How to rewild a country: the story of Argentina

It began with a philanthropic couple buying a swamp but has become one of the world’s boldest experiments in restoring degraded habitats, bringing wildlife and landscapes back from the brink

Chapter one

The return of the jaguar

It took about three seconds for piranhas to devour part of her left foot, biologist Deborah Abregü recalls, as we sit waiting for pizzas to cook on an open fire in Argentina’s El Impenetrable national park. The 30-year-old scientist, who works on a jaguar reintroduction programme for the NGO Rewilding Argentina, was getting out of a kayak last year when the water was at its hottest and the fish were most aggressive. The piranhas swarmed, she said, showing me a photo of the resulting wounds from the rare attack.

“I used to feel bad catching piranhas to feed the jaguars. Not any more,” Abregü says, flicking through more images on her phone of the live caymans that she and the other biologists trap for jaguar cubs Nalá and Takajay to teach them how to fend for themselves in the wild.

A jaguar cub with its mouth open
As part of the reintroduction programme, jaguar cubs must be taught how to fend for themselves in the wild. Photograph: Matias Rebak/The Guardian
A spiky-leaved pink and white flower
The arid La Plata river basin is home to thousands of plant species. Photograph: Fundacion Rewilding Argentina
An aerial view of El Impenetrable national park, showing a river and oxbow lakes.
An aerial view of El Impenetrable national park Photograph: Fundacion Rewilding Argentina
  • Above: El Impenetrable national park, home to thousands of charismatic plants, flowers and animals, including jaguars. Below: Satellite images from Landsat and Planet Basemaps data from 1993 to 2022 show the rapid rate of development on the edges of the park


Covering an area one-and-a-half times the size of California, the dense dry forests of the Gran Chaco stretch from southern Bolivia to northern Argentina and western Paraguay. Its name – which means “hunting land” in Quechua – probably refers to the thousands of charismatic plants and animals found in the arid La Plata river basin: armadillos, maned wolves and the “drunken stick” tree, whose bulging spiky trunks and tiny leaves help it cling on to water in the driest months.

While South America’s second-largest forest receives a fraction of the attention dedicated to the Amazon, it is no less threatened. From 1985 to 2013, a fifth was lost to farmland and cattle ranching, according to Nasa data. The trend has intensified, making it one of the most at-risk ecosystems on the planet.

Under the stars, this rare intact fragment of dry forest, that hums and chirps in the darkness, feels even wilder than it does by day. A few kilometres from the campfire, Argentina’s largest known jaguar – Qaramta – is on patrol, one of fewer than 250 in the country despite featuring on Argentina’s banknotes. Qaramta’s territory became a protected area after the local rancher who owned that part of the forest was brutally murdered in 2011 by people trying to steal the deeds to the land.

Cub on boardwalk with trees in background
Qaramta has fathered two cubs and conservationists hope for more Photograph: Matias Rebak/The Guardian
Jaguar prowls - tongue hanging out.
Argentina’s jaguar population has fallen to below 250. Photograph: Matias Rebak/Fundacion Rewilding Argentina
  • Qaramta has fathered two cubs and conservationists hope for more. He regularly visits the cages of females in the care of Rewilding Argentina (below)

A night vision camera trap shot of large male jaguar Qaramta.
Qaramta is captured in a night vision camera trap shot Photograph: Fundacion Rewilding Argentina
  • Qaramta captured by a camera trap at night

Today, Qaramta is the great hope of conservationists trying to turn the tide on decades of decline for the jaguar in Argentina. In between hunting giant anteaters, tapirs, capybaras and peccaries, he visits the females in the care of Rewilding Argentina in El Impenetrable.


Camera traps regularly catch him flirting through the cages. Most mornings, the paw prints, torn-up vegetation and scent marks signal his visits. On occasions the conservationists let him in, and he has produced the desired results, fathering two cubs so far; more are expected. Through this bloodline, researchers hope to begin to undo decades of persecution and hunting, and with it, bring a wilder Argentina.

* * *

Chapter two

How it all began

Her three-decade commitment to rewilding Argentina was not intentional, Kris Tompkins tells me. The former CEO of outdoor clothing company Patagonia and her husband, Doug, the co-founder of North Face, were invited to visit the Iberá wetlands, the second largest in the world, in 1997. The country’s national park service hoped they would buy land. But when they arrived, Kris says, she was not interested. “It was incredibly hot and buggy. I told Doug: ‘Let’s get out of here. This is Nowheresville,’” she recalls. “Doug wasn’t saying much,” she adds.

