Diego Araujo’s face lights up with excitement as he recalls the first time he saw a jaguar in the wild.
“It was mind blowing,” says Araujo, 42, with a wide smile on his face, “the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced.”
Araujo, a park ranger for 18 years and now head of the Urugua-í Provincial Park in Argentina, was patrolling with fellow rangers when he crossed paths with the jaguar. Araujo split from the group to examine the area for evidence of poaching or poachers. Little did he realize he would find an elusive feline instead.
Relaxing quietly on her paws, the jaguar sat still, but as Araujo approached, she quickly scurried off into the forest. A camera trap in the same location later showed a jaguar walking with two cubs, indicating that the jaguar Araujo had encountered was pregnant. He recalls the experience as if it happened just yesterday.
Jaguars are an intrinsic part of the life and culture of Misiones, a province in northeast Argentina tucked between Brazil and Paraguay. Once roaming freely across the Americas, jaguars are now classified as “near threatened ” globally and as “critically endangered” in Misiones. If current threats such as deforestation and poaching continue, jaguars – the largest cat of the Americas – could become extinct.
“Hunting and poaching are culturally rooted in the communities here. It is an especially difficult situation here in Misiones because we are right on the border, and Brazilians and Paraguayans might come for the joy of hunting or to find exotic species that they can sell,” says Jose Maria Chavez, Technical Coordinator of the Jaguar Conservation project at Fundación Vida Silvestre, a WWF partner organization in Argentina since 1988.
Fundación Vida Silvestre and WWF have been working in the region for over 15 years to conserve jaguars and their habitat, while raising awareness amongst the community of the importance of protecting wildlife.
“It is absolutely critical to support rangers, enforce anti-poaching and anti-hunting laws, and provide education to the public to prevent the extinction of the diversity in this region,” Chavez says.
Misiones is part of the Atlantic Forest ecoregion, which spans from the coast of Brazil inland to the west, encompassing eastern Paraguay and northeast Argentina. Jaguars are found in only 4 per cent of the Atlantic Forest region. Much of the region’s forests are fragmented, allowing little room for jaguars to roam. Only two of these regions currently hold populations of more than 50 individuals. One of them is Upper Parana, which includes the Misiones province, making it one of the frontlines for jaguar conservation efforts.
Mario Ebenau hails from a family of farmers. Born in the province of Misiones, Ebenau spent hours and hours as a child playing games with his siblings and friends in the forest. It was this childhood connection to nature that led Ebenau to dedicate his life to protecting it, as a park ranger.
“The forest is a valuable resource that deserves to be protected,” says Ebenau, 29, a ranger since 2012. “It’s important to do this for future generations and for humankind.”
Ebenau is a ranger at the 3,243 hectare Urugua-í Wildlife Reserve, which is managed and maintained by Fundacion Vida Silvestre. The reserve is connected to the 84,000 hectare Urugua-í provincial park that is managed by the local government. In a landscape that has lost much of its forest, the Urugua-í park serves as an important wildlife corridor, providing habitat for animals to live and to roam in alongside smaller protected areas. The jaguar is just one of the unique species found in this area. It also boasts an extraordinary diversity of other species such as tapirs, ocelots, toucan and the black-fronted piping guan, an endangered bird species.
Ebenau spends most of his day maintaining the park’s tree nursery, where Fundacion Vida Silvestre – in 2016 alone – produced 16,000 seedlings to be used in reforestation projects. Once a month, Ebenau joins rangers from the provincial park on patrols to look for signs of poachers or poaching activities, illegal logging, fire or intrusion into the protected forest. It can be a dangerous task, given that poachers are often heavily armed.
Just in January 2017, poachers set fire to a rangers’ detachment at the adjacent Foerster Provincial Park. In another case, poachers in Araucarias National Park shot and paralyzed two people they thought were park rangers.
Poachers are just one concern. Some communities, including those that rangers belong to, see wildlife conservation as a threat to their hunting activities.
“I don’t feel threatened because I know hunters well and I know how they think because I grew up in [the nearby town of] Andresito,” Ebenau says. “But I know of several cases of rangers being shot down by them.”
Ebenau feels there’s little support from the government.
“The government is not paying attention to nature conservation,” he says. “The big corporations are affecting the environment and government are letting them do it. It’s striking how the quality of nature has declined in the last few years.”
Home to Urugua-í and the Iguazu National Park, which boasts one of the world’s biggest waterfalls, the Atlantic Forest contains many unique species and a rich diversity of nature.
The good news is that jaguars in Upper Parana, which includes Misiones, are on the rise – new research estimates there are 71-107 jaguars living in the Upper Parana region, up from a population of 51-84 in 2014. The Atlantic Forest ecoregion collectively is estimated to be home to slightly more than 200 individuals.
“The rise in the jaguar population is undoubtedly the result of hard work and cooperation between social organizations, public institutions and NGOs,” says Manuel Jaramillo, Managing Director of Fundacion Vida Silvestre. “It reinforces the importance of our conservation work and the on-the-ground efforts required to prevent jaguar species from extinction.”
With WWF’s support, Fundacion Vida Silvestre has worked closely with local and regional authorities, educators and local community groups to raise public awareness about the importance of environmental and wildlife conservation. Since 2002, Fundacion Vida Silvestre has trained 24 protected area park managers in planning and monitoring and 80 park rangers in four protected areas. In Misiones, the organization – the only conservation non-governmental organization in the province – has also provided resources for patrolling and monitoring the protected areas.
Fundacion Vida Silvestre and partners are developing new technology that will help engage citizens in anti-poaching and anti-illegal logging efforts, and with the government, new systems are being developed to reduce jaguar attacks on cattle.
For rangers like Ebenau, involving people from his community is key to safeguarding nature. As for himself, there’s no other profession he would rather have.
“It’s an absolute privilege to live in the forest amid this diversity and get a chance to see animals face to face and enjoy the sounds of nature.”