The Iberá Wetlands, Transferred to the State: Tompkins’ Big Bet Starts Its Way to Become a National Park

By Patricio Eleisegui


uring this month, Conservation Land Trust will donate to public administration the first 150,000 hectares recovered. Meanwhile, they deepen their work in the recovery of the jaguar, tapir and red-and-green macaw. Leo Di Caprio, one of its financiers.

The Project is huge from all perspectives, and together with the most recent initiative of El Impenetrable, it represents one of the biggest bets of the American businessman and environmentalist Douglas Tomkins, who passed away in Chile in early December last year.

Iberá’s evolution is such that, as indicated from CLT to Argentina Salvaje, over the course of this month about 150,000 hectares will be transferred to the Argentine state, which already acquired the natural physiognomy of Corrientes prior to the agricultural boom in the area.

Set deep inside the Iberá natural reserve, in Corrientes territory, the namesake park covers over 500,000 hectares of swamps and aquatic vegetation that by action of the Conservation Land Trust (CLT) foundation—formerly led by the said magnate and now under the leadership of his wife, Kristine McDivitt—have been the subject of an effort to recover flora and fauna that is unprecedented for the region.


The work plan in that region of Argentina includes from restoring landscapes to recovering extinct species and promoting proposals designed to develop the local economy. Of course, all tied to a masterplan launched by Tompkins himself in 2005.

Iberá’s evolution is such that, as indicated from CLT to Argentina Salvaje, over the course of this month about 150,000 hectares will be transferred to the Argentine state, which already acquired the natural physiognomy of Corrientes prior to the agricultural boom in the area.


The said lands will automatically be controlled by the National Parks Administration of Argentina, while the rest of the area will remain in recovery stage for a final transfer in at least one decade.


The park comprises public lands and private factory farms that were acquired by Douglas Tompkins starting in 1997. From that point, CLT promptly took on the task of removing wire fences on the wetlands to then draw up strategies for revitalizing ecosystems.

These lands, as the foundation clarifies, “were ‘discovered’ by a new vision of local development: wildlife production as a marketable resource through tourism.”


“This territory, which has been revalued based on the proposed ecotourism use, must be organized and prepared to bear the best fruit over the years, maintaining its quality and sustainability. For this reason, to produce nature and wildlife, it will also be necessary to apply good production practices,” CLT suggest for the future.


Among the main initiatives carried out within the park, we must highlight the work on the recovery of wildlife. To do this, the foundation has been implementing campaigns to protect species like the Andean deer, in addition to carrying out the reintroduction of varieties of anteaters, collared peccaries, Pampas deer, tapirs, and the mythical jaguar.

Achieving results in each case, CLT is now working on returning the red-and-green macaw to its habitat in Corrientes. As a first move in this direction, the organization has released in October 2015 the first group of seven of these birds, but with a truncated result: macaws, born entirely in captivity, failed to adapt to the ecosystem and in most cases they ended up dead or missing.


Far from being discouraged, the foundation doubled the bet and now works with specimens that are actively trained so that, once freed, they can feed themselves and recognize potential predators.


Marian Labourt, head of CLT Press & Communications, referred to all these initiatives in an interview with Argentina Salvaje where, among other things, she highlighted the Iberá project as one of the dreams which Tompkins has put more effort.

Dairy of a Passion

“Douglas was a passionate person who was captivated by the beauty of the wetlands and quickly assumed the responsibility to regain its natural wealth. He went from buying lands in the area in 1997 to directly drive for the concretion of the recovery park in just over 7 years,” she said.


“He devoted himself with great emphasis to get more funds, beyond what he set aside of his wealth to start buying fields, which were private and had some type of agricultural production. Among other contributors, one noteworthy case is Leonardo Di Caprio, whose foundation donated US $600,000 for the project to reintroduce the jaguar,” she assured.


Labourt linked the work in Iberá with proposals like “Corrientes vuelve a ser Corrientes” (“Corrientes is again Corrientes”), a CLT campaign that while striving for habitat restoration, is also committed to strengthening the bond of the towns in the area with historic and natural features of the wetlands.

“Beyond specific actions, our idea is that Corrientes regains its natural fauna and culture. All of that has gradually been lost mainly at the hand of commercial activities related to the exploitation of land. Our fields are now freely accessible and we work closely with populations ranging from a group of houses to the 40,000 residents so that, through ecotourism, they can improve their job prospects while preserving the place they inhabit,” she emphasized.