Douglas Tompkins and his wife Kristine
Kris and Doug Tompkins at their house in Iberá, Corrientes province, Argentina, in 2009 Photograph: Daniel García/AFP/Getty Images
Anteater is fed from a bottle
An anteater is fed from a bottle Photograph: Matias Rebak/Fundacion Rewilding Argentina
  • Above left: Kris and Doug Tompkins at their home in the Iberá national park in 2009. Above right: an anteater is hand-fed – the species was hunted close to extinction. Below: A satellite image of the Iberá wetlands


They did leave. But a month or so later, Doug returned to buy 63,000 hectares (155,000 acres) of land in the middle of the swamp. The buying spree escalated, spurred by the collapse of the Argentinian peso in the 2001 economic crisis. By 2010, they owned 765,000 hectares of land in Argentina and Chile. They had also bought temperate rainforest in Chile and degraded puma habitat in the Andes. At their peak, they helped preserve an area the size of Latvia.

Not everyone was happy that an American couple were buying enormous tracts of land for conservation in the “Southern Cone”, as the southernmost areas of South America are known. The couple clashed with the presidents of Chile and Argentina, the Catholic church, the salmon industry and cattle ranchers, among others.

“Some people thought we were creating a new Jewish state, even though we were Anglican. Others said we were making a nuclear waste site for the United States, naval bases for Argentina to finish off Chile [or] taking out all of the cows and replacing them with American buffalo,” Kris remembers.

Their conservation model has, however, silenced many critics. Once land is restored, it is typically given to the government as a protected area on the condition the returning flora and fauna are conserved.

With governments considering proposals to protect 30% of the planet for nature, successful examples of landscape-scale restoration are vital but few in number. Along with Gorongosa national park in Mozambique and the Guanacaste conservation area in Costa Rica, the work of what would become Rewilding Argentina stands out as an example of what is possible when nature is given a chance to recover.

“Our achievements in Argentina, where environmental damage has been profound, should give hope that there’s still time for South America and the rest of the world,” says Sofia Heinonen, CEO of Rewilding Argentina.

In Iberá, Doug was quick to notice the absence of river otters, tapirs, peccaries, jaguars and giant anteaters that had largely been hunted to extinction. Most are now on the road to recovery. In Patagonia, the beleaguered puma populations have since begun to recover.

A sea lion colony and sea bird rookeries on Islas Blancas, near Camarones, on the Atlantic coast of Argentine Patagonia
A sea lion colony and seabird rookeries on Islas Blancas, on the Atlantic coast of Argentinian Patagonia Photograph: Beth Wald
A giant anteater at a Rewilding Argentina sanctuary
A giant anteater at a Rewilding Argentina sanctuary Photograph: Fundacion Rewilding Argentina
  • Top: A sea lion colony and seabird rookeries on Islas Blancas, Argentinian Patagonia. Above: A giant anteater at a Rewilding Argentina sanctuary

Doug Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in Chile in 2015. Amid the heartache, Kris was left with the responsibility for vast protected areas in Chile and Argentina. Following Doug’s death, Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile were launched as independent organisations and continue their work on restoration. Tompkins private land also continues to be turned into national parks in both countries, including five new protected areas covering 10m acres in Patagonia, Chile.

* * *

Chapter three

How the capybara lost its fear

There are enough examples of ecosystem dysfunction in Argentina for a dystopian update to Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories: how the macaw forgot how to fly; how the capybara lost its fear; how the giant river otter forgot how to fish. But the decline is being reversed in places.

The most obvious sign of natural imbalance in Iberá is the dozens of capybaras that sprawl over the road, basking in the sun and only ambling off only when a car approaches. Until recently, there was little for the world’s largest rodents to fear in this landscape. Jaguars were hunted out of existence here 70 years ago. Pumas are still rare.

A capybara family in water
Capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris) Photograph: edurivero/Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • Capybaras may need to change their behaviour with the return of the jaguar

Today, however, capybaras have reason to worry about what might be hiding in the long grass and marshland around them. So far, eight jaguars have been released into Iberá. The giant rodents are a favourite for the returning apex predators, and biologists are waiting to see whether sunbathing in the open remains a popular pastime.

Further north in Iberá, some species require more help. Red macaws became extinct in the region more than 100 years ago but through the work of Rewilding Argentina, a small population is making a comeback. Last year, a pair bred in the wild for the first time.

The path to reintroducing macaws is complicated. Before they are released, the birds must complete a four-stage training programme at a centre on the outskirts of Corrientes, a three-hour drive from the wetlands. Some macaws need to be taught to find food, others need to learn how to fly, socialise in groups and recognise predators. The process can take years. Some never pass through all the stages.

