Big cat conservation often requires out-of-the-box thinking. Passion, dedication, drive and creativity are just some of the qualities required in an effective conservation project. Another crucial aspect is that of an exchange of knowledge. If we, as humans, are going to make inroads into protecting our rapidly depleting flora and fauna, then we need to work together. They call it the food chain because everything is linked. Everything is dependant upon everything else. Nothing works in isolation.
The Caiman Ecological Refuge is a 53 000 hectare cattle ranch situated on the southern edge of the Pantanal in South America. For the past 250 years cattle ranching has been the successful and viable land use option for the region. Some 30 years ago the visionary ranch owner, Roberto Klabin, implemented total protection of all indigenous birds and wildlife species on Caiman ranch. While doing so he continued to successfully operate a cattle ranch accepting the cost of any stock losses as a cost of doing business. The result of this forward thinking conservation strategy is that a vibrant jaguar and puma population now reside on the ranch in numbers. Furthermore, due to this total protection policy, an abundant population of prey species, such as peccary, capybaras and pampas deer thrive on the ranch creating prime conditions for these elusive predators to proliferate.
The owner believes that this protection strategy could have the effect of promoting similar approaches from neighbouring land owners, resulting in the creation of a “safe haven” for jaguars and other rare species over an area as much as 150 000 hectares. The Caiman blended cattle ranch and jaguar haven model is destined to become a leading conservation initiative in the region and a lighthouse project for restoration of the Pantanal as a safe haven for jaguars. As part of a plan to achieve this objective, the owners of Caiman ranch have entered into a partnership arrangement with the newly established Tracker Academy, based at Londolozi and Samara in South Africa, to assist in locating and habituating the Caiman jaguars.
Two South African trackers, graduates of the Tracker Academy, and trained on site at the prestigious Londolozi and Samara Game Reserves, have recently arrived at Caiman Ecological Refuge. For the next three months they will be a part of the Projeto Onçafari jaguar habituation team.
Andrea Mathebula and Richard Mtabine are the two young and exceptional graduates from the Tracker Academy, who have been selected to be pioneers in this remarkable knowledge exchange experiment. Leaving behind the leopards, lions, elephants and rhinos of the eastern lowveld of South Africa, they have now entered the swampy territory of the near-mythical jaguars of Brazil.
1. Track and find jaguars
Both Andrea and Richard fine-tuned a long-standing love affair for tracking by attending the comprehensive one-year tracking course run by the Tracker Academy. This remarkable school aims to keep the skill and art of tracking alive today. This school has a phenomenal track record in training up trackers in southern Africa. In Brazil, Andrea and Richard will be attempting to use their skills and knowledge to find jaguars. Having tried my luck, for a number of years, at the art of tracking, I can assure you that tracking jaguars in the Pantanal is pretty much the pinnacle of tracking. Here, at Caiman Ecological Refuge, we are attempting to habituate a wild population of jaguars to vehicles. To habituate them, however, we first need to find them. Is tracking a part of the solution?
2. Pass on skills to the locals
Conservation work, of all types, only succeeds if there is momentum and continuity. There are two members of the Projeto Onçafari team (Diogo and Nego) who will shadow Andrea and Richard as they track the jaguars. They will learn from them, learning how to read the soil and the language of the wild. Once Andrea and Richard bid farewell to the shores of South America it is Diogo and Nego who will keep up the impetus and continue to track the apex predator.
3. Take home stories and experiences
For both men this is the first time out of South Africa. It was the first time that Richard had ever stepped into an airplane! I accompanied them on the flight from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo and felt such raw happiness for these men. Their natural talent for tracking had been recognized to the point that they were travelling across the world to ply their trade. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Here, in the wetlands of the Pantanal, they will be exposed to an entire new spread of animals, birds and plants. Everything they see will be new. The cultural differences will be vastly different too and all of this will culminate in a truly splendid human tale.
I will be attempting to document the progress and stories of these two men. I will keep you up to date as they attempt to track down the elusive jaguar. Stay tuned for some magical cultural, human, animal and conservation moments.
The Tracker Academy is a visionary project which is soon to become global in supporting the restoration of land, the preservation of rare species and the advancement of tracking skills in an integrated programme, each to the mutual benefit of the other. The vision is for the Tracker Academy to send graduates to the Pyrenees mountains of Spain, the tiger parks of India and to many other restoration projects across the globe, where land is being set aside as safe havens for rare and endangered species.
The story represents a celebration of individual achievement, passion, dedication, cooperation and the advancement of wise planet stewardship.
We invite you to explore the various websites/blogs, and enter into the online communities, of each of the industry leaders involved in this groundbreaking experiment. Click on the logos below to visit each site:
Written and photographed by Adam Bannister