- For the last ten months, the first jaguar in Argentina’s Chaco province to be fitted with a tracking collar has been moving freely around El Impenetrable National Park.
- The big male’s days are spent walking, hunting, and patrolling the area where an enclosure containing a captive female jaguar is located.
- Park officials and allied conservationists hope to entice the pair to mate when the time is right, to increase the region’s jaguar population, but plans have been delayed due to the pandemic.
The growl of a female jaguar emerges from within El Impenetrable National Park. The sound breaks the morning’s quiet and can be heard several kilometers away. The scent of this most emblematic mountain animal spreads through the clean air. The male jaguar’s fine sense of smell can detect the female from a long distance, though this time it will not be necessary. The female knows that the recipient of her calls is not far away, while the male knows that female is ready to mate and is therefore demanding his presence.
This is how wild nature reveals itself in the heart of the Argentinean Gran Chaco, except for one small detail: the female is not free. Since December 2019, she has been locked up within an enclosure especially built for her a short distance away from the Bermejo River, attracting the permanent attention of her suitor, who patiently awaits the moment to consummate their encounter.
On September 14, 2019, a camera trap installed on the river bank captured the figure of a male Panthera onca, a jaguar whose tracks had been discovered a couple of weeks earlier inside the protected area. Its tracks had been followed since April by the scientific team of the Yaguareté Project, led by Dr. Verónica Quiroga, a biologist from the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) and the University of Córdoba. She is one of Argentina’s top scientific authorities on everything related to the species, which has been the focus of their studies since 2004.
A camera trap, located where this feline’s pawprints were recently observed, captured a large adult male. Photo courtesy of the Yaguareté Project/Conservation Land Trust.
The jaguar can be described as a walking animal, since this is its main daily activity, which it undertakes in search of food or, in the case of a male, a female with whom to mate. The Chaco forest is an ideal environment for jaguars to move around at ease, thanks to its mountains of various vegetation that still resist the attack of bulldozers, thick grasses that serve as a hiding places, occasional waterways to quench a thirst, and thickly branched trees that provide sleeping spots.
However, competition for these resources is scant due to the limited number of jaguars that still inhabit the ecoregion – between 15 and 20 according to calculations made by Dr. Quiroga, based on the movements of individuals detected within the Paraguayan Chaco and the Argentinean Chaco – meaning that they may walk beyond what usual records indicate.
“The first data on a specimen that appeared last year were more than 200 km away from the park,” recalls the researcher, “at some point we even thought about the possibility that there was more than one individual, due to the distance between the tracks and because there were always tracks that let us know the species had not become completely extinct. But now we have almost confirmed that they all belonged to Qaramta.”
In the Qom language, one of over 20 ethnic groups that populate the Argentinean Gran Chaco, Qaramta means great strength, and difficult to kill or destroy. Last November, an online poll organized by El Impenetrable National Park, which had 3,200 participants, decided on this name for the jaguar that had walked so far to find its place in the world.
By then, and even before his naming, his heart had already been captured.
The appearance of a Panthera onca in a national park which opened only two years earlier, presented the possibility of studying its exact movements, warranting exceptional action. Tracking the animal within its new home by attaching a GPS collar was the first and most pressing decision. Loudspeakers that imitated female jaguar growls sounded throughout the air as soon as the young male’s presence was confirmed, with Dr. Quiroga identifying the animal as “genetically from Chaco and of great size, just like jaguars of the area.”
A few days after this event, the presence of a female jaguar became a reality: Tobuna, a 19-year-old jaguar who by now is a grandmother, and who lives in Rewilding Argentina Foundation’s reintroduction center located in the Iberá marshes, was rushed to the banks of the Bermejo River and moved into a cage that was built in record time. Qaramta was then caught and fitted with a tracking collar.
Achieving this goal continues to be celebrated by all involved, with scientists and rangers of the national park, the Yaguareté Project and the El Teuco field station (which belongs to Rewilding Argentina Foundation and is based inside the park) now able to follow the jaguar’s movements. For Qaramta too, it seemed a success, since he was in a perfect environment, had access to varied prey in enough quantities to satisfy any animal, and most importantly, had found the love of his life, or so he thought at the time.
“Tobuna was very sociable with him from day one,” remembers Gerardo Cerón, a biologist responsible for coordinating the field station. Rubbing their bodies through the bars began to be a frequent game between the two jaguars, and was only interrupted when the need for food and Qaramta’s own nature caused him to be absent for a few days.
Researchers became interested in Qaramta’s wanderings in and around El Impenetrable National Park. Thanks to his collar, each location he chooses is known, along with where he stops and how far he walks. “Every day at 7 a.m., we download the GPS information from the computer. Then, by studying every point, we can find out what he did during the previous 24 hours,” Cerón says.
Such data make it possible to know that the jaguar has already adopted the Chaco province as its own, traversing all of the park’s environments. The animal walks 15 km a day on average, but can travel as far as 20–25 km, crossing the Bermejo River like someone taking a dip in a pool, regardless of the water level.
