BUENOS AIRES – Separated by a meters-high fence, adult jaguars Qaramta and Tania enthusiastically greet one another. Although they have only interacted a few times thus far, there seems to be some real chemistry between them.
He repeatedly rubs his body up against the fence, seeking out Tania’s physical warmth; she rolls around on the ground submissively, eager for the day when the barrier that separates them disappears.
That moment seems closer than ever now that the Rewilding Argentina foundation recently finished building a giant breeding enclosure for the jaguars, an initiative seen as essential for rescuing a species that is practically extinct in Argentina’s northern province of Chaco, part of the arid, subtropical Gran Chaco region that is divided among eastern Bolivia, western Paraguay and northern Argentina.
“What we did was develop a project and ask permission for bringing a young and fertile female from captivity. We’ve now finished building some enclosures that are quite big and complex, which we hope will allow us to mate a wild animal (Qaramta) with the captive female (Tania),” biologist Sebastian di Martino, Rewilding Argentina’s conservation director, told EFE.
Qaramta and Tania offer a glimmer of hope for a species whose numbers have declined drastically over the past century and a half.
Until around 1870, that large predator had been widely distributed throughout Argentina, occupying a vast section of the country’s north-central region and even inhabiting the northernmost part of the far-southern region of Patagonia.
But human beings’ arrival in these territories with their guns, dogs, horses and cattle led to that big cat being hunted and virtually eradicated.
“This animal saw its population shrink from the north to the south, with more than 95 percent of its distribution area in Argentina being lost. Today, around 200 to 250 specimens remain, a very small number. It’s a species that’s classified as critically endangered in Argentina,” Di Martino said.
Of those 250 jaguars, around 120 currently live in the mountain forests of the northwestern Argentine provinces of Salta and Jujuy and 80 inhabit the lush forests of the northeastern province of Misiones.
These big cats are virtually extinct in the northern province of Chaco. Or so the experts thought.
A year ago, a ranger at El Impenetrable National Park came across some suspicious footprints that suggested that an adult male jaguar had been in the area, an unprecedented milestone in the park’s history.
A team from Rewilding Argentina then mobilized to capture the animal and fitted him with a satellite collar to track his movements on a daily and even hourly basis.
The data they collected gave them valuable information about this feline, who was given the name Qaramta (“the indestructible” in the locally spoken Toba Qom indigenous language).
Among other things, the experts learned that the five-year-old, 110-kilogram (242-pound) jaguar had been covering a much bigger expanse of territory than what would be expected of a typical wild jaguar, likely because he was searching for a female mating partner.
The current goal of Rewilding Argentina is to facilitate a reproductive encounter between Qaramta and Tania. Both have spent months looking at one another through a fence and showing “the typical interaction of two jaguars that want to copulate,” Di Martino said.
“She shows all of the submissive behavior that females show, rubbing, purring, lying on her back … And he has the behavior of a male that wants to copulate. He’s also rubbing quite a lot; he’s not aggressive,” the conservation director said.
A vast enclosure measuring 13,200 square meters (three acres) needed to be built to make their future mating opportunities possible, a project that cost 6.5 million pesos ($81,500) and was completed a few days ago.
The process, however, is complicated and slow.
Qaramta first must enter the large enclosure of his own accord, calmly exploring and getting accustomed to the new space, even as Tania waits for him in a smaller pen.
Only once the experts can verify that Qaramta is sufficiently calm will they open the door and allow Tania, who will already be in heat at that moment, to enter the larger enclosure.
Even then, the two will not mate on their first attempt, according to Di Martino, who said the ritual is one that requires a great deal of patience and that the hope is that Tania will become pregnant within six months.
“When she is no longer in heat, we have to separate them because he needs to remain free and she has to remain in her usual enclosure,” the biologist said. “She returns to life in captivity and he can continue to be free until she is in heat once again” in about 30 or 35 days.
He noted that Tania cannot be released into the wild because, due to her comfort level around people, she would be uninhibited about approaching human beings in search of food.
After an approximately three-month gestation period, the litter of between two and four cubs will need to be cared for by their mother for at least a year, the biologist said, adding that for them to be freed into the wild they must be at least two years old.
“These are very long-term projects,” said Di Martino, whose eventual goal is to repopulate the Chaco with the descendants of Qaramta and Tania.
Even so, he said that the jaguars’ reproductive success is essential but insufficient on its own.
According to Di Martino, work also is needed to transform the local cultures of the Chaco region so they stop viewing the jaguar as a threat and instead see that species as an indispensable pillar for the construction of a “regenerative economy.”