Argentina, the second-largest country in South America, is exceptionally beautiful and diverse, with abundant wildlife. Doug and Kris Tompkins began a major conservation project in the Iberá marshlands region of northern Argentina in 1997. In the decades since, Tompkins Conservation, through its affiliate independent NGO Rewilding Argentina, has led successful efforts to create or expand numerous protected areas including several national parks. Complementary rewilding efforts have focused on restoring missing species and processes to these parklands. Our team has successfully reintroduced giant anteaters, pampas deer, green-winged macaws, and several other native species that had become regionally extinct.
National parks are the most durable way to protect wildlife habitat and help people reconnect with nature. Parks provide indispensable ecological and social values. They highlight the best a country has to show the world—scenic beauty, abundant wildlife, recreation opportunities, and noteworthy cultural or archeological sites. National parks and other protected areas also help counter climate change by naturally storing large amounts of carbon.
Protecting wildlife, and, where necessary, reintroducing missing species is a crucial complement to parklands conservation. Tompkins Conservation has pioneered innovative rewilding projects that have returned giant anteaters, green-winged macaws, jaguars, and other species to their former home in Argentina.
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the largest feline in the Americas and is currently in critical danger of extinction in Argentina, after having lost 95 percent of its original distribution in the country due to hunting, habitat degradation, and loss of natural prey. The estimated jaguar population in Argentina is only about 200 individuals. The Rewilding Argentina team has been working urgently to return jaguars to their native range in the Iberá wetlands of Corrientes Province, launching our Jaguar Reintroduction Breeding Program in 2015 with the goal of raising jaguars in captivity that could be released and survive independently in the wild. The program also receives jaguars from other countries that are capable of being reintroduced to the wild. The program’s first two cubs were born in 2018—the first of their kind born in Iberá in more than half a century.
One of the most striking and peculiar mammals of Argentina, the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) has a long snout without teeth, and a very long tongue that it uses to obtain its primary food source: ants and termites. Anteaters only have one offspring per year, and thus are sensitive to human persecution as well as to habitat loss. Considered in danger of extinction in Argentina, giant anteaters were the first missing species that our wildlife team reintroduced in Iberá Park. Since the anteater reintroduction program’s launch in 2007, more than 100 orphan anteaters—whose mothers were victims of poaching—have been rescued and released in the wild and three new local populations have been established.
It is estimated that only about 2,000 pampas deer (Ozotoceros bezoarticus) —formerly one of the most abundant herbivores in the Argentine grasslands— remain in Argentina. Their habitat, which includes the grasslands (or "pampas") bordering the Iberá wetlands, has been diminished due to cattle ranching and industrial forestry. Persecution by dogs is also a source of mortality and displacement. Our goal is to assure the long-term survival of pampas deer in Corrientes Province, and to promote their return to the interior of Iberá. Having reintroduced the species to areas where it was previously extirpated, the population today is an estimated 120 to 150 individuals (up from 0), and a second nucleus has been established in our privately managed Rincón del Socorro reserve. Pampas deer reintroduced in Iberá now constitute the fifth population of the country, the third most numerous, and the largest population that is secure within a protected area.
Our wildlife team is reintroducing the green-winged macaw (Ara chloropterus), a native parrot that had disappeared from Iberá due to hunting for their vibrant feathers, to Iberá Park. Because the reintroduced birds were captive, not wild, individuals, project biologists must help the macaws hone the skills they’ll need to survive in freedom. After months of training—including flight exercises, predator recognition drills, and native fruit feeding—we’ve released 11 individuals into the wild. Some of them have already flown more than 60 kilometers from the release area, and have been spotted in nearby villages, where the local community celebrates their return. This is the first time a locally extinct bird is being reintroduced in the history of Argentina.
The collared peccary (Pecari tajacu) is a distant relative of domestic pigs and lives in small groups of between 5 and 15 individuals. Because peccaries feed primarily on fruits and roots, they play a key role in dispersing seeds of native plants. Healthy populations of the animal are still found in Argentina although the species has been lost in many regions including Corrientes Province, largely due to hunting and forest clearcutting during the middle of the twentieth century. Since starting this species reintroduction program, we’ve established one self-sustaining population and are in the process of creating three others.
