Winning hearts and minds in Argentina

The rewilding of Los Esteros del Iberá is making great progress – and there are valuable lessons we can learn, says John Jackson

From Air Paisaje 2 Douglas Tompkins ecf637952d6cb5738e9f1d3c1cf8018f

In the province of Corrientes in north-east Argentina lies the Los Esteros del Iberá – one of the most important freshwater reservoirs on the continent and the second-largest wetland in the world after the Pantanal in Brazil. The climate is warm, humid-temperate to subtropical, with hot summers and no marked dry season. Fed by rainfall, the extensive mosaic of wetlands and wooded islands covers 15,00020,000 square kilometers – roughly three times the size of Devon.

The area harbours a rich fauna and flora, including some 350 bird species. But the larger vertebrates – poached, hunted and subjected to habitat changes and diseases such as foot and mouth – have either become locally extinct or suffered considerable drops in numbers.

The Conservation Land Trust-Argentina

Since the turn of the millennium, however, combined efforts by official bodies, private enterprise, philanthropists and NGOs have made significant progress in bringing back charismatic, large vertebrates. The process has also generated a livelihood for local people via light-touch ecotourism.

Over the past decade, one major initiative has been focused on the Iberá Provincial Nature Reserve, a protected area since the early 1980s. At about 13,000sq km, it is the largest of such reserves in Argentina’s 23 provinces. About 40 per cent is public land and the balance is private property.

An NGO called the Conservation Land Trust-Argentina (CLT) has been a major driving force in strengthening the public core of the reserve, boosting local support for conservation, defending the region’s ecological integrity and augmenting or restoring wildlife populations. This has been approached through a combination of land acquisition, grassland restoration, public outreach and legal activism.

Serious funding has been vital to this work. The CLT was founded by Doug Tompkins (who died in a kayak accident in Chile last December) and his wife Kristine. The couple created considerable wealth as heads of the clothing brands Patagonia, North Face and Esprit and ploughed their fortune into conservation projects. They came to appreciate the region’s beauty and biodiversity and conservation potential in the late 1990s. Since then, the CLT-Argentina and the Tompkins personally acquired over 160,000 hectares in the Iberá catchment.

On a wider scale, over the past couple of decades, the CLT has bought vast tracts of land both in Argentina and neighbouring Chile. Some has been donated to organisations such as the Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina and then, in turn, transferred to the state as new national parks.

Local engagement matters

Local people can make or break a conservation project. After all, what’s in it for them? Many have vested interests and invaluable first-hand experience of the workings of the zone. There can also be concerns about eco-colonialism. People are naturally concerned about outsiders purchasing huge swathes of sometimes near-virgin land for who knows what?”

Unlike some conservation areas in the world, the region is not empty” or a wilderness. It has a sparse human population with an economy centred on extensive livestock ranching – supplemented in the not-so distant past by lucrative hunting of wildlife. The logistic centre is the small town of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini (pop. 600).

Prevalent in El Iberá are the descendants of the original Guaraní Indians, who populate neighbouring Paraguay and Corrientes and Misiones in Argentina. Many local place names are in Guaraní, a softly-spoken, native language that is still alive and well – and, indeed, is the official tongue in Paraguay alongside Spanish. Iberá comes from Guaraní ý berá, bright water”.

The CLT’s sensible and sensitive response was to create jobs through eco-tourism, strengthen local culture and pride, provide education and give those involved a sense of project ownership. For instance, a number of former poachers or hunters, who know the vast waterscape like the backs of their hands, are now putting that experience to use as local guides.

Rewilding and the charisma effect

Day-old giant anteater piggy-backing a ride on radio-collared mother – the normal mode of transport when young. Photo: Ruben Dagilio

Restoring wildlife populations, especially of endangered or extirpated species, is a cornerstone of the Iberá project. Proper feasibility studies are done before any reintroduction is contemplated, pre-release acclimatisation is stringent and tagged animals are monitored by radio post-release.

Giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) – a native species absent from the drier, raised parts of the Iberá for decades – was the first successful reintroduction. This choice has the added benefit of being a widely recognised, charismatic creature and it’s used for the Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina logo.

Other restored inhabitants are the pampas deer (Ozotoceros bezoarticus) – my sideline – and the collared peccary (Pecari tajacu). Last November, six captive-bred guacamayo rojo (Ara chloropterus) or red-and-green macaw were released. Others will follow.

Venado de las Pampas 07 D Podesta
Pampas deer doe and fawn. Photo: Dario Podesta
Red-and-green macaw with transmitter. Photo: Cepe Oporto

Plans are advanced for the most ambitious and controversial phase so far. This is the return of the top predator, the jaguar or yaguareté (Panthera onca), and the acclimatisation pens are built and stocked.

INPEN Karina L Sp rring 43 b
Jaguar in release pen surveys future domain. Photo: Karina Spørring

Also on the come-back list are two other previous predators, the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) and the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus).

Populations of species such as caimans or yacarés (Caiman yacare) and carpincho or capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) that were hunted commercially – but never quite to the point of extinction – are enjoying a revival, as is the marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus), the largest cervid in South America.

Grupo Yacares Douglas Tompkins
A group caimans or yacares. Photo: Douglas Tompkins

Lessons to learn from a potentially new national park

Unlike in the UK, the 30-plus national parks in Argentina belong to the nation. The ongoing work in Los Esteros del Iberá to expand the wildlands, create broad public support for conservation and support a vibrant agrarian economy has achieved significant progress towards creating a future Iberá National Park that would contain its original species, including thriving populations of large carnivores.

Although worlds apart from the British Isles, there are lessons to be learnt from the Iberá experience. Drive and stability that outlives short-term political or personnel changes are crucial when it comes to this kind of rewilding and conservation work. As is the support of local communities and stakeholders through participation, education and promotion. And a benevolent backer such as the CLT is, of course, a definite bonus.

About the author

John is Anglo-Argentine. After completing a PhD on deer in the New Forest, he led the pioneer IUCN/​WWF project in Argentina to save the Red Data Book subspecies of pampas deer. That laid the foundation for creating the first National Park for the humid pampas ecosystem in Campos del Tuyú. He then coordinated the wildlife management team in the Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia Agropecuaria for a decade, dealing with native and introduced fauna of socio-economic importance throughout Argentina. While on a sabbatical at UC Davis, he was asked to become CEO of the Royal Forestry Society, a post he held for 22 years. He is now a freelance consultant and is on the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Deer Specialist Group and the Sustainable Livelihoods Group. You can contact him on condorito7549@​hotmail.​com.