America after the Pantanal in Brazil and, like all wetlands, it is filled with abundant biodiversity.
About 30 people attended, including the Head of Conservation for Argentina’s National Parks. The primary focus was to plan the jaguar release process and set the release triggers. No wild translocations were planned and this project intended to release the progeny born to the two captive jaguars only. I spent some time discussing the need for post-release management and conflict mitigation, which have worked for us here in Africa. I also raised the issue of habituating the jaguars to the vehicles that the vets will use if they have to immobilise the jaguars to bring them back. This was a completely new direction for them, as they were led to believe that you want no interaction at all with the animals that are due to be released.
The CLT team have undertaken many translocations and reintroduced quite a few species to the Iberá Wetlands: the endangered pampas deer, collared peccary and the iconic giant anteater. I was delighted to be able to witness two of the reintroduced species on the CLT land during my time there: the giant anteater and the collared peccary.
The giant anteater project was initiated in 2007 at Rincon del Socorro Reserve and its success led to the establishment of a second population on San Alonso. Both populations are now thriving and breeding well in the wetlands.
At the time, the collared peccary reintroduction project was still very new. I had the pleasure of spending a morning with a male collared peccary as he went about his business in the forest at Socorro. Radio telemetry allowed the researcher to locate him and we sat watching him forage under a fruiting tree, then bustle off to look for the next fruiting tree.
I was delighted to fly across the wetland as you really get an idea of scale from the air and the similarities to both the Okavango Delta in Botswana and the Pantanal in Brazil are striking. The birding is fantastic, and we managed to get some great close-ups of all the wildlife and birdlife on a boat trip from the developed tourism town of Carlos Pelligrini.
I am proud to say that following the ideas and expertise shared in this workshop, our conservation revolution was primed for success. Thanks to everyone’s contributions and global knowledge, the jaguar reintroduction programme has been a resounding success. Last year marked history as two gorgeous little jaguar cubs were born in the Iberá Wetlands. Not only were they the first cubs born under this particular reintroduction programme, but they are also the first jaguars to be born in the region in decades. Seeing a threatened species successfully restored in its natural habitat is a conservation victory we can all be immensely proud of.
Click here to read about the second half of my journey through South America with the Tompkins Conservation team. What an incredibly beautiful and biodiverse part of the world – I highly recommend it!