The red-legged seriema (Seriema cristata) is a grassland bird that primarily moves by walking, but is able to fly. It feeds upon and hence controls population numbers of worms, spiders, insects, and small vertebrates such as lizards, snakes, and rodents. The species has disappeared from large sectors of its former range in central and northern Argentina. It survives in the southeast corner of Corrientes Province, but in diminished numbers. At the Rewilding Argentina headquarters at Iberá Park, a reintroduction project of this species is in an experimental phase.
The giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), a much larger relative of the river otter, can measure up to 6 feet in length. Formerly the top predator in the aquatic ecosystems of Corrientes Province, feeding on large fishes and yacaré caimans, giant otters were spotted on the Paraná River near the capital city of the province until the mid-1900s. The species is known to have inhabited the Iberá wetlands historically. This spectacular mammal is now extinct in Argentina, and our wildlife team is leading their reintroduction in Iberá. The first translocations of giant otters occurred in 2019.
The bare-faced curassow (Crax fasciolata) is the largest galliform bird in Argentina. It formerly inhabited the northeastern part of the country but has now largely disappeared due to the loss and degradation of its jungle habitat, and also due to being hunted for meat. Today the curassow survives only in low numbers in parts of its native range in northern Argentina. It is a great consumer and disperser of fruits and seeds, helping to restore the forest it inhabits. The Rewilding Argentina wildlife program is working on the initial stage of a reintroduction project for this species at Iberá Park.
Marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus), the largest cervid of South America, inhabits floodable regions—riparian zones of rivers, streams, lagoons, swamps, and reservoirs—of central and northern Argentina in the Paraná and Uruguay River basins. Nowadays, the species survives only in the Iberá wetlands and nearby zones of the Paraná Delta and the eastern Chaco and Formosa provinces. Since the creation of Iberá Park, the population has recovered considerably, now numbering roughly 10,000 individuals. Currently, the Rewilding Argentina team is planning to reintroduce this species into El Impenetrable National Park, where it is extinct. The founding individuals for that future population will be translocated from Iberá Park.
The guanaco (Lama guanicoe) is the largest and most abundant herbivore of the arid and semi-arid zones of Argentina, including the Patagonia steppe and neighboring zones of subantarctic forests. Guanacos played a central role in early human settlement of this region, about 12,000 years ago. The once-spectacular migratory movements are now lost, mainly because of hunting and habitat deterioration due to more than a century of overgrazing by domestic livestock. In Patagonia National Park–Argentina, our wildlife team is working to restore healthy populations of this keystone species, thus promoting ecological recovery and fostering ecotourism.
The lesser rhea (Rhea pennata) is a running bird, common in the arid environments of southwestern Argentina. Along with guanacos, rheas are the dominant herbivores of Patagonia, and the lesser rhea was similarly affected by hunting (to obtain its leather and feathers). Population decline also stemmed from habitat degradation of the Patagonian grasslands, development of pastures with wire fences, and collection of its eggs. In Patagonia National Park–Argentina, our wildlife team is working to restore rhea population levels with a goal of eventually having source animals for reintroduction projects in other regions of Chile and Argentina where rheas are now extirpated.
Pumas (Puma concolor) are the apex predator of Patagonia. Formerly abundant, puma numbers and range are constricted due to conflicts with ranchers. Widespread hunting and poisoning have restricted pumas to secure or remote habitat in mountains and canyons with rugged terrain, where they shelter. In Patagonia National Park–Argentina, the Rewilding Argentina wildlife team has started an active-management project for this species, hoping to prevent conflict with cattle and expand ecotourism based on wildlife observation. Ultimately, we expect the cougar to be seen not as a problem, but as an opportunity for economic development of neighboring communities.
The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) is the largest flying scavenger in the world, with a wingspan that can measure 9 feet wide. Poisoning directed at cougars and foxes also kills Andean condors throughout their range. In Patagonia National Park–Argentina, our wildlife team is starting a condor study, with the objective of having a better understanding of their movements and habits; this knowledge about condors’ use of their habitat should bolster both conservation and ecotourism activities.
