Mating Wild and Captive Jaguars to Save the Species

Nov 11, 2020 –IMPENETRABLE NATIONAL PARK, ARG On October 17, 2020, an unlikely romance was underway in the Gran Chaco. A wild jaguar, the first discovered in Impenetrable National Park, entered the pen of a captive jaguar with the promise of mating. Their encounter is the product of months of a strange, socially-distanced courtship undertaken across solid steel fencing, monitored by cameras and a team of hopeful scientists from Rewilding Argentina. If the pairing is successful, these jaguars will become the first wild-captive pair to mate in history, key progenitors in an effort to repopulate a top predator of the Americas.

Matchmaking wild and not-so-wild jaguars is a highly creative solution to the larger issue of saving wild jaguars, a priority put forth by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) at the most recent World Conservation Congress in September, 2020. The largest feline in the Americas, they have lost over half their historical range from the southern US to Argentina, a loss of habitat which has left several populations of the species geographically isolated and some individuals unable to encounter mating partners.

Jaguars were thought to be already extinct in El Impenetrable National Park, created in 2014 with help from Tompkins Conservation.

However, in September, 2019, a park ranger’s discovery of a jaguar print led to the installation of trap cameras which soon caught a large male on film. The onsite team of Rewilding Argentina collared him to track his movements. They called him Qaramta, “the one who cannot be destroyed” in Qom, a local language. His frequent forays out of the park into areas threatened by clearcutting and illegal hunting made it clear that, to ensure the last jaguar’s survival, immediate action needed to be taken.

The Lure of a Captive Female

Rewilding Argentina bet that a captive female could help anchor Qaramta to the park. With permits from local and park authorities, the team transferred a female from their breeding program established in the nearby Iberá wetlands. It worked. Qaramta visited her often. The team raced to build a new pen to accommodate the tricky logistics of breeding with an external visitor. Eventually, the female was replaced with Tania, a younger counterpart who had successfully bred and raised cubs in Iberá slated for wild release in 2021.

“It may be unorthodox to mate a captive and wild jaguar, as far as we know it’s without precedent,” says Sebastian Di Martino, Director of Conservation at Rewilding Argentina. “But these kinds of bold actions must happen if we want to see jaguars surviving, and even thriving, again in Argentina.”

As a former zoo specimen, Tania can never be freed, but there is a certain justice in her return to the Chaco. Decades ago, her great grandparents were wild cubs from the same region, orphaned by poachers and brought to a zoo in Cordoba. A run in with a tiger in her youth left Tania an amputee, and she was donated to the rewilding program because she could not be put on display, a lucky break for all involved. The only female to successfully reproduce in the program so far, Tania has proved adept at teaching her cubs hunting skills essential to a life in the wild that she has never known.

Restoring the Chaco Ecosystem

Second in size and biodiversity to the neighboring Amazon, the dry forests of the Gran Chaco are one of the most endangered ecosystems of the continent. Between 1985 and 2013, clearcutting razed 35 million acres, or 20% of the forest, to meet the global demand for beef and soy, while also hauling away precious hardwoods. As a result, its ecosystem is on the brink and its exceptional biodiversity, which also includes the ocelot, tapir and giant anteater, is threatened. The jaguar is no longer able to fulfill its key ecological role as an apex predator. “It’s key to ask the question Who is missing,” says Kristine Tompkins, president of Tompkins Conservation and UN Patron of Protected Areas. “Restoring the jaguar will have a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem, it’s an action that’s central to fighting mass extinction.”

Rewilding Argentina is also working to purchase and protect a large area adjacent to the national park where poaching remains an imminent threat. This additional territory would give the future cubs of Qaramta and Tania a decent chance to reestablish their species in their native habitat for once and for all.

Impenetrable National Park was created in 2014 with help from Tompkins Conservation. Rewilding Argentina receives support from DOB Ecology and its strategic partner Tompkins Conservation, a leader in rewilding and park creation in the Southern Cone.

 

For more information, contact carolynmccarthy@tompkinsconservation.org.

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