“Argentina is where Africa was 30 years ago,” says Les Carlisle, the former head of conservation for the African ecotourism company andBeyond, as we sip wine and the Southern Cross pricks through a darkening dome. He should know: With his striking white beard and Popeye arms, Les is a pioneer of wildlife translocations, having moved 30 white rhinos—21 of them all at once, a record at the time—to andBeyond’s Phinda reserve in South Africa three decades ago. He had last visited Iberá in 2017, when he helped Rewilding Argentina present its plan for reintroducing jaguars to wary local officials. He remarks frequently on the explosion of wildlife since his last visit. He says he spent five hours tracking a white-collared peccary—one of eight locally extinct species that have been reintroduced, alongside the giant anteater, macaw, and jaguar. “They are writing the textbook on rewilding in South America—it’s cutting-edge,” Les says excitedly. “Argentina could become the world’s next big conservation destination.”
The next morning, we take off from the dirt airstrip at Rincón del Socorro, a former cattle ranch that the Tompkinses converted into a home in the early 2000s, now a charming hacienda-style lodge with bungalows surrounding an emerald lawn where troops of high-stepping rheas (a small South American ostrich) and capybaras range. On the short flight to San Alonso island, the site of Rewilding’s jaguar research center, we fly over miles of tangled vegetal tufts, so unmoored that strong storms can rearrange them in a single blow. But we also spot countless smoldering black patches left by a wildfire that had raged through the region only 10 days earlier.
A gaucho named Correa inside Parque Iberá
Artwork in the Cueva de las Manos, or Cave of Hands, dating back nearly 10,000 years
We are met on San Alonso by Sofia Heinonen, Rewilding Argentina’s executive director, and a team of researchers who helm the station in another former Tompkins home. They pass around a gourd of maté, sipping through a metal straw. Pablo Guerra, the jaguar biologist, explains the feline family tree. In January 2021, Mariua, a jaguar who had been brought from Brazil, and her two cubs walked to their freedom, the first wild jaguars in Corrientes in 70 years. Now a total of eight jaguars form an anchor population, many tracked with electronic collars. These predators will help keep the herbivores in check, slowing soil erosion and allowing vegetation to rebound.
We set out under a scorching blue sky on horseback behind Pablo, who waves a telemeter to catch the ping of a GPS collar. As we snake through high grass, Sofia—whose laugh-creased face belies her reputation as a fierce foe of mining and oil companies—points with her riding crop to the horizon and describes the night two weeks earlier when the fire raged within two and a half miles of San Alonso station. Her team rushed to dig a trench to head it off as the Bolivian military zoomed in by helicopter—until last-minute rains spared the property. In spite of the harrowing event, the jaguars barely moved. Today, though, the only sign of them is the ravaged carcass of a capybara, and beside it, perhaps, a few faint paw prints.
Back at the stables, a small figure in a checked shirt and floppy hat jumps down from the post-and-beam fence. Kris Tompkins has come to San Alonso to see what the fire has wrought, the first time she’s left her home in California for Iberá in two years. Over lunch behind the house, still decorated with photos of her and Doug, she reminisces about their arrival in 1997. “Doug saw a huge space, but an empty space,” she says. “It took us a while to understand what was here and what was missing. But he knew almost instinctively that it was a biological goldmine.”