The First Release of Ocelots in Iberá Park

Dec 14, 2023 | Argentina, Parks, Rewilding

Two ocelots released in Iberá Park make history as the first pair to begin the recovery of their species. This new rewilding project seeks to reintroduce the species to Iberá Park in Northeastern Argentina, where it was driven to extinction during the twentieth century, largely due to hunting and habitat destruction. This is part of the most ambitious rewilding program in Latin America and the first ocelot reintroduction project of its kind worldwide. The ocelot is the seventh species being restored to Iberá Park; other significant rewilding efforts include the reintroduction of the jaguar, the giant anteater and the red-and-green macaw.

Video: Andi Villarreal, Tomy Navajas, Sebastian Navajas

Tomi and Luna are the first pair of ocelots to be reintroduced in Iberá Park to begin the recovery of their species. The project began almost two years ago, in December 2021, with the construction of special pre-release enclosures in the east of the Iberá wetlands. 

Luna was the first female to join the project; she was donated by the La Peregrina Breeding Center in Buenos Aires Province and arrived on November 19, 2021. Tomi, a male, was born in 2012 and arrived to the project on March 10, 2022, donated by Córdoba Biodiversity Park (formerly Córdoba Zoo).

Since their arrival, both felines have lived in a large free-range enclosure where they developed skills to survive in the wild, including the ability to hunt live prey. During this period they were also confirmed as fertile and able to have offspring, an important attribute for the successful reintroduction of the species to Iberá. In fact, the couple had a cub, which is now independent of its parents but still too young to fit with a tracking collar and to be released.   

Luna and Tomi now live free in the large wetlands. Each of them wears a collar with a GPS connection that records daily location data, allowing their movements to be monitored and their adaptation to the environment to be studied.

There are four other ocelots in pre-release enclosures in southern Iberá Park awaiting release in order to augment the initial population, including Tomi and Luna’s cub and individuals from the La Peregrina Breeding Center and the Jujuy Native Fauna Care Center. In addition, three females from the Bella Vista Wildlife Shelter managed by Itaipú Binacional (Brazil) and one female from the Urutaú Wildlife Shelter (Paraguay), will soon be incorporated into the project.

The ocelot is the seventh species to be reintroduced to Iberá Park; other significant rewilding efforts include the reintroduction of the jaguar, the giant anteater and the red-and-green macaw. Reintroduction projects with three other species are underway, including the giant river otter, although none have yet been released. 

While the ocelot reintroduction project being carried out in Iberá is the first of its kind worldwide, there is a similar initiative being developed in the United States to reintroduce the ocelot in an area of southwest Texas. 

This project is possible thanks to the collaborative work between the La Peregrina Breeding Center, the CAFaJu of Jujuy, Mossy Earth, the Government of Corrientes, and Rewilding Argentina.

The return of this beautiful feline is helping to recover healthy, complete and functional ecosystems in Iberá Park and will contribute to the on-going economic development based on wildlife watching and cultural and nature tourism in surrounding communities.   

About the ocelot

The ocelot is the third largest cat on the American continent and one of the most charismatic. Adults can reach sixteen kilos (32 pounds) and their striking coats feature black, elongated, eye-like spots. Ocelots were once found from the south of the United States to north-central Argentina, but in the last 150 years it has been driven to extinction over much of its original range, mainly due to hunting for its skin and habitat destruction. In Argentina, the ocelot has been relegated to the humid forests and mountains of the north, and is considered Vulnerable to Extinction.

In Corrientes province, ocelots survive in the extreme northeast, especially on the border with Misiones Province and in the Aguapey basin. In Iberá, historical records are scarce and the last ocelot observed in the Park was a solitary male photographed in 2015 by a camera trap placed by Rewilding Argentina.

Ocelots are an adaptable species and can thrive in dry mountains, humid jungles, open grasslands and savannah environments, in both wetlands and deserts. As a mesopredator (medium-sized predator), it plays an important ecological role by controlling the population of its prey, which consists of small birds, rodents and reptiles as well as mid-size mammals like the brown brocket deer and young capybaras.

Background

Great Iberá Park is located in Corrientes Province in northeastern Argentina, comprised of the Iberá Provincial Park, of some 600,000 hectares, and the Iberá National Park, of 158,000 hectares, donated by Tompkins Conservation and Rewilding Argentina to the Argentine state. The wetlands occupy the center of a great subtropical plain surrounded by Paraná Atlantic forest, Chaco forest, open grasslands and thorny shrublands. 

Iberá is home to the world’s largest population of the endangered collared peccary and the second largest population of marsh deer, as well as being a fundamental refuge for endangered species such as maned wolf, pampas deer and grassland birds rendered nearly extinct in Argentina due to the expansion of large-scale agriculture.