HOPE IN IBERÁ: A Rewilding Story (Part I)
Text: Andreea Lotak; Photos: Justin Lotak & Rafael Abuín · 15 min read
Rewilding seems to be a meeting point between conservation and storytelling where magic things happen: people start listening. Not always, and not in the same way, but they do listen. After all, there is something about seeing the cub of a species long gone return to an area where its ancestors used to roam. It speaks to a basic human emotion: hope. In some places the voices moved by this hope cover those who see the comeback of a species as a threat to their way of life. In others, they don’t. In the Iberá wetlands of northern Argentina, rewilding started a conversation which opened up people’s minds to the idea and sparked a sense of regional pride.
The concept above didn’t occur to us; the gist of it was inspired by the long talk we had with Ignacio Jiménez Pérez, the Conservation Director and Communications Coordinator of the Conservation Land Trust (CLT) Argentina. We spent three weeks in the Iberá wetlands where they have done an excellent job of bringing back locally extinct species and restoring the ecosystem. This is another project under the Tompkins Conservation umbrella. The Esteros del Iberá are the second largest wetlands in the world and Argentina’s largest fresh water resource. In 1983 a Provincial Natural Reserve was created on 1.3 million hectares (over 3 million acres) covering the entire surface of the wetlands. Within it a Provincial Park with stricter conservation status occupies close to 500,000 hectares. In 1997, Doug and Kris Tompkins flew to Iberá to see a piece of land where they could replicate the experience they were starting in Chile of creating national parks. “Doug saw something in it. It was so different and opposite from what they were familiar with in Pumalín [in Chilean Patagonia]. Here we have swamps instead of mountains with glaciers. But Doug was interested, and they bought the first property in San Alonso. The idea was from the beginning to create a huge national park. Another idea was to bring back the species that had been extirpated”, told us Ignacio in the beginning of our talk. “What I’m sure of is that at the time he probably didn’t know how hard it was going to be.” However, challenges like this one never scared Doug and Kris away.
When their organization, CLT Argentina, continued to buy up lands in the region for the following eight or nine years, conspiracies about their intentions were about as abundant as they were in Chile at the same time. Whether this was going to be a secret US military base, or a place from where the CIA could control the water supply of Argentina, it wasn’t clear. But it’s easy to understand why it was so hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea that a couple of foreigners were buying 150,000 hectares of land to restore the ecosystem and to then hand it all to the government as a national park. In addition, CLT also set out to bring back six species that had gone extinct in the region. This was a pioneering program because most of these species had never been reintroduced before.
southamerican tapir (Tapirus terrestris)
Tapirs were reintroduced to Iberá in 2016, after missing for more than seven decades. Soon after, the first baby tapir born wild here marked a historic moment in the rewilding program (photograph by Justin Lotak).
“The giant anteater reintroduction is the first of its kind in the world. There was an attempt to create a new population of Pampas deer in Uruguay, but that was from captive animals and didn’t work. Here was the first time that someone tried relocation of the Pampas deer and established a new population. It’s the first tapir reintroduction in the Americas, and the first one for collared peccaries in South America. In 2005 CLT started hiring field biologists and park managers. One of the questions was: ‘How are we going to start this rewilding program?’. That’s kind of when I showed up. During the first meeting we were nine people brainstorming about how we were going to do this, which species we should work with, which one should be first, what should the approach be. It took one or two days. We decided to start with the giant anteater, then move to the Pampas deer. The next agreement of that meeting was that we were not going to talk about bringing back jaguars until we felt it was the right moment. So we never went public with a list of the six species that we were going to bring back because if you have a list like that which includes: giant anteaters, peccaries, JA-GUA-RS… Pampas deer, the only word that people will hear will be ‘jaguars’. Even if you say that it won’t happen right away, it could all turn into a battle. At that time we were mostly hated in Corrientes. The whole concept of Tompkins here was similar to what had happened in Chile. It was sensible not to talk about jaguars. Just putting Tompkins together with jaguars was like an atomic bomb”, reminisces Ignacio laughing. They started with the giant anteaters, then continued with the Pampas deer, the collared peccaries, the tapirs and the Green-winged macaws. Now, it’s time for the most ambitious reintroduction yet: jaguars. This has never been done before anywhere in the world either.
“Doug came from a tradition of conservation in the US and he knew people like Michael Soulé and Dave Foreman, guys who were at the forefront of conservation biology in the States. Doug was part of that tradition, so to him the concept of reintroductions was something natural. He came here, knew which species were missing and said ‘why don’t we do rewilding?’. There is significant experience in North America with this. However, even there something of the scale of what we’re doing here, working with several species of large mammals in one ecosystem, hadn’t been done. When he asked us managers to implement it, the resistance was mostly on a provincial level and somewhat on a national level. We had biologists familiar with the concept, though, who looked at it and said ‘OK, if it’s well done we can make it happen. Why shouldn’t we?’. We were driven by Doug’s vision. Before we started forming the team, there was already a technical report ordered by Doug and written by several experts, called ‘The Fauna of Ibera'. It was talking about all the species that had been and are still here, and about their conservation value. And then there was a section called ‘Candidates for Reintroduction’. I’m sure that Doug specifically asked for that section, because it wouldn’t otherwise be normal for a report like that one. They mentioned the potential candidates, but I don’t think that the guys who wrote that truly thought that it was actually going to happen. We said ‘OK, we have to make this happen. Why not? It makes sense.’ And it does make total sense. The people who didn’t see it as feasible don’t fully understand ecology, and that’s because some people are very afraid of management. They prefer to leave things as they are.”
