It’s spring in the wetlands of Iberá, and two young jaguar cubs appear filled with trepidation and curiosity as they follow their mother, Tania, into the water for their first swim. Aramí, which means “little sky” in the native Guaraní language, and Mbareté, or “strong,” are the first cubs born in Tompkins Conservation’s Jaguar Experimental Breeding Center in the new Iberá National Park in northeastern Argentina. Born in June to parents with remarkable survival stories—mom lost a leg as a cub, dad was orphaned by a hunter—the pair represent the possibility of wild jaguars calling this region home again for the first time in over 60 years.
Iberá is one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world—a place where one can discover a wide array of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish, as well as a diversity of landscapes including floating islands, lagoons, streams, forests and grasslands. It hasn’t always been this way, though. During the 20th century, a long period of wildlife exploitation and cattle ranching led to the steep decline of many species, and the complete extinction of others. In the late 90s, just 200 jaguars remained in all of Argentina. Today, however, the story is one of recovery and hope.
In 1997, Doug and Kris Tompkins, co-founders of Tompkins Conservation, purchased great portions of private land in Iberá, with their ultimate objective being the creation of a new national park. In total, they acquired 370,000 acres, primarily cattle ranches which they converted into nature reserves. The first step in rewilding the land was removing the cattle, horses and fencing, which quickly helped the landscape and native species rebound. Then, in 2006, Tompkins Conservation—whose work in Argentina is known as CLT, or the Conservation Land Trust—started the Iberá reintroduction project. One of the most ambitious rewilding projects in the Americas, its goal is to restore the Iberá ecosystem as completely as possible by reintroducing species that had gone locally extinct.
This complex initiative began with the reintroduction of the giant anteater, followed by the pampas deer, the collared peccary, the tapir and the green-winged macaw. So far, CLT has fostered two self-sustaining populations of giant anteaters in Iberá and two of pampas deer, and has established initial populations of the other species. Now, the team is turning its attention to the reintroduction of the giant otter, the bare-faced curassow and the region’s apex predator, the jaguar.
The Jaguar Experimental Breeding Center, established in 2015, aims to produce jaguars that can eventually be released into the wild. Currently, the center holds five breeding jaguars that come from captivity and cannot be released. But by being born and raised with minimal human contact while learning from their mother how to hunt, their offspring could possibly be released—which is the hope for Aramí and Mbareté.
The center consists of four one-plus acre enclosures where breeding animals live, two almost four-acre enclosures (one of which is where Tania lives with Aramí and Mbareté, and where she’ll teach them how to hunt, fish and live in the wild), and one 74-acre enclosure where the cubs will live after becoming independent from their mother, but before being released. These enclosures include grasslands, forests and pools where the jaguars can be jaguars. To practice their hunting skills, they’re fed live prey such as capybaras, caimans and fish. This activity is monitored via remote camera by staff biologists, veterinarians and other experts. If all goes as planned, Aramí and Mbareté will be released into the wild within two and a half years.
Iberá’s local communities are excited by the return of the jaguars to the province, as a connection with these beautiful animals has remained an integral part of the region’s identity and culture. Kids from village schools have been involved too, holding a vote to choose the cubs’ names. The plan to create Iberá National Park was signed in 2016, and as Iberá’s biodiversity regains its splendor, many in the area hope that more visitors will come to see its recovering wildlife. Ideally, this will grow the economies of local towns and villages that see eco-tourism as an economic driver—and ensure that Iberá’s biodiversity is viewed as a resource from which they directly benefit, and can help protect.