Unlikely Brazil Safari Helps Save Pantanal Jaguars

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  • A pioneer of animal safaris in Brazil, the Onçafari project combines the visit of the jaguar with the conservation of the species and its reintroduction into nature.
  • Thanks to the strategy of getting jaguars used to safari vehicles, the Pantanal has become the best place in Brazil to spot the feline; the number of tourists to the project’s host farm has tripled in a decade.
  • The presence of tourists has changed the mentality of farmers, who previously viewed jaguars as a pest to be killed, and now even work as Onçafari tour guides.
  • In 2015, Onçafari recorded the world’s first successful case of the reintroduction of captive jaguars into the wild; the two females have since given birth to five young and even four grandchildren.

Watching the largest feline in the Americas in the wild has always been a rare and remarkable experience. In the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest continental floodplain and one of the main refuges for jaguars, such encounters have become more and more frequent. In the municipality of Miranda, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, 95% of the customers of the Caiman farm, open to tourists, saw at least one jaguar on each visit.

During a reddish sunset in August 2021, I had the opportunity to see my first wild jaguars and understand that this is not just a great ecotourism experience. The sight of the mother jaguar devouring with her cub a recently slaughtered carcass just 5 meters (16 feet) from our four-wheel drive vehicle adapted for safaris, was special. Fera (“Raging Beast” in Portuguese), as the jaguar was nicknamed, is part of conservation history, along with his sister Isa, in the first successful case of a jaguar being reintroduced from captivity to the wild.

The first Brazilian safari

The only member of the big cat genus Panthera not yet listed as endangered, jaguars (Panthera onca) have a strong ally in their fight for survival in the Pantanal. This is the Onçafari project, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2021 and has already recorded observations of more than 200 individuals on the Caiman farm. It is the result of combining the pioneering African safari-type experience of observing animals with a conservation project that conducts scientific studies and reintroduces rehabilitated animals into the wild.

Since former Formula 1 test driver and environmentalist Mario Haberfeld partnered with farm owner, entrepreneur and environmentalist Roberto Klabin to implement the Caiman farm project to accustom local jaguars to safari vehicles , the territory has become the best place to observe these felines in Brazil. . In a decade, the number of guests has tripled. It’s a win-win situation for all involved: tourists can see the region’s Big Five star – a list that also includes tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), yacare caimans (Cayman Yacare) and the swamp deer (Blastocerus dichotomus). And jaguars win as the species gains in protection and more and more defenders.

Observation safari at the Caiman farm. Image by Mario Nélson Cleto.

Worth more alive than dead

In the not-so-distant past, a good jaguar was a dead jaguar to the locals. At the top of the food chain, the species was an enemy to be brought down when it entered farms in search of the easiest prey: cattle. Killing jaguars was part of the culture of the Pantanal, home to more than 3.8 million head of cattle only in the Brazilian part of the wetland.

“The development of tourism to observe jaguars has changed this culture,” explains Haberfeld, who tried the best safaris available before developing the Onçafari project at the Caiman farm in 2011. “With more farms dedicated to ecotourism, Pantanal residents have become aware that jaguars bring money and jobs, ”he says.

Another example of this shift in consciousness is another Mario – Mario Nélson Cleto, my safari field guide, who comes from a family of jaguar hunters. “My grandfather said he was ashamed of me when I took on this job, but now my family understands why I protect jaguars,” he says.

A pioneering reintroduction center

The survival of the jaguar that I observed, Fera and Isa is the result of this new awareness of the inhabitants of the Pantanal. In June 2014, the two sisters were seen like cubs in a tree with their mother, on the banks of the Paraguay River in the municipality of Corumbá. Instead of killing them, frightened villagers called on the authorities to evict them. An accident in the sedation process led to the death of the mother jaguar. The orphaned cubs were first transferred to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (CRAS) in Campo Grande, the state capital of Mato Grosso do Sul. In July 2015, their lives would change as they went to Caiman Farm.

On the farm, Isa and Fera were the first hosts of the first big cat reintroduction center in Brazil, measuring 1 hectare (2.5 acres), the size of a football field. In the absence of their mother and in the care of Onçafari and partners such as the National Center for Research and Conservation of Carnivorous Mammals (CENAP / ICMBio), the orphans were “trained” – without any contact with the man – to learn to hunt and kill live prey for food. Eleven months later, in June 2016, when they were just over 2 years old, they were fitted with surveillance collars and had the freedom to live like wild animals.