“THE MORE YOU START SEEING AND UNDERSTANDING THESE ECOSYSTEMS, THE MORE YOU FIND THAT CERTAIN SPECIES ARE JUST AS IMPORTANT AS THE CLIMATE ISTELF IN MAKING THESE LANDSCAPES”
Around the world some organizations have started moving away from that idea of leaving things as they were and challenging the status quo of regional extinctions. In African parks and reserves, elephants, lions, cheetahs and other large mammals have been reintroduced, and ecosystems have been restored to their past biodiversity. There are groups in Europe and Asia as well doing the same type of work. We asked Ignacio to clarify for us the concept of rewilding, and got an answer delivered with the same charisma with which he shared all the rest of the stories and ideas: “The concept of rewilding is not really about the species, but about the ecosystems. What you are really rewilding is the ecosystem: you make it wild again. So what makes something wild? Space - you cannot have a large-scale ecosystem with a small surface; but, that too is open-ended because I was talking to someone in England who was ‘rewilding’ his backyard. OK. It’s fine, he was changing exotic plants with native ones, hedge hogs were coming back; that’s small-scale rewilding. But the original idea of rewilding coming from the States is about large reserves, connectivity, large carnivores, large predators. It’s about size and connectivity and about wholeness. You don’t rewild a species, you rewild the ecosystem. Even in Patagonia, if you take out the fences, you’re rewilding the grasslands. It’s ecological restoration. If you take out the dam off a river, you’re rewilding that river. Then you have the river, you have the grasslands; what about the species? What about the missing ecological parts? You can focus on small snails and invertebrates, however most of the time you don’t know you had them in the first place because people were unaware of them. Most of the times you’ll know that you used to have some large predator or some large herbivore there. These large animals, in ecological terms, are called ‘highly interactive species’. Why? Because they shape the ecosystem. Typically ecology had been seen as a bottom up process, where the landscapes are determined by weather, altitude, soil, latitude etc. Depending on the latitude, the altitude, the amount of rain and so on you have wetlands or you have rainforests or you have something else. However, the more you start seeing and understanding these ecosystems, the more you find that certain species are just as important as the climate itself in making these landscapes. Probably the best example is the elephant. If you have elephants, you have grasslands. It is acknowledged now that if you no longer have top predators, you’re gonna have lots of missing pieces. It was seen in Yellowstone with wolves that went extinct and the deer population changed the ecosystem and started destroying it with overgrazing, overeating the young trees and so on. Bringing back large predators reshapes the ecosystem. Altogether, that’s rewilding”.
Armed with a better understanding of the concept, we started discussing the process, how they were choosing the areas where to reintroduce a species and how they were going about the implementation, given that this was all new. He told us about how they targeted all the specialists who had a background in similar work, how they formed strategic partnerships and learned and adapted. “It’s really important to go ask experts in cases like this. Reinventing the wheel costs time. It’s good to just go learn from the best, as it fastens things up and increases your success rate. And that’s what we did, we always looked to the people who have much more experience than us instead of basing it on what we feel or think is right”. Now they are the experts and scientists and conservationists from around the world have started to reach out to learn from them. Ignacio also told us that most of these decisions are based on science and on common sense. However, there’s more to the story.
Yvoty Porã means “beautiful flower” in the local guaraní language. It is also the name of the first giant anteater brought back to Corrientes to symbolically start the rewilding program that the organization ambitiously put together. It became a historic moment and a lesson for all. “I come from a scientific background and I was thinking of what I said about common sense”, started Ignacio after we had taken a short break from the interview. “I think that I call it common sense because I have the background and I probably take things like this for granted. You need a good scientific background to get good results, but there were also a lot of things that I didn’t expect: one was that we underestimated the potential for communication that these species we’re reintroducing have. In 2007 we brought the first anteater to Iberá, here where we are now, in Socorro. At the time the image of the Tompkins project wasn’t so well received, there were a lot of questions and people weren’t convinced that what we were doing here was what we were saying. Everyone expected some sort of hidden agenda, that we were interested in stealing the fresh water, or that Doug was some CIA agent. When we brought this first giant anteater, who came from a household from the Jujuy province, we weren’t sure she was going to successfully adapt to this wild life. She had never done it before. But we brought her here and the governor of the Corrientes province showed up, which we didn’t think was going to be possible. Normally when you have the governor, ministers and other politicians show up as well. It turned into this big event, the children from the school in the neighboring town came and they were the ones naming the anteater, Yvoty Pora. It was a great success and it was the first time that we were able to bring Douglas with the governor in one place, in one photo. And it was all from just one giant anteater. In ecological terms it was insignificant because it was just one individual. Of course you don’t make a population out of one anteater. But, at a communication level it was huge. Soon after I started hearing people say ‘Well, maybe this Doug guy isn’t so bad after all, because he’s bringing back giant anteaters’. You would think that reintroduction is something that just a few people care about, mainly conservationists and biologists, but many respected that. The people in Corrientes loved the idea of getting these animals back. Plus, with the anteaters, we wanted initially to work with wild specimens. Instead we got these cubs that nobody wanted”. The story of the giant anteaters is worthy of a whole book that is guaranteed to make people sob with emotion. The organization had to bring the individuals from neighboring provinces and they were animals that had been kept illegally as pets, that had been hit by cars and were dying on the side of the road, cubs whose mothers had been killed and so on. The reintroduction program then became a rescue and rehabilitation one too, a success story that is tremendously inspiring.