The arrival of Tania
On the way back from a walk in December 2019, Qaramta came across a surprise. In the cage, Tobuna was no longer waiting for him. During those three months, members of the National Committee of the Management Plan for Yaguareté Natural Landmark began to consider the possibility of increasing the scarce population of the species in the region. Tobuna’s age ruled her out for this task.
Tobuna’s daughter, Tania, was therefore moved into the cage, a change that Qaramta undoubtedly noticed. His new partner was younger, but turned out to be a lot less friendly. At first, she ignored him, sometimes growling at him. “But he was always very gentlemanly, very patient,” says Cerón, who follows their behavior thanks to cameras installed around the enclosure. However, this was just the beginning of a story with several chapters yet to unfold.
“The fact that we have a female that does not move from her location means that the information we are gathering about Qaramta is slightly biased,” says Quiroga, while also appreciating that this is the “first example of a jaguar from the Argentinean Chaco from which we can learn so much.” In Paraguay and Bolivia, other jaguars have been fitted with collars for study purposes, though this has not happened before south of the Pilcomayo River.
“Most of the time, the jaguar is within the park’s perimeter and moves around within this same area,” says Leonardo Juber, manager of El Impenetrable National Park, with satisfaction, adding that its occasional departures coincide with the periods when Tania is not in heat. “The rest of the time, he stays around the enclosure. He is very much in love.”
First with stealth, then with a gesture that indicated he wanted to dig a tunnel under the mesh, Qaramta demonstrates his desire to get close to the female. Credit courtesy of Rewilding Argentina Foundation.
River crossings increase risk
According to data provided by the GPS collar, the area covered by Qaramta so far is about 1,500 km2, with around 38% of his time spent on the other side of the river in Formosa province. This implies there is a greater risk for the animal’s survival.
El Impenetrable National Park occupies 130,000 ha of what was once a giant farm called La Fidelidad. The property extended on both sides of the Bermejo River and was split into two parts after its last owner died. The southern side, in the province of Chaco, was acquired years later by the National Parks Administration thanks to the contribution of private funds; the northern side, in Formosa, is still owned by the original inheritors. The matter goes beyond purely formal issues: on one side, the area is duly protected, while on the other, there is no protection status.
Qaramta, of course, is immune to the administrative issues. His instinct leads him to cross the river in one direction or another without any interest in who owns the land he is traversing, not knowing that the situation changes according to the bank he is on. “The risk of being hunted increases a lot when he crosses La Fidelidad,” says Cerón. “On the farm there is some forest extraction and a lot of cattle, but above all, many hunters enter from Las Lomitas, the largest town in the area.”
See related: Is Chinese investment driving a sharp increase in jaguar poaching?
The camera trap installed inside the El Impenetrable National Park captures an extraordinary close-up of Qaramta. Photo courtesy of Rewilding Argentina Foundation.
The danger that the most recognizable jaguar in the Argentinean Chaco will be killed by a bullet is always present and worries those who work to protect him. “Hunting is still common and frequent in the area,” says Nicolás Lodeiro Ocampo, Executive Director of the Yaguareté Network foundation, which was created to tackle the extinction of the species in Argentinean territory. “Worse still, most of the illegal hunting that is detected and brought to justice is not punished at all,” he notes.
Jaguars occupy the top of the trophic pyramid and have no natural predators in the area. The human interest in viewing the animal as a trophy is the sole cause of the species’ disappearance. “Most hunting is done for recreation and fun, not for survival,” says Lodeiro Ocampo. Paula Soneira, Chaco’s Deputy Secretary of the Environment and Biodiversity, elaborates on this point: “There is a strong tradition of hunting the species in the region. We will have to carry out strong communication campaigns at the local level to reduce the risks.”
A jaguar’s favorite foods
Qaramta is not aware of the danger. He moves casually around the area where he reigns, with an incomparable wealth of food at his mercy. Since his arrival in the area, nothing has seemed to disturb his life. Data from his GPS collar even provide an insight into what comprises his diet. “When we detect a set of points in the same place, we assume that he has hunted some prey and we approach the area,” says Juber.
The information obtained shows what wild animals are his favorites. “We have detected two capybaras, three donkeys, a white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), a baby tapir (Tapirus terrestris spegazzinii) and a wild cow, although his favorite prey are anteaters: he has already hunted five,” says Cerón. Dr. Quiroga shared an interesting piece of information in this regard: “In a publication three years ago, we reflected on the difference in anteater numbers, which are much higher in the Argentinean Chaco than in Paraguay and Bolivia. At that time, we explained this was due to the lack of jaguars in the region, which is its main predator. Knowing this information now corroborates the data.”