The Wolffsohn’s viscacha (Lagidium wolffsohni) is an herbivorous mammal exclusively distributed in the west side of the Argentine province of Santa Cruz and neighboring zones of Chile. It is restricted to steep, rocky canyon walls where it is often observed getting a little bit of sunlight. The species has disappeared from some of its preferred habitat due to hunting and forage competition with livestock. In Patagonia National Park, our wildlife program team is starting a management project for this species that will support expansion of viscachas to their former range via translocations.
The austral rail (Rallus antarcticus) is an enigmatic and little-known bird that was considered extinct for several decades until its rediscovery in 1998. It inhabits a very restricted range and specific habitat—reed beds along water bodies—which are typically scarce in the arid Patagonian steppe. The species has declined due to livestock overgrazing and associated habitat degradation. In Patagonia Park–Argentina, our team is starting to actively manage for this species by removing cattle, helping restore reed beds, and translocating individual birds that will recolonize their riparian habitat.
A globally endangered species, the huemul or south Andean deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus) is a shy, forest-dwelling cervid native to the subantarctic forests and nearby steppes of Patagonia. Hunting, forage competition with livestock, introduced diseases, and persecution by domestic dogs have caused the huemul population to decline across its range. In the region of Patagonia National Park, huemuls were relatively common until the end of the nineteenth century according to historical accounts, although by that time the population was already suffering. Huemul deer still live in the boundary zones with Chile, just a few miles from Argentina. The Rewilding Argentina wildlife team is currently studying the feasibility of reintroducing this species, ultimately hoping to establish interconnected and secure huemul habitat in the transboundary region.
The hooded grebe (Podiceps gallardoi) is a diving bird, endemic to Santa Cruz Province, Argentina, and is considered critically endangered. During summertime this beautiful bird inhabits the lagoons located on the plateau of the Buenos Aires Lake within Patagonia National Park–Argentina, where it performs its spectacular courtship dance and seeks to reproduce. Rewilding Argentina’s wildlife team has collaborated with CONICET and Aves Argentinas to recover populations of the grebe. To this end, we provided financial support to operate a biological station that functions as a base to monitor and host a human caretaker to safeguard the breeding colonies.
We work to empower community leaders and build positive relations based on trust, a key to successful partnerships. Through active involvement and support of park gateway communities, our conservation efforts are demonstrating how nature-based tourism can help drive regional economic diversification and benefit local people.
Our work around Iberá Park focuses on the towns of Carlos Pellegrini, San Miguel, and Concepción del Yaguareté Corá, where we work to boost job opportunities and services linked to nature-based tourism and ecosystem restoration. We train and support entrepreneurs as they become service providers; work with the municipalities to develop public infrastructure and beautify urban centers; and collaborate with rural communities to foster economic prosperity.
Around Argentina’s Patagonia Park, we are working in La Ascensión and Cañadón Pinturas with the communities of Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno to develop ventures associated with tourism and public use of the park. We have fostered a park-centric sense of identity and pride, as well as economic activities, that will allow for long-lasting collaboration among national, provincial, and municipal authorities even after the lands are donated to the National Parks Administration.
We have been working to establish and empower La Armonía as a gateway community of Impenetrable National Park. We have collaborated with entrepreneurs and neighborhood associations, and have also started a training program for local young people to gain the skills needed to eventually be part of the National Park Administration, a tourism venture, or the restoration work carried out by Rewilding Argentina.
As part of the Patagonia Azul project, we are working with the community of Camarones, which is situated near the Southern Patagonia Coastal Marine Interjurisdictional Park and the Cabo dos Bahías Provincial Reserve. In order to improve the community’s well-being and economic opportunity, we are collaborating with the municipality, as well as provincial and national organizations, to promote the historical, cultural, and natural potential of the region—from Cabo Raso to Bahía Bustamente.
Tompkins Conservation implements its projects through a nonprofit network including Tompkins Conservation Chile and Rewilding Argentina.
In ways large and small, as individuals and groups, we have the power to reorient the trajectory of life on Earth toward beauty, diversity, wildness, and health.