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Conservationists play matchmaker to boost Argentina’s jaguar gene pool

  • Conservationists arranged a complex operation to mate two jaguars living in two different parks in Argentina and to prepare their offspring for release into Iberá Park in the country’s Corrientes province.
  • The jaguar cubs will bring genetic diversity to the small but growing population of jaguars in Iberá.
  • For about 70 years, jaguars were absent from Iberá, but conservationists have been reintroducing them for the past two years.
  • It’s estimated that only 200 to 300 jaguars live across Argentina.

For about 70 years, jaguars were absent from Iberá Park in northeastern Argentina’s Corrientes province. To rectify this, conservationists reintroduced three jaguars into the park in 2021, followed by seven more. In July 2022, two cubs were born from this reintroduced population.

But experts say the key to successfully reinstating the species isn’t just about increasing the number of individuals — it’s also essential to expand the population’s genetic diversity. And so, to ensure the species’ survival, conservationists have taken bold measures.

In March 2022, members of the NGO Rewilding Argentina moved a female jaguar (Panthera onca) named Mbarete, who’d been born in a reintroduction pen in Iberá in 2018, about 600 kilometers (370 miles) away to a forested enclosure in El Impenetrable National Park, in neighboring Chaco province. The point of the transfer was to see if Qaramta, the only male jaguar known to be in El Impenetrable at the time, might be interested in mating with her. As it turned out, he was. And Mbarete was also interested in Qaramta.

The team lured Qaramta into Mbarete’s pen while she was in heat. The jaguars got to spend four days together before the team moved Mbarete into a 2-hectare (5-acre) enclosure, and released Qaramta. In September, Mbarete gave birth to two tiny cubs.

Mbarete nursing her newborn cubs. Image by Tompkins Conservation.

Then, in early November, the team got busy with travel arrangements again. Mbarete and her cubs would be transferred back to a reintroduction pen at Iberá Park, but separately. But before the team could move them, they had to find the cubs in the large enclosure.

“There were eight people trying to find the little cubs in the middle of a dense forest area,” Gerardo Cerón, the coordinator of Rewilding Argentina’s conservation team in El Impenetrable, told Mongabay. “It was so nice when we found them — they were in really good shape and indeed fat. It was an exciting moment.”

Cerón described the operation as complex, but every part was successful, including the reunion between Mbarete and her cubs.

“On the first day, the mother found the cubs really fast and accepted them quickly,” he said. “It wasn’t a problem. That was the [big] concern about the whole movement, but it was perfect. The same day, the mother moved the cubs to a bigger enclosure in Iberá. Now she’s hunting wild animals we release in that enclosure, and she is doing well.”

Mbarete and her cubs will live in their enclosure until their eventual release into the park either later this year or early in the new year.

The cubs being transferred to Iberá. Image by Tompkins Conservation.

Sebastian Di Martino, the conservation director of Rewilding Argentina, said that moving Mbarete and her cubs around didn’t come without risks, but that it’s necessary to take chances to ensure the stability of the reintroduced jaguar population in Iberá.

“The situation of the jaguar in Argentina is so critical that you need to do this kind of active management,” Di Martino told Mongabay. “I think one of the main messages here is that we need to do these kinds of things — things that, maybe 10 years ago, were considered to be too risky or too crazy or too audacious.”

However, Di Martino said there must be greater cooperation between provinces and countries to reestablish jaguars in their native ranges.

“It is impossible for one province or one country to save the jaguar working alone,” he said. “So we need to do more of these activities, this joint collaboration, and we need to develop all the regulations to do this much faster.”

Over the two past two centuries, jaguars lost about 95% of their native range in Argentina, and with it, much of their population. Experts now estimate that between 200 and 300 jaguars live in Argentina.

The global jaguar population is steadily decreasing, with the species classified as near threatened on the IUCN Red List. One study has suggested there are approximately 173,000 individual jaguars left in the world, most concentrated around the Amazon Basin.

The reintroduction of jaguars to Iberá is part of a larger effort to restore — or rewild — ecosystems in Argentina and Chile. Tompkins Conservation, the parent organization of Rewilding Argentina, has spent the past three decades creating and expanding 15 national parks, and protecting 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres) of land and 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of the ocean. Besides reintroducing jaguars, the group has helped reintroduce pampas deer (Ozotoceros bezoarticus), red-and-green macaws (Ara chloropterus), giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), and many other species to the wild.

Mbarete and her cubs reunited in an enclosure in Iberá. Image by Tompkins Conservation.

Citation:

Jędrzejewski, W., Robinson, H. S., Abarca, M., Zeller, K. A., Velasquez, G., Paemelaere, E. A., … Quigley, H. (2018). Estimating large carnivore populations at global scale based on spatial predictions of density and distribution — Application to the jaguar (Panthera onca). PLOS ONE13(3), e0194719. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0194719

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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