As for the concrete results of working with the species in Iberá, one of the achievements highlighted by the CLT representative is the reintroduction of the anteater. According to the foundation, the first specimens were freed in 2007.


“Since then we have continued releasing animals in the area up to around 50 to 60 specimens, plus we have recorded the birth of at least 33 pups in the wild. In October 2013 the first four animals were released in another area of Iberá: Estancia San Alonso,” explained Labourt.


Then she added, “We continued to release specimens in San Alonso reaching a total of 26 animals, including six pups born in the wild. Thus, we estimate that between 75 and 85 anteaters currently live in Iberá distributed in two populations.”


According to Labourt, retreat of anteaters from that area of Corrientes is mainly due to the loss of the ecosystem and hunting. “Men ended up eliminating the anteater by the same progress they brought to the wetlands. Luckily, with much effort, that began to revert. Having more than 80 anteaters in the area is something that gives us great pride,” she told Argentina Salvaje.

Jaguar and Future
As regards the jaguar, CLT started an experimental breeding project that was approved by provincial and national authorities. This project involved the establishment of the Centro Experimental de Cría de Yaguaretés (CECY)—Experimental Center of Jaguar Breeding—also at Estancia San Alonso, always within Iberá.


In principle, CECY’s objective is to promote jaguar breeding techniques that allow generating animals fit to live without the help of man, as recognized by the foundation.


“In May 2015 ‘Tobuna’ arrived to the CECY, the first female jaguar, donated by the zoo in Batán (locality of Buenos Aires). This female is in good health and is beginning to learn to hunt alone. In early 2016 ‘Nahuel’ arrived, a male donated by the Buenos Aires and Bubalcó zoos,” the organization claimed. In CLT they are waiting for the first cubs of this pair.


The interviewee stressed the emphasis placed by the organization to achieve in the short term a large litter of wild felines. “The idea is that the offspring of this pair develop in a kind of corral up to 30 hectares but without any contact with man; of course, always ensuring that they don’t escape, or bearing in mind the safety issue. For this reason, we are implementing monitoring cameras,” she specified.

A point in favor with respect to each of the reintroduction programs is how difficult it is to access areas where, for example, CLT keeps the pair of jaguars. “It is only accessible by boat or plane. We work with the highest standard of protection to animals,” said Labourt. About 30 biologists, veterinarians and scientists participate in all cases in which they work with the species.


Another recent initiative in terms of wildlife recovery included the release of the first of a series of tapir pairs brought from the province of Salta. Thus, from the first week of September, these mammals roam the marshes after going through a quarantine period of nearly three months. It is a species whose last specimen in Corrientes territory was killed in the early 70s.


Looking forward, the foundation created by Douglas Tompkins—as mentioned before—plans to transfer the first 150,000 hectares recovered from the Iberá project to national parks in order to ensure survival of the habitat for the future.


“As it is composed solely of public lands and those from a conservation foundation, its creation—referring to the new park that will appear already under control of the Argentine state—will not affect tenure and property of neighboring private fields. Beyond the declared willingness of CLT to donate the lands for this purpose, the final decision will depend on the authorities of Corrientes and Argentina,” explains the foundation—among the arguments that justify their actions in that area of the country.

Labourt is optimistic about the fate of those lands in Corrientes. “We should consider that 14 percent of the provincial territory corresponds to Iberá. We are proud to be carrying out this transfer to national parks because, although much remains to be done, it feels like an accomplishment. Of course, the foundation does not stand still; apart from Iberá, they are already working in El Impenetrable and also in Patagonia,” she said.


“While there are years of work ahead, it is important that the National Parks Administration starts taking over lands part by part. Since we started working, we recover lots of wildlife both naturally and by introduction. If the Argentine state further deepens both the protection of the area and ecotourism in their populations, we will have successfully achieved one of the goals of the foundation,” she concluded.


“Si bien nos quedan años de trabajo por delante, es importante que parques nacionales vaya asumiendo el control de a pedacitos. Desde que empezamos a trabajar recuperamos mucha fauna tanto de manera natural como por introducción. Si se profundiza desde el Estado tanto el cuidado de la zona como el ecoturismo en sus poblaciones, habremos alcanzado con éxito una de las metas de la fundación”, concluyó.

More information: CLT Argentina

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Photos: courtesy of Conservation Land Trust Argentina


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