Conservation news

‘Racing against time’ to save the taguá and its vanishing Chaco home

The taguá, or Chacoan peccary, is distantly related to the domestic pig. It is found only in the Gran Chaco of South America.

  • Taguá are one of three peccary species living in the Americas and are the only ones found nowhere else but the Gran Chaco.
  • Scientists say that the Chaco is disappearing at an alarming rate – with nearly a million hectares of tree cover loss as recently as 2008 – due in large part to soy cultivation and cattle ranching.
  • The destruction of the taguá’s habitat, along with hunting, have caused its numbers to drop, say scientists, far below the estimated 5,000 alive during the 1990s.

Skittering in small clans among the hard-scrabble brush of the Gran Chaco in South America, the taguá looks like a cross between a svelte pig and an over-sized hedgehog. Also known as the Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri), the animal has carved a precarious life for itself in the dry plains and woodlands that make up its namesake ecosystem in Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay.

But in a place where life is already difficult, the disintegration of their environs has made survival even tougher. That’s left scientists, conservationists and governments scrambling to save the Chaco and with it this unusual, rapidly dwindling, emblematic species.

The taguá, or Chacoan peccary, is distantly related to the domestic pig. It is one of three peccary species found in the Chaco and the only one endemic to the area. Photo by Juan Campos

“It is rare to find an animal that large that is so specific to a very precise region,” said Dan Brooks, the curator of vertebrate zoology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, who began studying animals in the Chaco back almost 30 years ago. The taguá, listed as Endangered by the IUCN, is one of many animals found only in this region.

Slightly smaller than Egypt at 100 million hectares according to WWF, the Chaco is often overshadowed by its wetter and more densely forested neighbor, the Amazon. But its charms aren’t lost on scientists.

“I immediately fell in love with the place,” said Mariana Altrichter, a conservation biologist at Prescott College and chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Peccary Specialist Group. “That’s kind of hard to understand, because if you are there, very soon you realize, it’s very hard to live there.”

Originally from Argentina, she studied the effects of hunting on the taguá and its cousins the collared peccary (Pecari tajacu) and the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) in the early 2000s in a part of the Argentine Chaco with the unwelcoming name, the Impenetrable.

“It’s a very inhospitable place. There’s no water. It’s very hot. The forest is dense and thorny and everything is like unfriendly to humans,” Altrichter said in an interview with Mongabay. “And yet, it’s beautiful.”

Diverse landscapes characterize the Chaco, pictured here in Paraguay, from grasslands to dry woodlands. Photo by Ilosuna/Wikimedia Commons

Altrichter is at the forefront of a multinational movement to save the taguá from the threat of habitat loss. At the same time, the three countries that hold the Chaco are wrestling with the how best to develop their economies while also protecting their natural resources.

Altrichter is working with fellow ecologists, including Brooks, as well as farmers, governments, and local communities, to keep the taguá and its ecosystem from disappearing into history. Building on a workshop held in early 2016, the group published a plan (in Spanish) to save the species in October.

While the spotlight on the Amazon has brought the loss of forest there into sharp relief, rates of destruction have also been on an upward trajectory in the past decade and a half in the Gran Chaco.

“It’s the most rapidly disappearing ecoregion on earth probably,” said Anthony Giordano, a conservation biologist and the founder and executive director of SPECIES, short for Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study.

An earlier comeback

Oddly enough, extinction wouldn’t be an unfamiliar position for the taguá, as it’s something of a Lazarus species. Scientists knew of it only from fossilized remains until the 1970s, when a team of biologists confirmed local rumors of the existence of a third peccary species in the Paraguayan Chaco, publishing their “discovery” in the journal Science in 1975.

“The local people, of course they knew,” Altrichter said. “They always talked about three species of peccaries.”

Peccaries are only distantly related to domestic pigs, even though their snouts might look familiar. They split from our bacon-backed companions about 40 million years ago.

Since the taguá re-entered the annals of Western science, a small yet committed group of scientists have braved the harsh conditions of the Chaco to learn more about it. In that time, the area has gone through a sea change.

“When I lived in Paraguay nearly three decades ago, half of the Trans-Chaco Highway was still unpaved,” Brooks said.

Later research in the Chaco would reveal the perils of paved roads and the access they afford hunters to the taguá.

