S ofía Heinonen's eyes carefully scrutinize the horizon. A group of turkey vultures circles in the sky above the pampas. Some distance away, two swamp deer watch the approaching group of riders warily. "He can't be far," says the Argentine biologist, "maybe he snatched an animal there this morning." Slowly her horse starts to move. Heinonen set out that morning with colleagues from her organization, Rewilding Argentina, to track South America's largest predator, the jaguar.
But where has the king of the pampas hidden?? In the partly meter-high marsh grass it seems almost impossible to see one of the animals. Pablo Guerra Aldazabar raises the antenna of his receiver even higher, but no beep is heard. Just yesterday, the zoologist saw a female in the area wearing a radio collar. With his tracking device he tries to track him again today.
A deceptive silence lies over the swamp area. Only the soft chirping of hidden birds suggests that this vast land in Corrientes Province in the wild northeast of Argentina is a refuge for countless species of animals. Once upon a time, the Esteros del Iberá, the continent's largest wetland after Brazil's Pantanal, was one of the most biodiverse places in the country.
Over the past 100 years, however, it has been stripped of its rich biodiversity by ranchers and hunters. Green-winged macaws, great anteaters, tapirs, giant otters and ocelots disappeared, maned wolves and pampas deer were on the verge of extinction. In the middle of the 20th century. The last jaguars were sighted at the beginning of the twentieth century. Now they are back.
The project in Argentina is unique in South America
Suddenly the acrid smell of carrion enters the noses of the riders. Sofía Heinonen discovered the carcass of a capybara swarming with flies. It was he who also lured the turkey vultures and caracaras, related to falcons, that showed the biologist the way here. "Capybaras are the jaguars' favorite prey," she explains. The guinea pig's distant relatives are the largest rodents in the world, measuring up to 130 centimeters in length. "There are now thousands of them here again," says Heinonen.
May be. The successful hunter of this capybara still does not want to be seen today. As the midday heat becomes almost unbearable, Pablo Guerra Aldazabar packs his tracking device again. "On most rides we are lucky with the female with the radio collar," he says, "but this is not a zoo. We can never guarantee a sighting."
In 2004, Sofía Heinonen took charge of a project that is unique in all of South America and would become just the beginning of the Rewilding Argentina initiative, which has since expanded to include several protected areas. The biologist, who previously worked in the Iguazú National Park, gradually reintroduced almost all of the large animal species that were once native to the Esteros del Iberá.
As of 2007, great anteaters, collared peccaries, naked-faced hokkos, red-footed seriemas, and macaws returned. The populations of maned wolves, swamp deer and pampas deer have now recovered significantly. Ocelots and giant otters from zoos and breeding programs are being prepared for their imminent release in spacious, purpose-built enclosures.
Jaguars roam the Esteros del Iberá again
In 2021, the first jaguars from Brazil and Paraguay were released into the wild. Until recently, there were eight animals that once again roamed the swampland. Now their number has risen to ten. After a female was brought to El Impenetrable National Park in an elaborate project to mate with a wild jaguar, she gave birth to two cubs. It is the first time in 70 years that jaguars in Iberá have been born in the wild.
In 1997, textile billionaires and environmentalists Kristine and Douglas Tompkins bought the lands of a cattle ranch in the center of the Esteros del Iberá. Their goal of simply leaving the once species-rich marshland to nature and reclaiming it as a habitat for endangered species met with little understanding from locals.
The Tompkins had previously bought up vast tracts of land in Chile for conservation purposes. As there, they also acquired adjoining farmland in Iberá, which was difficult to cultivate because of alternating floods and dry periods.
The resulting protected area has since been handed over to the Argentine state and now comprises one of the country's largest national parks. With a total area of over 7500 square kilometers, it is half the size of Schleswig-Holstein.
The marsh attracts vacationers to the national park
"When I was a kid, there were almost no animals here," says Domingo René Gonzalez, "even capybaras were rarely seen back then." The 42-year-old nature guide left late in the afternoon with a group of riders from the former cattle ranch, the eco-lodge "Rincón del Socorro," to show guests the wildlife of the marshland in the saddle.
