Group aims to reintroduce Jaguars — once nearly hunted to extinction — to Argentina

The Jaguar, the biggest cat in the Americas, was hunted and poached to extinction in parts of Argentina about 70 years ago. They are in critical danger of vanishing completely. Only a few hundred are left in the country. Rewilding Argentina, a conservation nonprofit, has embarked on an audacious plan to reintroduce the species to its long lost home. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As world leaders prepare to meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for the upcoming international climate meeting titled COP 26, another related crisis has focused the attention of researchers the world over.

    It is the rapid extinction of species all over the globe, possibly as many as one million. In Argentina, efforts are under way to return some key animal species to their natural habitats.

    Science correspondent Miles O'Brien takes us to a place where, for the first time in seven decades, jaguars are able to once again roam free.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Feeding time for some rare cats in a place of rare beauty, Argentina's Ibera National Park.

    Biologist Pablo Guerra is focused on one small task aimed at solving a global crisis

  • Pablo Guerra Aldazabal, Rewilding Argentina:

    It's just like a very little piece of work of what we really have to do to try to stop the massive extinction of the species.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The species in question is the biggest cat in the Americas, the jaguar. These beautiful animals were hunted and poached to extinction in this part of Argentina about 70 years ago.

    They are in critical danger of vanishing completely. Only a few hundred are left elsewhere in the country. Pablo Guerra is part of a team from Rewilding Argentina, a conservation nonprofit embarked on an audacious campaign to reintroduce the jaguars to their long-lost home, a spectacular mash-up of the Everglades and the Serengeti that spans 1.7 million acres.

    He hides tasty morsels as if they were Easter eggs.

  • Pablo Guerra Aldazabal:

    It helps them to also to not to get so bored and to try to let their instinct maybe go out to express it. It's amazing. I love it. For me, it's a dream come true.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Not just for him.

    The dream began in the mind of the late Doug Tompkins, founder of clothing companies North Face and Esprit, and an avid lover of the South American wilderness.

  • Doug Tompkins, Tompkins Conservation:

    I started to see that the things that we're doing were incongruent with my thinking.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He recorded this interview in 2011, four years before his untimely death in a kayaking accident.

  • Doug Tompkins:

    If you start going up against your own values, you start to get — you put yourself in an emotional and intellectual corner. This is what happened to me.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It also happened to his wife, Kris Tompkins, another retail mogul. She was the CEO of Patagonia. Their ecological philanthropy began in 1991, when they started purchasing swathes of land in Southern Chile, creating the million-acre Douglas Tompkins National Park.

  • Kris Tompkins, Tompkins Conservation:

    We just got this thing rolling that ended up being 14 national parks and almost 15 million acres. We realized that just saving the land was actually just a strategy towards something else that we were really after, which was, how do you create fully functioning ecosystems?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In Ibera, that meant a return of the jaguars. They acquired captive animals and brought them here to San Alonso Island in the middle of the park.

    We flew there with biologist Sebastian di Martino, conservation director of Rewilding Argentina. He and his team built a one of a kind jaguar breeding center, with Jurassic Park-style enclosures. The cubs learn to hunt by tapping into their instincts and from their mothers' examples.

    The team takes great pains to avoid getting anywhere near the cubs, for fear they might lose their natural desire to steer clear from humans once set free.

  • Sebastion Di Martino, Rewilding Argentina:

    We look from afar, so we never look at the cubs directly. They don't look at us. And we have several devices which we enter live prey inside the pen. And they don't relate us with food provision.

    So, that way, we produce a kind of jaguar that can be released.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The jaguars are the marquee species in the rewilding project, but there is a strong supporting cast as well.

    In fact, the team is focused on repairing several other broken links in the food chain. They have nurtured red-and-green macaws, bringing them back here for the first time in 150 years. They have also succeeded in returning pampas deer, and collared peccary to the ecosystem. They use radio and GPS signals to carefully track them.

  • Sebastion Di Martino:

    Even when we release them, we still watch them a lot to see if they are doing OK.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So, you're helicopter parents?

  • Sebastion Di Martino:

    Yes, something like that.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They are also dipping their toes into marine ecosystems. The top predator here was the giant river otter, also locally extinct for decades.

    They are teaching this pair, former residents of two European zoos, how to hunt for piranha.

  • Sebastion Di Martino:

    They are becoming very skillful on catching the fishes now.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But they are not ignoring the top predator of all, humans, who, for generations, made their livings here hunting these beautiful animals for their valuable pelts.

    So the team worked hard to make this place a nexus of ecotourism, a place where living animals have value. The town of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, on the edge of the park, now depends on a steady stream of tourists here to see the animals and enjoy gaucho culture and traditions.

    Lifelong resident Diana Frete is the vice-mayor.

    Diana Frete, Vice Mayor of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini (through translator): The new generation in town understands that conservation is the way. That's why it's so important for us to work protecting this environment. We know where we are headed.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Where the planet is headed is what ultimately energizes this mission.

    We are living in a midst of massive dying, an extinction crisis. Perhaps a million species disappear every year.

  • Sebastion Di Martino:

    I don't think that it inevitable. I mean, we have many tools. The thing is that we have to start applying those tools to avoid the extinction.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But will it all work?

    In January of 2021, they took a big step, cutting open a passageway to freedom for two of the cubs. They are now roaming free, their helicopter parents watching from afar. And they are proving themselves to be successful hunters, here feasting on a capybara, an overgrown guinea pig.

    In the midst of COVID, Kris Tompkins and Sebastian di Martino savored the moment remotely.

  • Kris Tompkins:

    It's so emotional. And it's — and it shows that it can be done. And this was always — it seems so obvious now, but it was such — it was such a big question.

  • Sebastion Di Martino:

    We are completely happy. You cannot describe how happy we are. And we are also kind of emotional.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Since then, they have released five more jaguars. The hope, there will be a hundred of them roaming free in Ibera before too long.

    They and the other species are the missing pieces in nature's exquisite puzzle. If all goes as planned, it might be an example of how humans can change their spots.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Corrientes, Argentina.

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