Interview with Sofia Heinonen: Restoring the wild in Argentina

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Editors Note: The following is from Issue 27.
By Jimmy Langman
Argentine biologist Sofia Heinonen has been designing strategies for the creation of protected areas for more than 30 years. She has worked for conservation organizations in Argentina such as Fundación Vida Silvestre and was working at the National Parks Administration of Argentina in 2000 when she met the late Doug Tompkins and his wife, Kris. That year, they approached the Argentine park service about donating lands that would later become Monte Leon National Park in 2004.
In 1997, Doug Tompkins also began purchasing land in in the vast Iberá marshlands of northern Argentina. And Heinonen soon began advising the couple, too, on their plans to protect and restore the Iberá ecosystems, which contain the largest wetlands in Argentina, as well as open water, grassland, and forest ecosystems that are home to about 4,000 species of flora and fauna. In 2005, she left the park service to become the coordinator of their effort to restore species and build a national park there.
Heinonen, 54, recalls that Doug Tompkins, who died in a kayaking accident in Chile in 2015, was especially keen on bringing back the jaguar, which had gone extinct in the Iberá area. “Doug dreamed of bringing back the top predator, the jaguar, because he had seen the positive changes to Yellowstone when the wolf was brought back there,” she says. “At the same time, what was very important to me, was to also change the local economy so that the jaguar would not go extinct again. There was only cattle ranching. If people perceived the jaguar as bad, they were going to kill it off again. So it was important to develop nature tourism.”
In 2010, Doug and Kris Tompkins, together with several Argentine conservationists, formed Rewilding Argentina with Heinonen as its executive director. Since then, Rewilding Argentina, in close partnership with Tompkins Conservation, has donated nearly a million acres (400,000 hectares) to create or expand seven national or provincial parks, and helped establish the Yaganes and Namuncurá-Banco Burdwood II marine parks in southern Patagonia which extend over 90,000 square kilometers. Most exciting, they are successfully restoring 24 key species that had gone extinct or are endangered – such as the jaguar, the giant river otter, red-and-green macaw, ocelot, and huemul deer – at the Iberá and El Impenetrable national parks in Argentina’s north, and around Patagonia National Park in the steppe and plateau landscape of northeastern Santa Cruz province. 
In 2022, the BBC named Heinonen to its list of the “100 most inspiring and influential women” from around the world. Speaking via telephone from her office in Buenos Aires, Heinonen spoke with Patagon Journal executive editor Jimmy Langman about the ongoing programs of Rewilding Argentina. Excerpts:
LANGMAN: For any environmental conservation or restoration project to succeed you must build support from the local community. How were you able to convince the communities around Iberá Park to support your work?
HEINONEN: Through the change to the local economy. When we got there, people were in a marginal place with only a few jobs available to them in cattle raising. But tourism provides a lot of jobs because it demands a lot of attention and requires many services. And the locals were prepared for that – they are very hospitable, and very knowledgeable about their place. Suddenly, there were a lot of people coming to experience the beauty of their place and see the wildlife. That lifts your pride.
Did your park plans get resistance from competing economic interests in the zone?
Not so much from economic interests, but from a fear of change. People buy fields there to put cattle on them. And someone who didn't put cattle but instead put up fences and built very nice houses and campsites and so on, that attracts a lot of attention. The cattle ranchers felt threatened that this was going to expel them. But the rancher from Corrientes is also proud of his land and likes wild animals. So, in the beginning, there was not much conflict.
There was a conflict later, however. The Iberá marshes are very flat, they have no slope. It is a wetland, and if one starts to build hydraulic works, canals and embankments, this starts to affect the ecosystem. There was a rice boom in Corrientes, because of demand from Brazil there were rice mills all over the place, and they were draining water from the Iberá marshes and the park. So, we too them to court because they were invading the park. The park concept in Argentina means that the habitat must not be modified. No major modifications can be made. These laws were in place, but nobody was enforcing them. But eventually this conflict lessened as the rice market tanked and the new economy centered around tourism won. Above all, there is much less criticism now because the government understands the value of tourism and is now the one promoting tourism development and the reintroduction of species.