The dry Chaco in Argentina. Photo by Valerie Pillar/Wikimedia Commons

Compared to what Brooks originally found, “The situation today is very different,” he said. “The cattle industry is huge in what used to be pristine Chaco dry forest, which sadly is being converted to pastureland at an alarming rate.”

Then, later on, around the time that Altrichter began working in the Chaco, an economic crisis hit Argentina. To compensate, the government tried to devalue its currency, the peso. In addition to the shockwaves that rippled through the global economy, it made land in Argentina very cheap.

“It was ridiculous,” Altrichter said. “It was like $2 a hectare.”

That led to an influx of ranchers, who cleared the forest, sold the wood and began grazing cattle. As the threat from ranching has intensified, compounded by a boom in growing soy, the open grasslands have left fewer places for taguá to forage and hide from predators.

Data from the University of Maryland and visualized on Global Forest Watch show that tree cover loss in the Chaco intensified dramatically beginning just after the beginning of the 21st century, peaking at nearly 1 million hectares of tree cover loss annually in 2008. In total, the region lost more than 14 percent of its tree cover between 2001 and 2014.

Much of this loss occurred in and around the region’s remaining Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs), which are areas of primary forest large and undisturbed enough to retain their native biodiversity. In total, the Chaco’s IFLs lost around 6.5 percent of their tree cover from 2001 through 2014, leading to a reduction in their extent of about half by 2013. In other words, Chaco forestland capable of supporting a full complement of wildlife halved in just 13 years.

Between 2001 and 2014 the Gran Chaco lost about 8.4 million hectares of tree cover, according to data from the University of Maryland — more than 14 percent of its total cover. (Taguá habitat extent is a rough approximation based on a 2016 report by the IUCN / SSC Peccary Specialist Group.)

An intimate bond

There is little doubt that the loss of so much of the Chaco has been a devastating blow for wildlife. But the decline of the taguá has probably also had ricochet effects on the health of the ecosystem itself.

Research by ecologist Silvia Saldívar, who attended the workshop in Asunción, confirmed what many scientists had long suspected – and people living in the Chaco already knew: that the survival of the species and the Chaco are likely intimately tied together.

Saldívar calls peccaries “ecosystem engineers” in her 2014 thesis. Vibrant plant communities sprout up where the taguá’s pointed hooves till the ground and as they nose through the soil for roots to eat, she said.

“Where you have no peccaries, the forest is different,” Saldívar told Mongabay. “It’s less diverse.”

A taguá photographed by a camera trap in 2013, Defensores del Chaco National Park, Paraguay. Photo by Silvia Saldívar and Anthony Giordano

An early 1990s assessment of the population pegged the number of taguá in Paraguay to be about 5,000 and noted that smaller populations were living in Bolivia and Argentina at the time. Experts agree that the numbers have likely only slid from there.

To get a better grip on current numbers, Saldívar began studying the species in 2012 while at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. Paraguayan by birth, she examined the current threats taguá face in her home country.

Traditionally, local community members would kill taguá opportunistically when they came across them. And given the choice, they would take a taguá over other peccaries because the meat tastes better, Saldivar discovered through interviews with hunters.

Hunting, even at the low levels practiced by local hunters, has been a concern for the taguá almost since its comeback to the scientific stage. Unlike the other peccaries, the taguá’s range doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of the Chaco, so researchers soon speculated that it was probably susceptible to overhunting.

Altrichter and a colleague published a paper in 2004 in the journal Biological Conservation that found even subsistence hunting may not be sustainable “not so much because of the numbers of animals that they’re hunting,” Altrichter said, “but because their habitat was already small, and it’s a species that is naturally rare.”

Scientists believe that programs to promote alternative livelihoods, particularly in Argentina, have reduced subsistence hunting of the taguá, perhaps by as much as half.

But as agricultural development opened up the Chaco, leading to new roads and more people passing through, the numbers of animals taken by sport hunters became a bigger problem.

Saldívar’s surveys of the area turned up a lot of taguá skeletons along roads in the Paraguayan Chaco – likely kills by truck drivers hauling cattle or soy through the area or other outsiders with their own sets of wheels.

Earlier research had uncovered the taguá’s fondness for companionship, which likely exacerbated the effects of hunting from the road on the species.

“The highly integrated social behavior of taguá didn’t help at all unfortunately,” Brooks said. “When a hunter shot one the rest of the herd would scatter, only to return moments later to the fallen family member, whereupon the hunter would shoot another and another until the entire herd was eliminated.”