“The picture of a cub with a baby bottle was a very, very powerful thing. Had we done what we wanted to do, which was the most sensible thing to do in scientific terms [relocating wild individuals], we would have lost that communication potential. It’s interesting. If you would read a manual of how to reintroduce species to an area, they would never say to get small cubs that you would have to rear and feed with baby bottles, since you don’t know if they are going to survive. But people love the story. I’m just thinking of this out loud now, but maybe rewilding is that place where science meets feelings and communication and politics and you have to manage all of them. You need a strong scientific background, but if you only focus on that you will be left alone: you are not going to get your permits, you are not going to get support from society. You have to communicate very proactively in a way that is not only scientific. I think that the giant anteater program was a huge communication success and it really opened the door to many things, including the creation of the national park. Before it was complicated to even just donate these lands to make the park - for the nation’s government to accept and especially for the government of the Corrientes province to allow us to transfer our lands to the federal government. That was highly political and things like the reintroductions really helped. With the jaguar we didn’t know at first, but the species is very connected with the local culture and the people were very open to it. This is a cattle rancher kind of society, but because they have been around for so long (European colonizers first arrived over 500 years ago), they don’t see themselves as colonizers; they see themselves as being from here, as relatives of the jaguars. It’s different from Wyoming or Montana in the States where the ranchers see themselves as decedents of those who advanced from the east to the west and ‘tamed the wild’. Here nobody tamed the wild. In their minds they’ve always been here and jaguars are part of their heritage. They’re not an enemy, they are a relative. We were lucky. If we hadn’t had this context it would have been very different. In neighboring provinces there is more of a ‘colonizer’ culture that dominates, of those who came to civilize the wild. Now the story of the jaguars is on a whole new level. I mean, the moment the first jaguar cubs are born, people are going to go crazy. The first female that arrived at the project was probably at the time the most famous animal in Argentina. People here talk about the female and the two males like they talk about a soap opera, they call them by their names. ‘And now… this guy comes from Paraguay, let’s see if the Paraguayan is more powerful. Next, the Brazilian female is coming and she’s young and Brazilian so let’s see what happens’, Ignacio finishes the story in laughter.
Seen from above, the surreal beauty of Iberá reveals a wild landscape of one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world. Thanks to protections from the government, to the growing consciousness of local communities and to the work done by CLT Argentina, it is also one of the healthiest.
The moment that we arrived in the Corrientes province, we started noticing posters and stickers everywhere with the species that CLT Argentina was reintroducing and with a catchy motto: “Corrientes Vuelve a Ser Corrientes”. In English it means “Corrientes Becomes Corrientes Again”. Seems like a question of pride, like all these species and the restoration of the Iberá wetlands are part of the local identity. We ask Ignacio if this concept has to do with CLT. “That was Doug’s phrase and we created a whole campaign around it, but without a logo so you don’t know who’s behind this campaign. You will hear a senator from Corrientes giving a big speech and he will end it with ‘Corrientes vuelve a ser Corrientes’. It’s an excellent idea, because it’s a lesson that many conservation organizations should learn. The goal isn’t to promote ourselves, but conservation. If you use your logo too much, then what are you promoting: conservation or your own agenda? Once you put a logo people will interpret everything by the messenger. But if there is no messenger, then it’s everybody’s message, and that was all Doug’s wisdom. We didn’t come up with it”. Then he continues with his best Doug impersonation: “‘Everybody knows that if you want to have a big campaign you don’t have to use a logo!’. OK, let’s do it”. Right before arriving in Iberá one of the tapir females newly introduced had a baby: the first baby tapir born wild in the province in 70 years. It was somewhat of a historic moment and we heard people from the city of Mercedes 70 km away talk about it and especially in the nearby settlement of Colonía Carlos Pellegrini. Corrientes is returning to its former glory: there’s hope in the air.
“I’M JUST THINKING THIS OUT LOUD NOW, BUT MAYBE REWILDING IS THAT PLACE WHERE SCIENCE MEETS FEELINGS AND COMMUNICATION AND POLITICS, AND YOU HAVE TO MANAGE ALL OF THEM”
Arandú, the first baby tapir to be born in the wild in Iberá, after more than seven decades. Photo by Rafael Abuín, CLT Argentina.