Photo: Conservation Land Trust Argentina

The three-week-old cubs are the first major victory in an effort to restore the top predator in Northeastern Argentina.

Three weeks ago, Argentina’s Iberá Nature Reserve celebrated a very special birthday: the debut of two tiny jaguar cubs more than seven years in the making. The squirming, speckled creatures are the first major victory for the Jaguar Reintroduction Project, a breeding initiative that aims to restore the top predator to these South American wetlands, where the wild felines once prowled before decades of hunting and habitat destruction turned their homes into ranches and rendered them locally extinct.

If these petite cats can survive in the wild, they could be the beginning of a new generation of jaguars to inhabit Iberá.

Founded by Doug and Kris Tompkins, the entrepreneurs behind the North Face, Esprit and Patagonia, the Conservation Land Trust focuses on developing and expanding national parks in South America. In 1997, CLT began buying land around the Iberá Nature Reserve, a remote landscape of freshwater wetlands in Northeastern Argentina. Eventually the organization purchased about 400,000 acres of current and former ranch land, removing livestock, ripping out fences and returning the environment to its natural state.

“The original project was about creating a national park,” says Ignacio Jimenez, conservation director for CLT Argentina. Already the organization has transferred about a third of its real estate to the national government, which is expected to pass a law establishing the park this summer. “The main goal is to create the largest park in Argentina, and that it will have all of its species,” Jimenez says.

CLT is working on what’s known as “rewilding” Iberá, stripping away the human imprint on the land and reintroducing long-vanished species like giant anteaters, pampas deer, javelina, tapir and green-winged macaws.

“We’ve seen giant anteaters go from zero to 200,” says Jimenez. That means the population is sustainable without human intervention—and, as tends to happen when people start messing with the ecosystem, that the reintroduced species are at risk of becoming overabundant.

“The system needs very badly a predator that can restore balance,” Jimenez says. “The jaguar being the top predator is the boss. It’s the one that kind of guarantees balance in the system.”

But jaguars aren’t anteaters. It’s tough to obtain wild animals to relocate, and while CLT currently has five captive jaguars, releasing them into Iberá’s wilds isn’t an option.

“You can release a captive tapir or macaw, but you can’t release a captive jaguar,” Jimenez explains. “You’re either putting the animal in danger or people in danger.”

Which makes the question: “How do you get wild jaguars out of captive jaguars?”

Tania lived at a zoo before being relocated to Iberá. Now she's the proud mama of the park's first cubs. Conservation Land Trust Argentina

CLT’s answer is a breeding program that mates captive jaguars, then has the female give birth in a spacious enclosure built into the reserve’s wilderness. Cameras monitor the mother and cubs 24 hours a day, but the spotted babes never come into contact with humans.

The strategy is a mix of techniques that CLT has observed in South Africa, India and Spain, but it is a novel approach. “This is kind of state of the art,” Jimenez says. “It hasn’t been done this way with large cats.”

But so far it seems to be working. On June 6, Tania, a three-legged former zoo inhabitant, gave birth to a pair of cubs, and the CLT crew has been watching via video cameras as she nurtures her tiny offspring. There’s potential prey inside the four-acre enclosure, and if she fails to hunt for her babies, the staff has ways to offer food without being seen. When the cubs are about a year old, CLT can open a gate and transition them into an 80-acre pen, where they’ll hone their ability to hunt on their own. If everything goes well, eventually another gate will open, and the two juvenile jaguars will be in the center of a wild habitat surrounded by thousands of acres of protected land. Wild animals born from captive ones.

The jaguar breeding center inside Iberá Nature Reserve. Conservation Land Trust Argentina

Two jaguars are not a sustainable population. Iberá’s cubs could both be the same gender, and even if they’re not, mating siblings isn’t ideal. These tiny creatures are a victory of one process, but they’re also the beginning of a new one, one that will take years to come to fruition.

“We have this mix of excitement and prudence. We know things can go wrong. We have to convey that sense of being cautious,” says Jimenez. “In biological terms, it’s minimal. Two jaguars doesn’t change anything. But the fact that two jaguars are living in Iberá is something to be proud of.”

That pride is key to the success of Iberá. The park needs the buy-in of the local community to support the introduction of large cats as well as the influx of tourism that an Iberá National Park with jaguars would bring. The indigenous culture of the region already includes the animals as an important part of its heritage; even the word “jaguar” comes from the Guarani language.

Like the breeding program, getting people used to living with and protecting the cats is a slow process and just one piece of a larger puzzle that is less about one specific species and more about conserving the local environment and benefiting the local community.

“It isn’t just about rewilding the ecosystem,” Jimenez says. “It’s about rewilding people’s minds.”