Saldivar’s work confirmed that assessment.

“Taguás are really curious,” she told Mongabay. “They stay and look at what you’re doing.”

Untapped local knowledge

Saldívar called the ‘discovery’ of the taguá in the second half of the 20th century “eye-opening.” The lesson was that “you should pay attention to what local people say and what local people know, because even though it’s not the Western way of thinking about it, there’s a lot of knowledge that’s not taken into account.”

To Altrichter, adding those voices to the strategy planning to save the taguá has been critical.

“We can run population viability models or habitat suitability models, but the indigenous people are the ones who tell us, ‘Oh no, the Chacoan peccary only has two babies in a year,’” she said. “Or they might tell us, ‘No, the young females don’t reproduce.’”

That principle of inclusion has guided how Altrichter and her colleagues have approached saving the taguá. They invited “everyone who had some stake in the conservation of the species,” including farmers and ranchers, Mennonite communities, indigenous and local communities, and government agencies from Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina.

At the meeting in Asunción, despite overtures, “The one sector or stakeholder that was missing – and is generally missing in all of these workshops – are the large international corporations,” Altrichter said. “They’re the ones that are leading all of this deforestation, the ones that are buying thousands and thousands of hectares, coming in with machines and in a few days removing hundreds of thousands of hectares to either do livestock ranching or soy crops.

“They don’t go to workshops,” she added.

Paraguay’s Ministry of Environment did send representatives. Altrichter said that the survival of the Gran Chaco depends on the involvement of governments in Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina and that they also have to balance conservation with other priorities.

It’s that disintegration of the habitat that’s “arguably a larger threat” than poaching or hunting, Saldívar said.

“They’re not trying to stop development. They can’t stop agricultural expansion,” Altrichter said. “The idea is just how to do it in a way that doesn’t completely destroy the environment.

“The problem is that they’re racing against time because deforestation is happening so fast.”

The Chaco is a notoriously difficult place to study, limiting our understanding of the animals that live there, such as the taguá. Photo by Silvia Saldívar and Anthony Giordano

Basic biology

The meeting revealed significant gaps in our understanding of basic taguá biology and ecology, even as the realization that the population is on the descent was clear.

Participants in the workshop resolved to work more closely with local taguá breeding programs, such as CCCI, or El Centro Chaqueño para la Conservación e Investigación, which began as a collaboration between the government of Paraguay, the U.S. Peace Corps and the San Diego Zoo called Proyecto Taguá in 1985. CCCI broadened its mission in 2010, but still has a captive breeding program with 97 taguá. It’s led by one of the recovery plan’s authors, Juan Campos.

Proyecto Taguá, now located in Fortin Toledo, Paraguay, and similar programs could provide a window into the secrets of this difficult-to-study species, not to mention providing animals for reintroduction one day, say the authors of the plan.

Bumping up the legal protections of taguá range would also help, they wrote in a paper in the journal Suiform Soundings. But currently, they figure that only 12 percent of “highly suitable” habitat is protected. To bridge that gap, they write, the involvement of local communities will be a vital.

In one bright spot, the tree cover loss in the Gran Chaco has tapered in recent years, down in 2014 to about half of the record levels of 2008, when the area was hemorrhaging nearly a million hectares a year. Data from 2015 and 2016 indicate further reductions in deforestation.

Data from Asociación Guyra Paraguay show Chaco deforestation rates dropping off slightly in 2015, with about a half-percent less forest loss over 2014. Preliminary numbers from the first half of 2016 (June is the latest date for which data are available) indicate a steeper drop, with about a 5 percent reduction from January to June over the same time period in 2015.

It is unclear if that trend will continue, or if future spikes in the loss of the Chaco lie ahead.

“The thing is that the Chaco is the only place left. It was left aside by the producers, because it was harder to get there,” Saldivar said. “Now that there’s no more space to grow, and there’s all of this pressure to make more money, so that’s when they started looking at the Chaco as a possibility.”

“This is scary as hell when you think about it,” Dan Brooks said. “There just isn’t that much Chaco to convert.

“When the Chaco is gone, that’s it,” he said. “So is the taguá.”

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Banner image of the Argentinian Chaco by Valerie Pillar/Wikimedia Commons.