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How Argentina and Chile’s Rewilded Areas Are Ushering in a New Era of Eco-Travel

Behind the scenes of a cutting-edge conservation project to protect jaguars and pumas within the shared landscapes of the two nations.

The print was easy to miss—a pad with four pistachio-shaped toes blotted into the soft brown earth, but there was no doubt: jaguar. We’d been riding all morning through the tall grass of San Alonzo Island on horses saddled with fat blankets, following two young researchers holding a telemeter—like an old TV antenna—searching for the ping of a GPS collar. The yaguareté, South America’s largest cat, used to roam the Iberá wetlands here in Argentina’s Corrientes province, a blanket of marsh and lagoon over 3 million acres large. But the last one had been shot out more than 70 years ago by locals to spare their livestock and supply the fur trade. Without the country’s apex predator, not to mention the impact of nearby cattle ranches and climate change—only days before, a wildfire had ripped through more than half of the park during a two-year drought—the ecosystem was suffering.

But we were here to witness a turnaround—the hopeful green shoots, which were literally pushing up through the singed grasslands—on an “Impact Journey” hosted by Les Carlisle, the legendary former head of conservation for andBeyond, one of several they run to bring guests to encounter the cutting edge of conservation. This particular trip will run this October and is bookable now. Thirty years ago, Les helped the South African safari company pioneer the practice of rewilding and animal translocation, moving 21 white rhinoceros from Zululand to South Africa and turning a patchwork of private ranches into Phinda Reserve, now home to the Big Five. Years later, this model would catch the attention of American conservationists Doug and Kris Tompkins—CEOs of The North Face and Patagonia respectively—who’d been buying up huge swaths of land in Chile and Argentina to donate to the governments to become national parks, sustained by ecotourism.

But they wanted to fully recover the ecosystems, not just save empty landscapes—which meant bringing back locally extinct species and managing the biodiversity of the rest. Eight species have been released in Iberá, including the giant anteater, pampas deer, red-and-green macaw, tapir, and, most controversially, the jaguar. Five years ago, Les helped the foundation present their plan to reintroduce the cat to wary Argentine officials, and in January 2021, a female donated by a zoo and her two cubs stepped into the wild. Now the region has become ground zero for an experiment that could recalibrate ecosystems across the continent, with more than 14 million acres protected with the help of Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile, the NGOs that spun off in 2019 from Tompkins Conservation after Doug’s death. “They are writing the textbook on rewilding in South America. It’s exciting,” says Les—who, though retired, will continue to host the journeys he designed.

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A caiman (small alligator) at Rincon del Socorro in the Ibera wetlands – Rincon Del Socorro

 

Les’s optimism buoys the 14-day trip, which begins at Rincón del Socorro Lodge in Iberá after a short flight from Posadas, the jumping-off point to northeastern Argentina from Buenos Aires. The charming, six-room, three-villa former cattle estancia was the Tompkins’ home and operational base, and the manicured grounds are now a haven for roving groups of ostrich-like rhea, capybara (giant guinea pigs) and collared peccary, a kind of wild boar that Les says only five years ago he spent hours tracking using telemetry, “and now they’re outside the front door.”

Rewilding Argentina’s predator reintroduction plan, which aims to keep prolific prey populations in check, extends to other natural hunters. On a neighboring property, we visit a fenced enclosure where a languid male ocelot—likewise spotted yet smaller than a jaguar—who spent nine years in a local wild animal exhibit, awaits the arrival of a mate while honing his kill instinct on young capybaras dropped into his cell. On San Alonzo Island—a puddle-jump away by plane over the Okavango-like marshes—two families of giant otters screech and gnash their teeth when they choke down a slop bucket of fish, and will soon be released into the lagoon, where invasive species have thrown off the aquatic order.

But the jaguar, once Corrientes’ greatest foe, is now king. The team of young scientists who led us on horseback live are joined today by Sofía Heinonen, Rewilding Argentina’s executive director, and together they inspect the perimeter of the jaguar enclosures, where we find the paw print—belonging to one of the eight that have been released, lured back by scent. One female, Mbarete, is waiting to be sent north to El Impenetrable, another Rewilding Argentina park, to mate; the goal is for the population to become self-sustaining. After initial opposition, local communities—many of them indigenous Gurarani—have embraced the jaguars with pride, the cat being a cultural symbol of strength.