Doug Tompkins’ dream of creating a park at Iberá came true in 2018. Today, Iberá National Park protects more than 1.8 million acres (750,000 hectares) – over twice the size of Yosemite National Park in the United States. Do the wildlife species you are reintroducing have what they need to make a comeback?
Yes, today they are well protected. That is enough area for the jaguar populations, which would be the ones that need the most space. What is happening though, and we are already seeing it, is that with time they will start to disperse and begin to look for new territories outside the park. And these may conflict with other interests. So, what would be interesting is to generate a corridor with "stepping stone" areas – nearby parks with good protection where the jaguars will not be killed. We are working more on this concept of corridors through a network of protected areas.
Do the jaguars face threats from hunters like the pumas do in the Patagonia region of Argentina?
No, sport hunting is not a problem. If there is hunting, it is illegal hunting. Nobody will want to kill a yaguareté; the yaguareté is declared a national natural monument. The yaguareté is considered like the right whale: a species that cannot be killed and people here question it a lot if someone kills a yaguareté. With the puma, hunting is still happening as it is perceived to be a problem animal. There has not yet been a change in the collective conscience regarding the puma, but with the jaguar, there has been a resounding change as there are so few of them!
The jaguar had gone extinct to the Iberá ecosystems. Where did you get the jaguars from to start reintroducing them?
We had to get wild animals, but at first nobody wanted to give them to us. So, we decided to raise animals we got from a zoo in such a way that the offspring would be wild. We built some very big constructions in San Alonso, in the middle of Iberá, with corrals of 30 hectares and we filled them with wildlife, and they grew up. For two years, they grew up wild inside those corrals or enclosures, hunting by themselves. And those are what we released. They were the first Corrientes cubs: born in Corrientes and released in the wild.
How many jaguars do you eventually want to see in the park?
The goal is to be able to release 5 or 6 more animals in Iberá, of other genetics, and then monitor the population. So far, we have released 7 animals and today through breeding there are now 16 jaguars in two and a half years. Each one of these animals has an average of two offspring per year, so it has a very fast growth rate. I think that in about 10 years we will start to see dispersion of animals in search of new territories. When we see that happening, we will capture some of them and relocate them to El Chaco, to populate other places.
Doug Tompkins compared the restoration of jaguars to the reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone National Park, which has led to a series of positive ecological changes there. Do you expect something similar in Iberá because of the jaguar?
It is supposed to be the same: the apex predator regulates the ecosystem and generates ecosystem health. We are studying the changes to the ecosystem right bow with a grant that we received from National Geographic. Not only at the prey level, but also the herbivore level, the vegetation level and the carbon sequestration level. It is assumed that an ecosystem works best with all its pieces. Also, the carbon cycle is captured; carbon is stored in the soil faster and in greater quantity. So, we are measuring that as well.
Are some of the other species you are reintroducing also going to be important in restoring the overall ecosystem?
Yes, we are working with eight other species that are also key in the sense that they are forest seed dispersers, birds like the macaws and also the moitú, which is like a big bush turkey that walks through the forest. We started to work on these species because they became extinct and they were important to the dispersion of the fruits of the Paraná River forest. And then, after the construction of the Yacyretá dam, that corridor was cut and we have to restore that strip of forest. And well, these species are key for that. They are natural tree planters! Then we also worked with the collared peccary, which is also a fruit eater and disperses and breaks fruits that are harder for other species to break. And we work with the anteater, which controls and forages ants. The anteater population is now especially high; they are not only in Iberá they are dispersing to other places in Corrientes.
Have you encountered problems trying to restore some species?
Yes, we brought in the tapir, it bred, everything was fine, and from one day to the next they all started to die. They were infected by a disease transmitted by horses, a trypanosome parasite. We now think that maybe the extinction of the tapir is not only due to hunting but also to this parasite that was brought here from Europe with the horse. It is also very difficult to work with some birds that come from hatcheries; they don't know the risk of predators and they have a lot of predation. The macaw comes down to the ground and is eaten by the yacaré when they go to drink water, or by the moitú, which is natural prey.