The Tompkins had once lived here, and the farm has since been converted into a lodge with posh rooms and a pool. Kristine McDivitt Tompkins still has a home here today and occasionally returns here after the death of her husband Doug, who died in a kayaking accident in Chile in 2015.
"My parents, like many locals, were very critical of the Tompkins' project 20 years ago," Gonzalez says, "but today they see the benefits not only for nature but also for the people living around the sanctuary."Especially during the pandemic, the marshlands became one of the most important tourist destinations in Argentina.
It is especially the jaguars, which are now living in the wild again, that attract many tourists. In the meantime, foreign tour operators such as the British nature travel specialist Wildlife Worldwide and the South African safari company AndBeyond have also included the national park in their programs.
As riders in the natural paradise on a discovery tour
An armadillo flees from approaching riders. Not far away, dozens of capybaras have gathered on a river branch. They pay little attention to the horses. Around them, silver herons, marbled egrets and coco herons watch for prey.
A weir bird announces the group of riders with loud warning calls and startles a flock of whistling geese. They search excitedly chirping the distance. A few caimans sunbathing on the shore seem to be little disturbed. The riders fancy themselves on a voyage of discovery through a natural paradise where man has apparently never penetrated.
Although they don't get to see a jaguar that evening, the intrusion into its reborn territory still fills them with awe. "My grandfather was afraid of the last jaguars because he thought they were unpredictable and dangerous," Gonzalez recounts. "My eleven year old daughter is happy about her return today. For them, the wildcat is a sign of an intact nature". As the sun sinks into the marshland, a concert of hundreds of frog throats begins.
Gonzalez' guests start their way back at dusk. They know that at nightfall the King of Iberá's foray begins. "Sighting him here in the wild continues to be very difficult," says the guide, "but in the future we will certainly encounter the jaguars more often."
For the riders, the trip to the realm of the big cat was worthwhile even without the appearance of his majesty. Above the marshland, the first stars become visible. For one of the unsuspecting capybaras that the adventurers leave behind in the darkness, the last hour may just be ticking away in their earthly paradise.
Tips and information:
Arrival: For example, with Lufthansa nonstop from Frankfurt/Main to Buenos Aires. Alternatively from different German airports with Latam Airlines, Iberia or Air Europa to Madrid and from there with Aerolíneas Argentinas and JetSmart directly to Buenos Aires. From there it is at least another two hours by car to the Esteros del Iberá National Park. To explore it, a rental car or a tour booked through an operator is recommended.
Accommodation: The eco-lodge "Rincón del Socorro" (rincondelsocorro.com.ar) is a former cattle ranch and has been restored into a luxurious lodge with carefully furnished rooms. Four nights in a double room including breakfast from 1000 Euro per person.
The "Estancia Iberá" (estanciaibera.com) not far from the small town of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini offers inexpensive rooms and excursions for tourists. Double room including breakfast for two persons from 90 Euro.
Operator: The safari operator AndBeyond has the Esteros del Iberá in its program and offers expeditions to the reintroduction project in Iberá and other conservation projects in Chile. Tourists can accompany researchers, observe jaguars and pumas and stay overnight in exclusive accommodations. 14 days in a double room including full board, activities and donation for Rewilding Argentina, but without flights from 15.000 Euro per person (andbeyond.com). Also Gateway Latin America offers trips to Iberá. 3-night package in double room including full board and excursions from 957 euros per person (gateway-latinamerica.en).
Information: rewildingargentina.org; argentina.travel
The participation in this trip was supported by AndBeyond. Our standards of transparency and journalistic independence can be found at axelspringer.com/en/values/downloads.
A video from 2021 shows that capybaras are not welcome everywhere:
Capybaras besiege luxury settlement – "First it was great, then it was complicated"
Hundreds of capybaras cavort in the exclusive residential district of Nordelta in Argentina. Local residents consider them a nuisance, as they destroy gardens and even attack dogs. But the settlement is located in a swamp area and is therefore the habitat of animals.