Whiteboard with picture of red macaw and detailed flowchart
Whiteboard with picture of red macaw and detailed flowchart Photograph: Matias Rebak/The Guardian
Elena Martín
Elena Martín, a Spanish trainer for Rewilding Argentina on the outskirts of Corrientes.
Photograph: Patrick Greenfield/The Guardian
Macaw flies inside aviary
A red macaw in training Photograph: Matias Rebak/Fundacion Rewilding Argentina
  • Elena Martín, top right, oversees the macaw breeding project. Some of the macaws must be trained to fly after years in captivity

“It’s much easier to work with the youngsters. Some of the adult macaws have been in a cage for a decade,” says Elena Martín, a Spanish trainer. Blowing a whistle, she shows how the macaws are trained to fly together to find food in the final stage. They use a fake fox to teach the birds to keep off the ground.

“Even when they’re released, we supplement their food for the first year or so to help them survive in the wild. They need a lot of help,” she says.

* * *

Chapter four

The fires

In February, Argentina was the hottest place on Earth. Wildfires burned through much of Iberá and the surrounding province of Corrientes when the waters were at their lowest. A quarter of a century of progress could have been destroyed.

The jaguar breeding centre was evacuated. Giant river otters were taken from their cages to an outhouse at the base where Doug and Kris Tompkins first landed in the middle of the swamp in 1997. Staff watched as the flames came closer, hoping for a miracle. And then the rains finally came.

Much of Iberá is now back under water and, were it not for the jet-black columns of incinerated pine and eucalyptus plantations on the edge of the protected area, the devastation would be quickly hidden by the green shoots of recovery and the vast lagoons only navigable by boat.

Wildfire - aerial view of the spreading line of the fire
A fire consumes trees and pastures in the Yerbalito nature reserve, in Esteros del Ibera, Photograph: Reuters
  • Above: A drone image shows a section of the Iberá wetlands in February this year. The climate crisis has intensified the impact of wildfires.

Once again, the caymans peek out from the edge of water. Kingfishers dive in to grab fish. The hum of insects is back. But scientists know that in a few months, the waters will once again recede, the landscape will turn from green to beige, and the spectre of fire will return, intensified by global heating.

Gaining the support of local communities – many with a strong tradition of hunting – is crucial to the rewilding efforts as the climate changes. Ecotourism also has a role to play.

“We think nature tourism with very low numbers of visitors can give wellbeing to people and change how they value wildlife,” says Heinonen. “If we can bring 50,000 people a year [to Iberá], it will change everything.”

A horse and rider pull a tourist boat through the Iberá marshes. Low sun over marshes and river.
A horse and rider pull a tourist boat through the Iberá marshes. Low sun over marshes and river. Photograph: Fundacion Rewilding Argentina
  • A horse and rider pull a tourist boat through the Iberá marshes

The final stop on our trip is to see one of the attractions that is already drawing tourists: horse-pulled boat rides through the Iberá marshes. Mingo Avalos, a former hunter who speaks only Guaraní, splashes and swims through the lagoons on his horse, dragging us until we are in a raised settlement surrounded by the marsh grasses. Hidden away, giant anteaters have returned to this area. Avalos will make sure they do not disappear again.

* * *

Chapter five

A wilder Argentina

In May last year, a wild giant river otter appeared in El Impenetrable national park. It was the first time giant otters had been recorded in Argentina since the 1980s and it made international headlines.

Scientists thought the female, who is still on the Bermejo river, had swum more than 620 miles from Paraguay. She is unlikely to find a mate. But in Iberá, Rewilding Argentina has been working to bring back the mammals since 2018. A mating pair was brought from zoos in Europe and has begun to breed. A separate family group has been formed.

An otter eating fish
Giant otter
Giant otter Photograph: Matias Rebak/Fundacion Rewilding Argentina
Giant otters in a group
Giant otters in a group Photograph: Patrick Greenfield/The Guardian
  • Rewilding Argentina is working to bring otters back to the country

The otters scream and snarl as we approach their cages with buckets of fish in the afternoon sun. They devour them as though they may never be fed again. Their shrill warning calls – not heard in this landscape for decades – could become commonplace as they once again populate the swamps and lagoons of Corrientes.

In time, wild jaguar populations are likely to be on the rise in the Gran Chaco. Decades of human exploitation might be undone in landscapes that are celebrated and protected by local communities.

What started on a patch of swampland has snowballed into an effort that spans a continent and has made for a wilder Argentina.

• Photographs: Matias Rebak/Gerardo Cerón/Daniel García/Beth Wald/Edurivero/Patrick Greenfield. Photos supplied by Rewilding Argentina/Reuters/Getty

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features


Patrick Greenfield

The GuardianTramp

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