The conservation work we do ultimately hinges upon our ability to nurture and understand the landscape in our given place and time in the world: however, we can gain insights into the conservation of our given place by comparing our work to that of conservationists tackling similar problems, even half-way around the world.
Following this logic, the leaders of the Conservation Land Trust’s Iberá project, Ignacio Jiménez and Sofia Heinonen, traveled to India this past month to survey tiger conservation programs in preparation for the reintroduction of jaguars to the Iberá Natural Reserve. Despite some obvious differences—spots versus stripes, South America versus Asia—these two big cats share important characteristics. Both members of the genus Panthera, the jaguar and the tiger are both keystone predators at the top of the food chain who depend on their size and their quick reflexes to allow them to hunt any number of prey species. Despite living on different continents, their favored habitats are closely analogous: both species prefer wooded areas with plenty of water (both species have been noted for their swimming capabilities, too!).
Sadly, one of the most notable things the jaguar and the tiger share is their histories of poaching, habitat loss, and precipitous population decline over the last half-century. The stories follow the same pattern: hunted for their beautiful, exotic pelts, killed for preying on livestock, and increasingly displaced by exploding human populations, both big cats are now in great danger of permanent extinction, unless drastic measures are taken to ensure their survival.
The Iberá Natural Reserve in the Corrientes province of Argentina is one of the most promising areas for jaguar conservation on the continent. With a protected area of over 1,300,000 hectares of conflict- free habitat with abundant wild prey populations, Iberá will sustain a healthy, growing population of jaguars if properly reintroduced and protected.
On their journey to India, Ignacio and Sofia traveled to several different tiger reserves as they gathered information on breeding, tracking and maintaining big cat populations. Through meeting and talking with tiger experts around the country, the pair from Iberá witnessed the slow and labor-intensive process to reintroduce these large predators to the landscape, one that requires constant evaluation and engagement to protect and grow their populations.
One of the stops along the journey was Ranthambore National Park, one of the best and most renown tiger conservation areas in India. Ranthambore is a highly successful park that supports around 70-80% of the local economy through tourism. The tiger population at the park has fluctuated in the last thirty years due to issues in management in breeding, but the current count is at approximately 48 individuals within the park. Even with such a small number of animals present, the park draws as many as 200,000 visitors a year. Unfortunately, due to continuous monsoon rains, Ignacio and Sofia were unable to see a single tiger during their visit to Ranthambore, nor at their first stop in Sarishka.
The rains did not let up, but nonetheless their luck was bound to change as they made their final stop, at the Panna tiger reserve. Despite the weather, Ignacio and Sofia were treated to a special tour of the park along with the park deputy, Vickram. The mode of transport for the day was astride elephants, the best opportunity to see tigers up close. The tigers do not fear the elephants—nor do the elephants pay much heed to the tigers.
Ignacio recalls riding the elephant through the forest, breaking apart branches and searching through the bramble for a glimpse of the big cat. Finally, through a break in the trees, they spotted one. Ignacio writes: “We saw the tiger about 4 meters away. The elephants turned around, parting the branches so we could better see him. The tiger emerged from his quiet hiding place (where, we later noticed, he had been feeding on the meat of a cow), walked to the stream for a drink of water, walked a little farther along, and finally crossed the stream by padding along the protruding rocks. We must have been watching the animal for ten or twenty minutes. Unforgettable.”
As the wildlife team at Iberá continue drawing up the plans to begin breeding and releasing jaguars in the reserve, they will recall the insights gained from their counterparts in India as they strive to give the land back to the big cats to whom it once belonged.