Tania is somewhat larger than Qaramta. She was born eight years ago in the Batán Zoo (Mar del Plata), whereas Qaramta is estimated to be between five and six years old. Shortly after her birth, she suffered an accident in which she lost a hind leg and three toes of a front paw, although this does not hinder any movement or activity. She usually lives in the Rewilding Argentina Foundation center in Corrientes and already knows what it is like to have children. “She was the mother of two cubs that are about to be released. She taught them to hunt, usually capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), and provided them with food in a completely self-sufficient way,” notes Cerón, who knows her history well.
The relationship between Qaramta and Tania developed gradually. The cameras revealed his patience and calmness, characteristics typical of a wild animal that has well-developed social skills, as well as his insistence on leaving an impression of his body against the enclosure’s mesh fence, which managed to break her initial indifference and stop her growling. Everything has now changed: every time Qaramta returns, it is celebrated with rubbing sessions through the bars, especially when Tania is in heat. Mating should be the next step, though this will not be so easy.
Neither the insurmountable boundary of the mesh wire nor the discomfort of the collar around Qaramta’s neck prevent head rubbing. Photo courtesy of Rewilding Argentina Foundation.
Pandemic delays decision
The decision of whether to allow Tania and Qaramta to mate – the technical details for it to take place and the subsequent steps – took several months of discussion in the National Jaguar Committee, until an agreement was reached. “The majority agreement from the meeting was to allow the female jaguar named Tania to mate with the wild male known as Qaramta,” announced Juan Garibaldi, Regional Director for the northeast region of the National Parks Administration, in mid-July. However, as in the case of any worthwhile love story, there are always obstacles or unexpected events that prolong the outcome.
In this case, the obstacle was nothing less than a pandemic. While the process to be followed has finally been approved, coronavirus is now delaying the start of the operation. “We are going to build a special enclosure into which we will move Tania and let Qaramta enter,” explains Cerón, who adds that in this space, “They will mate for the seven to ten days that Tania’s heat lasts; then she will be separated and the doors will be opened so that Qaramta can be free, while she will remain inside the enclosure, perhaps pregnant.” But the construction of the new enclosure, which will take about a month and a half, was delayed because Chaco is one of the provinces most affected by the virus in Argentina.
There has also been another unexpected event: the discovery of pawprints of a second jaguar in the park, with some in the same area where Qaramta’s tracks were observed, along the banks of the Bermejo River. “Some are 5.5 cm wide and the others are 10 cm. This allows us to confirm that there are two individuals,” says Dr. Quiroga, who was responsible for taking the measurements from the photos sent from El Impenetrable National Park. Some people are excited about the presence of a third jaguar, since another pawprint also appeared on the western border of the protected area. However, Dr. Quiroga prefers to be cautious, noting that, “The problem is that we have no reference to the size of this print, and because of the distance between the two, it could be the same animal.”
Nightly battle of growls through the mesh. The scene corresponds to the initial contacts between the jaguars. Photo courtesy of Rewilding Argentina Foundation.
New pawprints in the park
Who owns the smaller pawprint seen near Qaramta’s print? A young male jaguar or a female? Could Qaramta have interacted with another female jaguar while waiting to mate with Tania? “The males of this species mate with several females within their territory,” notes Lodeiro Ocampo. “It would be ideal if it were a female, but in any case, knowing that Qaramta has the opportunity to see or smell other wild jaguars reassures me. It made me nervous that he would be anchored by Tania’s presence without meeting others of his species,” says Dr. Quiroga.
Attention is now turned to the future. What the National Council of the Yaguareté Natural Monument has determined is that once Qaramta mates with Tania, she will return to Iberá to keep and raise her cubs. This will raise the question as to how Qaramta will react. Once he is free of the smells and growls of his platonic love, he could remain in the park, taking advantage of the ease of feeding, though he could also return the 200 km that took him to El Impenetrable National Park in search of another companion. It is therefore important to confirm the gender of the park’s new inhabitant.
“Chaco’s position is that the species’ emergency plan should be implemented throughout the region because it would be the most sustainable thing over time. And also, that the possible cubs return to Chaco territory in due course,” says Soneira. “Before moving forward with a new project, such as adding jaguars to the area, we will have to confront the threats that are at the root of the population’s decline,” says Garibaldi.
Both agree on the need for Formosa’s authorities to participate in conservation efforts, given the amount of time that Qaramta spends on his walks on the other side of the river. Franco Del Rosso, coordinator of the province’s Biodiversity, Protected Areas and Climate Change program, declined to comment on the subject when approached by Mongabay Latam.
For ten months it has been possible to see Qaramta’s image from a camera trap. For ten months he has worn a GPS collar providing original and valuable information. For these ten months he has been able to enjoy the lack of competition to take advantage of the forest’s abundance of prey, fall in love – twice, with a mother and then her daughter – learn to be patient, and hope that the doors to love will open.
Banner image: The camera trap installed inside the El Impenetrable National Park allows extraordinary close-ups of Qaramta to be captured. Credit courtesy of Rewilding Argentina Foundation.