Fera, a jaguar reintroduced by Onçafari, with her daughter, Turi. Image of Edu Fragoso.

The challenge of addiction

Knowing the trajectory of Fera makes my safari more exciting when we explore part of the 53,000 hectares of Caiman farm (131,000 acres). The observation takes place in silence, without sudden movements of the passengers, so as not to frighten the animals. “The work of habituation consists of accustoming jaguars to vehicles but not to human beings,” explains biologist Fábio Paschoal, who works as a guide in Caiman. He says the long process of accustoming jaguars to cars should not be confused with domestication, as big cats need to be able to protect themselves when humans pose a threat. “We want his attitude to be neutral when the car approaches.”

One of the highlights of practicing ecotourism with scientists is following the stories and the guides’ work. Mario Nélson, son and grandson of hunters, tells us with pride about the safari training he received at Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa. “They are a benchmark in terms of feline addiction and an inspiration for Onçafari,” he says. At one point, Nélson sees the bones of an ox devoured by jaguars and jumps out of the vehicle to pick up the ear tag that identifies the animal. Written on spreadsheets identifying the feline diet, this predation control helps to understand how many domestic animals jaguars hunt on the property; their diet also includes alligators, peccaries and capybaras, among other prey.

Livestock, ecotourism and conservation

“Livestock is the mainstay of the Pantanal economy, and ecotourism must live in harmony with it,” says Roberto Klabin, environmentalist and owner of the Caiman farm, which records the financial losses caused when jaguars kill cattle. in its contracts with farmers. to whom he rents land.

Descendant of a family that got rich in the cellulose industry, Klabin decided 35 years ago to transform the family farm into an inn. By integrating the Onçafari base with former racing driver Haberfeld, he has taken his property to another level in the marriage between ecotourism and species conservation. The business has been so successful that Klabin invested 14 million reais ($ 2.6 million) this year to renovate the farm and expand its capacity to 18 homes.

For guests, although the farm has become a luxury hotel and houses other interesting ecological projects such as the one that protects the hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), jaguar watching is the highlight of the safaris which take place Thursday through Sunday at dawn and sunset. The fascination comes from the beauty and magnificence of such a capricious animal and, thanks to Onçafari’s studies, from the stories told by the guides showing each animal. When the animals happen to be Fera and Isa, as was the case on my safari, the experience also gains hope.

Female jaguar Fera being an absolute cat during an Onçafari tour. Image of Edu Fragoso.

From orphans to grandmothers

The reintroduction of the orphan sisters into the wilderness of the Pantanal has proven to be a success not only because they have learned to fend for themselves, even in the face of threats such as frequent fires. Thanks to their spotting collars and camera traps scattered around the area, environmentalists also confirmed that the jaguars had indeed learned to hunt. And, best of all, they did happen again – proof I witnessed when I saw Fera with her daughter, Turi. In 2018, Fera and Isa both gave birth to the world’s first cubs of previously captive jaguars.

The virtuous ecological cycle was only just beginning. During the pandemic, between 2020 and 2021, Isa and Fera became grandmothers. “This proves the success of our work,” says biologist Leonardo Sartorello, Onçafari reintroduction coordinator proudly. “For science, the result of the return of a captive species to the wild is seen when the animal has a second generation of descendants,” he explains.

The episode that could have ended with the two jaguars trapped in captivity instead saw the wild population increase by at least nine free jaguars, counting the first five cubs and four grandchildren of Fera and Isa.

With the successful increase in the jaguar population, Onçafari expanded its operations to other regions of Brazil and began to replicate the reintroduction experience with maned wolves in the Cerrado grasslands. In the Pantanal, he began the complex process of accustoming the tapirs to safaris and reintroducing the pumas (Puma concolor). And, with investors, she acquired a farm adjacent to the Cayman, the Santa Sofia, to create another center for the reintroduction of species, including birds, and to extend the ecological corridor of the Pantanal so that jaguars continue to multiply.

Female jaguar Gatuna and her two cubs, Hakuna and Matata. Image of Edu Fragoso.

Banner image: A jaguar in the Caiman farm in the Pantanal, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Image of Edu Fragoso.

This story was reported by the Brazilian Mongabay team and first published here on our Brazil site November 9, 2021.

Big cats, Conservation, Degraded land, Ecology, Endangered species, Environment, Fires, Jaguars, Mammals, Water, Fauna


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