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A guest area at Rincon del Socorro lodge in the Ibera Wetlands – Rincon Del Socorro

This turnaround is fueled by the foundation’s success in creating an economy based on conservation and generating ecotourism jobs—“we call it ‘nature production,’” Sofía says, inspired in part by andBeyond’s model of “Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife, Care of the People.” In the town of Carlos Pellegrini, locals who once hunted now work as park rangers, or staff Parque Iberá’s shiny new Interpretation Center, or guide boat tours of the lake, where caimans (small alligators) snooze on logs, kingfishers dive-bomb for dinner, and capybara families rustle along the shore—a peaceful menagerie that unthinkable just a few years ago.

“Care of the People” is the cornerstone of the company’s efforts across the continent at Vira Vira, their polished, wood-and-glass lodge in Chile’s Lake District, which we pull into after a long travel day. Amidst a tableau of snow-capped volcanoes, clear lakes, and towns of chalet-style buildings—fuzz your eyes and it could be Switzerland—wildlife is scarce. But these landscapes remain vital to the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, who tend to live in isolated communities. In the village of Quelhue, a Vira Vira guest sponsored a rainwater collection system for the family of local elder Doña Rosario, who welcomes guests into her home, one of the region’s last thatched rukas. Her son Fernando shows off his rows of spinach and potatoes. “We take only what we need from the earth,” he says. “The Mapuche have always had a respect for nature.”

Days here are built around the spectacular natural setting. We spend a morning hiking the trails of Villarica National Park beneath the eponymous 9,500-foot volcano, and around serene glacial lakes, bamboo forests, and “monkey puzzle trees”—ancient arucaria—where the silence is punctured only by the pok-pok of a Magellanic woodpecker. Later, we buzz the top of Villarica’s crater in a helicopter, peering down into the belching chasm. Vira Vira is a woodsy haven with riverfront rooms in which a cozy fire is kindled after dinners of local salmon or venison and Chilean Malbecs—a perfect spot to recharge before tackling the next long-distance journey.

As far-flung as it is, Chilean Patagonia has seen a surge in tourism, thanks to its imposing mountains, massive ice fields and rolling pampas, and the cryptic cat that prowls them, the puma. The trip continues south to Torres del Paine National Park, a five-hour drive from Punta Arenas through scrubby steppe patrolled by the region’s lama-like guanacos and Andean condors. One of Chile’s most exciting wildlife projects is afoot at Estancia Cerro Guido, a cattle ranch/sheep farm in a valley under the snow-capped massif, whose owners—with input from Rewilding Chile and andBeyond—are building a managed ecosystem in which their livestock can safely coexist alongside thriving wildlife.

Next door in the national park, overcrowding and lax management have reportedly led to irresponsible tourism practices, like luring pumas with food. Cerro Guido, a private, quarter-million-acre parcel, is taking conservation into its own hands by establishing a puma research project led by Pia Vergara and a livestock-guarding sheepdog program. Guests are given access to behind-the-scenes conservation activities—setting out with Pia at dawn to collect camera-trap footage, visiting the puma command center, and stalking the tawny cats’ movements through a ridge where a river draws guanacos to drink, leaving them as easy prey. A trained photographer, Pia has a knack for positioning her guests for the perfect shot.

These hands-on days in the field are complemented by estancia life, with visits to the stable, sheep shearing barn, orchard, and chicken coop. But the most indelible sight may be sitting in the thoughtfully restored 1920s lodge watching the weather shift across the Torres del Paine, with heavy rains drenching one ridge while sun drips down another. Each morning, the horses canter past the dining room, hustled by gauchos and the Maremma sheepdogs specifically trained to ward off predators and reduce both livestock kills and human retaliation.

For Les, the sight is a meaningful step towards a flourishing biodiversity this continent hasn’t seen in centuries. “All of these rewilding models are trees that are going to create a forest of conservation across South America,” he says. “It is such a privilege to be part of it, to see this germination right before our eyes.”

The 14-day Impact Journey into South America traces how andBeyond exported its 30-year model of conservation-led responsible travel from Africa to South America. Limited to 12 people and hosted by conservation legend Les Carlisle, the next trip is on October 16-29. Starting at $15,880 per person, with a $1,250 per person donation to Rewilding Argentina.

Fuente: Prensa Austral

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