Graeme Green talks to Brazilian field biologist Lilian Rampim about a groundbreaking project to re-wild orphaned jaguar cubs in Brazil’s Pantanal (subject of a new Attenborough documentary) and working with wild jaguars
We found two jaguar cubs around two years ago in the city of Corumbá, on the border of the wetlands Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil. The Department of Conservation told us that a mother jaguar with two tiny cubs was forced to enter the city during the seasonal floods. In a tragic turn of events, the mother sadly died, orphaning her two cubs. They are two females, called Isa and Fera.
Jaguar cub (BBC/Oncafari project)
I’m a Field Biologist and I head up the Onçafari team, which is based at Caiman Ecological Refuge in the Pantanal, one of Brazil’s most important wildlife areas. We believed it was important for the orphaned jaguar cubs to be ‘re-wilded’, or returned to the wild. This has never been done before. It’s a very difficult process.
The rewilding process took a year. Since the death of their mother, the two cubs had been kept in captivity. At 12 months old, the cubs needed to be returned to the wild as soon as possible, before the orphans became too used to people and captivity.
To give the cubs the greatest chance of success, the team constructed a massive enclosure deep in the wilds of the Pantanal. Here, we prepared the orphans to be released among the Pantanal’s wild jaguars.
Transporting a jaguar in the Pantanal (BBC/Oncafari project)
After a 20-hour journey across Brazil, the cubs were released into their new home. But without a mother to teach them the essential hunting skills they needed to survive in the wild, the cubs needed to rely on our team to teach them. We had the very difficult task of introducing the cubs to live prey for the first time. Although it’s a hard job to do, it was the only way for the orphans to learn and prove they have the hunting instinct of wild jaguars. They were to have no human contact, but could interact with other jaguars and wildlife through the enclosure’s fence.
It’s this project that’s in the new BBC documentary. David Attenborough didn’t visit Caiman, but it was a honour to know that he truly believed in our work. He is an idol for everybody that works on the project. BBC Producer Joe Stevens headed up the two-person team who filmed at Caiman Ecological Refuge for about one year, using a combination of camera traps, reportage and lots of research.
Sir David Attenborough (BBC)
Working with jaguars is not only hard, because they are so elusive, but is also really expensive. Because their camouflage is absolutely amazing, they become invisible when inside the bushes. They also learn, through countless years, that humans have been a natural threat, so they are like ninjas inside the woods. So, to study them closer, we need to find them.
We got some tools that make this process less hard: radio-collars and camera traps. Because they walk for huge areas, to explore and mark territories, the team needed to buy several lots of equipment – it’s super expensive.
Jaguar close-up (BBC/Oncafari project)
Since I was a kid, I always had curiosity about wildlife. I never had a second thoughts about becoming a biologist and trying my best to learn everything I could about zoology. Before graduation, I started to work with Brazilian small cats of São Paulo Zoo. At that time, my focus was feeding and predatory behaviour, and I studied these amazing cats for a couple of years, trying to study all the kinds of behaviour that they show in captivity.
I also worked in a rescue centre in Brazil with several kind of cats, small, medium and large. Wild cats always got my attention and I wanted to find a opportunity to work with them in their own home, which means in nature. I started to work at Onçafari Project in 2012, and I learned so much about their natural behaviour. Because we’ve managed to habituate some of the jaguars, they allow us to follow their lives. They trust us when we’re in our vehicles and we have the pleasure to see amazing behaviours, like hunting, feeding, mating and even breast-feeding. I’m very blessed to be able to study this warrior species that struggle every day to stay alive.
Jaguars at night (BBC/Oncafari project)
We worked very hard on the habituation process. When the jaguar accept your presence, they behave naturally and act like real jaguars. Because we have some habituated jaguars living in this area, we are able to witness and study behaviours never study in the wild before. For example, we’ve seen that they really enjoy climbing trees, like their distant cousin, the leopard. We followed some generations of cubs since they were born and we even found their den. We’ve seen females mating with males when they already have cubs, which means that they mate for social reasons. We’ve seen so many kind of behaviours that nobody in Brazil studied before, because nobody had such close relationship with jaguars before.
According to WWF, jaguars were once found throughout South and Central America, but they’ve been virtually wiped out from most of their northern range. They’re now found mainly in the Amazon and the Pantanal, which is a huge wetland area that goes across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. About 90 per cent of the jaguars’ current range is in the Amazon rainforest.
Jaguar in tree (BBC/Oncafari project)
Jaguars now occupy less than half of the area they’ve historically been found in. They’re so elusive that we don’t really know exactly how many are left in the wild today. But we do know that their numbers are declining. People are still killing jaguars for many reasons: cattle conflicts, cultural reasons, selling the bones, skull and teeth.
If more people study them, especially using collars, they will be more protected. Most people that are still hunting jaguars feel afraid of the collar-technology, because they know that it involves GPS, which means trouble for them; they could be tracked when they’re killing. I think this is important work to protect jaguars for the future.
Jaguars: Brazil’s Super Cats, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is a Natural World production for BBC2, filmed at Caiman Ecological Refuge in Brazil. It airs at 9pm on Wednesday Sept 14, 2016 on BBC2.
Wildlife Worldwide (www.wildlifeworldwide.com, 01962302086) have a 17-day Jaguar Fiesta focusing on jaguar photography with expert Nick Garbutt, which includes four nights at Refugio Ecologico Caiman, with three days tracking with the Onçafari Jaguar Project research team.
Main image: Jaguar (BBC/Oncafari Project)