Last year, fires overwhelmed Iberá Park, with nearly 60% of the park affected. The Rewilding Argentina team had to relocate several reintroduced species, such as giant river otters and macaws, to places of safety.
Yes, this summer we also had fires, but the big one was in 2022. It had to do with extreme drought and climate change. Clearly, that's the reason why the fire lasted so long and was so big and catastrophic. It was because it was all dry. There was continuity, there was fuel, there was no water cover and that is probably going to happen more with these extreme situations. This is forcing us to think more about corridors. Fauna moves in a grassland fire. It is not affected as much if it has the possibility of moving and redistributing itself. So, we think is very important to ensure that we have more corridors – places where for months or weeks at a time an animal can take refuge. That could be a cattle pasture, for example, where dogs don’t attack them, and people do not kill them. Because even if we do not have corridors to wild natural habitat, wildlife can endure for a while sheltered at rural farms or near cities. Catastrophes like fires last a short time. This will require a lot of environmental education.
Near Argentina’s Patagonia National Park, you are also working on restoring wetlands and species there, how is that going?
We are trying to generate the same model as Iberá; a model for people to value the wildlife and the whole ecosystem. In Patagonia, the place we chose is basically a place where there once was a lot of water. It was a watershed of the Pinturas River, where there were many wetlands, and we are trying to restore them. The steppe is a very arid place that people consider to be semi-desert, with little biodiversity. But if that steppe has a wetland, it becomes an oasis, a place where biodiversity is concentrated. And the place we chose is a place that has that potential if it is restored. We want to bring back populations there which are almost on the verge of extinction, like the genet, the tobiano macá, the huemul, even the chinchillas, the otter.
Will it become part of the national park in the future?
We want it become a national or provincial park in the future, perhaps in five years from now. But first we want to do the restoration work. We are going to do it like we did in Iberá; give us some time to work on restoration and develop public use and nature tourism, and then later donate it once the work is almost finished.
Just a decade ago, environmental restoration was a concept that was little known but today it is part of the ethos of the global environmental movement: has that translated into more support for your programs?
Look, there are three situations. One is funding. There is quite a lot of interest and more funds at the international level to accelerate restoration and bring back critically endangered or threatened species. But at the government level, which authorize permits for this work, there are always ups and downs because when a government changes it slows downs the process. There is also still not awareness and acceptance of this strategy everywhere. In the places where we have been working for a long time, the government is a partner, it is interested. But when we go to new places we have to start from zero. And then there are some scientists who oppose this work.
Why do they oppose it?
Because they don't like to intervene with nature. They believe that nature has to come back by itself. There are countries that have not started yet and for them talking about rewilding is like a novelty, especially in South America. Overall, South America is not a continent that has seen great extinctions. Argentina has, because it is a very agricultural, very cattle-raising, very flat country, and so a lot of species were wiped out. The same in Uruguay, which has lost a lot. In Brazil, because it is so big, now the government is thinking about restoring the Atlantic Forest and restoring ecosystems that have nothing left. But it is mostly a new concept to South America.
What have you learned new about the science of rewilding that you didn't know before?
You learn about everything, about advocacy, laws, and human behavior. Restoring an ecosystem is also restoring the culture. It is also restoring or generating new economies. You must learn how all this impacts the ecosystem in general with humans included. At an ecological level, we are always surprised what we learn from the individuals we release. We give them names, and they teach us a lot about their own behavior. No other study has ever been done with wild animals that has the degree of monitoring that we have. For example, it was believed that jaguars are solitary, and that they are territorial. But we are seeing that the females visit the males as much as the males visit the females. They share with each other, sometimes even hunt together. We’re also seeing the same kind of thing with the deer, or the anteater. The laws of nature are not as rigid as they are sometimes told in published works. We are constantly surprised by the capacity of these animals to adapt for their survival.
So, are you optimistic then that nature can heal?
Yes, I think rewilding really is a strategy that gives a lot of optimism because it is proactive and you see the results relatively quickly and how wildlife itself generates the conditions to survive if you give them a little bit of space. If you give them that time.

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