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Head of Product Stuart Whittington tells us about his time at Refugio Caiman in Brazil’s Pantanal and the incredible work being done by the team at the Onçafari Jaguar Project.

The Onçafari Jaguar Project is the first of its kind in Latin America. Set up five years ago by Mario, a former professional racing driver who fell in love with African safaris as a young child, it’s a non-profit organisation whose aim is to promote conservation through tourism and generate far-reaching associated benefits for the region. Being Brazilian and having a love of big cats, it made sense for Mario to bring the African safari concept to his native Brazil and the project’s main focus is on the habituation of jaguar (onça) in Brazil’s Pantanal.

Mario and Lilli of Oncafari

Why here?

Refugio Caiman and Onçafari have a symbiotic relationship: the property covers a large, safe and pristine area of some 57,000 hectares and with nature-tourism being well-established (other conservation projects include the Hyacinth Macaw Project), basing the jaguar project here was a natural choice.

And the relationship seems to be going well: there are now approximately 70 jaguars in the area and most of the Onçafari-tagged jaguars seem to stay within the property and the surrounding buffer zone. Every jaguar spotted is given a name and has its own unique story: Houdini, for example, always manages to escape the project’s traps and Guido The Surgeon is famed for his clinical kills.

Jaguar at Oncafari

Onçafari’s projects


Habituation

This is one of the project’s key activities since the overall aim is to increase the opportunities for tourists to see these magnificent creatures. It is implemented by locating jaguars and parking a car nearby so they become used to it being there. So far, results show that the jaguars are becoming more relaxed when they are near vehicles and are less inclined to move away.

Camera traps
There are currently some 50 camera traps on site which aim to capture the jaguars’ movements, helping to build up a picture of their lives.

Radio tracking
The project currently has 7-12 jaguars collared for radio tracking. The collars are self-releasing after a set period of time and seem to be working well. Once set up, a satellite records the host’s location signal once per hour and the data is sent to Onçafari HQ every 24 hours so the team can get a good indication of the jaguar’s movements and habits .

Rehabilitation of orphaned cubs
This project began when two jaguar cubs were left orphaned two years ago. The cubs’ fascinating story was told by the BBC in an outstanding documentary called Wild Brazil, which was narrated by David Attenborough and aired in September 2016.

Conservation-based tourism
All guests staying at Refugio Caiman have the opportunity to spend some time with the Onçafari team and attend a classroom-based presentation on their work in the area. Guests also have a chance of spotting jaguar in the wild as part the general excursions during their stay – this is assisted by the Onçafari team who will call up Refugio Caiman’s guides to let them know the whereabouts of jaguars that have been spotted in the area, increasing visitors’ chances of seeing them.

Jaguars and the community

In an area of vast farmlands where income is largely based on livestock, jaguars have been at odds with humans for generations. Farmers often hunt to protect their livelihoods and trophy hunting is not uncommon (jaguar skins continue to be high in value). In Brazil, it is only a crime to be caught with a jaguar’s dead body, not to kill one. Mario and his team believe that if locals can see a financial value to the presence of jaguars, part of the battle may be won.

Refugio Caiman

Results so far

Overall the project has had a positive impact on the wildlife, environment and landowners of the region as well as tourists’ experiences: in 2016, 95% of visitors saw a jaguar between July and October. The best month to spot jaguars varies – September is usually the best but July 2016 was particularly successful with some 100 sightings (over 3 per day!).

Refugio Caiman has endeavoured to include the local community in its work: they employ some 20 to 30 cowboys to take care of the 35,000 cattle that graze across its 57,000 hectares of land and the hotel side of the business employs 60 staff who have good salaries and many of whom are qualified or are learning new skills.

The Onçafari team believe that an increase in the number of people that see an inherent value in the jaguars’ presence in the region will improve future conservation efforts. Mario says, “… At the end of the day, the more people who know and like jaguars – you never know – they may end up doing something to help save jaguars.”

If successful, Onçafari hopes to expand into nearby areas, and potentially set up a similar project seeking the reintroduction of jaguar to Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.

Would you like to learn more about Latin America’s wildlife? Why not browse our range of wildlife holidays or read about what wildlife you can see where?

Jaguar image provided courtesy of Harvey L Brown.

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