The Onçafari Project: A Conservation Success Story

Josh Wright

15 Dec 2017

conservationists in brazil are working to protect the country's jaguars

For six years, the Onçafari Project has been working to protect jaguars in the Brazilian section of the Pantanal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which also extends into Bolivia and Paraguay and, at somewhere between 54,000 and 75,000 square miles, is the largest wetland system in the world. Although Panthera onca is today found throughout Central and South America - from the northern reaches of Mexico all the way down to Argentina – the jaguars living in the Brazilian Pantanal have been the subject of a conservation initiative spearheaded by the team at Onçafari, designed to protect and study the species while promoting ecotourism.

More than 95% of the Pantanal in Brazil is privately owned, which means ecotourism has huge conservation potential here. If tourist dollars become a significant source of additional revenue for local landowners and communities, it is everyone’s best interest to protect the ecosystem here and nurture the jaguar population that lives within it. This is exactly what Onçafari are doing – and to great success. They currently work exclusively in the Caiman Ecological Refuge, located on a privately owned 53,000-hectare ranch, although there are plans to expand the project to other regions of the Pantanal and work with other landowners. Their work is done in partnership with CENAP, Brazil’s National Carnivorous Mammals Research and Conservation Centre.

Earlier this year, NWS Tristan saw the work that the Onçafari team are doing first-hand on his Brazilian safari. A key part of this work is habituation, a process by which jaguars become gradually more tolerant of humans and vehicles, which facilitates the study and monitoring of the big cat by Onçafari’s vets and biologists. This is achieved through techniques that prioritise respect for the jaguars and a preservation of their wild nature – a habituated animal is not the same as a domesticated animal, or an animal living in captivity. But by not seeing humans or vehicles as a threat, habituated jaguars are much more easily observed, which benefits both the ecotourism within the reserve and the research being done in the field by Onçafari.

The use of radio collars is one method through which the Onçafari team monitor jaguars. Three times a year, the Onçafari team capture and anesthetise some of the cats, with the vets conducting full health tests and taking necessary measures if any are found to be in ill health. The biologists also take this opportunity to fit radio collars to two or three mature cats per “capture season”, an important method of monitoring jaguars which allows for the study of their territories, behaviour and social interactions. As with the habituation program, the use of these collars is intended to cause the least disruption possible to the cats, and fall off automatically after about a year. Affixed safely around their necks, the collars don’t interfere with the jaguars’ natural behaviour; since the inception of the Onçafari Project, three collared females have fallen pregnant, given birth and successfully raised their cubs.

Camera traps, several are which are set up throughout the reserve, allow Onçafari to keep track of their jaguars without the jaguars ever knowing they’re being monitored. As the motion sensor is triggered, a camera trap can capture either still images or video footage, and is also equipped with night-vision technology. The pattern of a jaguar’s spots is unique to every individual, allowing the experts at Onçafari to identify the particular jaguar shown in the camera trap’s images (many of the cats have been given names, and you can meet the entire cast of characters on Onçafari’s website). Captured footage can be used to assess external signs of the cats’ health and the growth of non-mature individuals, as well as keep tabs on the other animals inhabiting the jaguars’ territory.

The Onçafari Project is not just good news for jaguars, but for tourists as well. In 2012, soon after the project started, less than 15% of guests to the Caiman Ecological Refuge reported sightings of jaguar, but in 2016, this had risen to 75%. If discounting the wet season, it was over 90%! The rise in sightings indicates both the success of Onçafari’s habituation program and the stability of the refuge’s jaguar population – good news for all involved. The cubs born since the project’s inception have also been observed to be more readily habituated than those born prior to 2011, due to them observing humans as they grow up and learning from their partially habituated mothers; this bodes well for the future of Onçafari’s conservation and ecotourism goals. The pioneering work being done by Onçafari led to them being featured in “Jaguars: Brazil’s Super Cats”, a 2016 documentary shot by the BBC’s Natural World team, a preview of which can be seen here.

The overwhelming percentage of private ownership in the Brazilian Pantanal that has allowed the Onçafari Project to flourish is also the cause for the main threats to the local jaguars’ existence. Over the last 100 years their habitat has decreased significantly due to logging and encroaching development, while another of the main causes of deforestation – the establishment of cattle ranches – results in farmers killing jaguars as retaliation for, or protection against, livestock loss. The fur trade also took its toll on jaguar populations here between the 1950s and 1980s.

The work of the Onçafari Project is vital in the protection of the jaguar and in the socioeconomic development of the Pantanal – by convincing landowners that the jaguar is worth more alive to them than dead, both human and jaguar can coexist. Our Icons of Brazil safari allows travellers to see the work being done by Onçafari first-hand, but by talking to one of our Destination Specialists it’s possible to incorporate a visit to the Caiman Ecological Refuge in your own tailor-made Brazilian safari. We are also running an exclusive photography safari with National Geographic photojournalist Steve Winter in 2018. Steve’s jaguar images feature in “Inside the Hidden World of Jaguars”, a story in the December 2017 edition of National Geographic, which can also be viewed on their website.


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9/2/2018 1:35 PM

Thanks for sharing this post with us. Great work and keep working..

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