How this foundation is bringing back Argentina’s animals

Rewilding Argentina Director Sofia Heinonen earned Buenos Aires City government award for work restoring biodiversity

The race for restoration is a race against time. According to UN models, 150 to 200 species of plants and animals become extinct every day due to human activity. By 2050, one in four of the species we know about will be extinct. But in the wild wetlands of Argentina, a foundation is looking to change that.

Rewilding Argentina is fighting back against extinction by bringing back species that are becoming locally extinct at a series of projects in Ibera, Chaco, and Patagonia. This has led to an increase in the population of animals of all shapes and sizes such as the jaguar, the yaboti tortoise, the red and green macaw, the Andean condor, the Patagonian mara, and countless others.

Working alongside the National Parks Administration, Rewilding has helped to establish the protected parks of Aconquija, Monte Leon, and Perito Moreno. In 2018, they established the first marine national park at Yaganes and Namuncurá and created the protected area of the Miter Peninsula, which holds 84% of Argentine marshlands, making it the country’s largest carbon capture point and an invaluable tool in slowing climate change. 

For this work, Executive Director Sofía Heinonen was awarded an official commendation for her work by Buenos Aires City Government. Her recognition earlier this month was the latest in a string of honors for her work as a biologist that also saw her recognized in the BBC’s 100 Women List 2022, which celebrates women doing pioneering work around the world. After her award ceremony, she spoke to The Herald about her work in Rewilding Argentina and the importance of going beyond conservation to actively restore destroyed nature. 

Sofia Heinonen receives her award. Credit: Rewilding Argentina. Cover image: Jatobazinho Jaguar in Iberá, credit: Matías Rebak/Rewilding Argentina

The first World Rewilding Day was hosted by the UN on March 20, 2021 celebrating the implementation of the new form of restoration. Although scientists have written about the necessity for rewilding as long as 30 years ago, it has only recently emerged as a popular method to fight climate change. Sir David Attenborough highlighted it in his Netflix documentary “A Life on Our Planet” saying, “We must rewild the world.” 

Rewilding differs slightly from other forms of restoration as it seeks to restore ecosystems to their original state, the point at which nature can take care of itself. Biologists theorize that rapid rewilding will slow down the acceleration of climate change brought by human actions. Some scientists are skeptical of this novel strategy and its aggressive approach – but others have emphasized the acceleration of climate change and the limited time for solutions. For example, droughts around the world have increased the possibility of deadly fires and permanent changes to ecosystems.

Deadly fire and drought

“Animals do not have time to adapt,” said Heinonen of the recent droughts and fires in Argentina. “And what is happening now, which is extraordinary, with climate change, we notice that there are extraordinary droughts and the animals have to go out in search of water and that generates an impact of hunting, an impact of lack of sufficient water for all the animals.”

Red and green macaw. Credit: Sebastián Navajas/Rewilding Argentina

The jaguar, marsh deer, and other species of wild animals were first hunted in the early 20th century by ranchers in Chaco and Corrientes to protect their cattle from predators and their crops from being destroyed. Heinonen identifies this “defaunation” as creating an unbalanced ecosystem with little biodiversity. When there is little for the predators to feed on, they roam further to find the necessary food creating more potential conflicts with the people living nearby. 

“Nature has its own rules that are different from the rules of the economy,” Heinonen said. “The ecosystems begin to have high biodiversity if there is a possibility of food, i.e. pasture, prey. But also that diversity increases if there are top predators that start to compete, that start to hunt, that start to give scavengers a chance with an abundance of carcasses. Ecosystems are regulated from the top down by trophic cascades and from the bottom up by the abundance of the resource.” These trophic cascades happen when predators limit the population or behavior of their prey, giving the next creature down on the food chain a better shot at surviving.

The Tompkins Conservation, created by American entrepreneur and philanthropist Douglas Tompkins and his wife Kristine McDivitt, first began their work in Argentina in 1997 with the purchase of a 310,000-acre estate in the Iberá wetlands, in Corrientes province. In 2010, The Conservation created Rewilding, solely dedicated to restoration projects in Argentina with an executive board composed entirely of Argentines. 

“Let the jaguar come back”

After the tragic death of Tompkins in a kayaking accident in 2016, Heinonen was named Executive Director of Rewilding Argentina, dedicated to continuing the restoration started by its late founder. Having been a key part of the Iberá project since 2005, she oversees more than two and a half million acres of land and a team of more than 200 people. 

Tourism in Iberá. Credit: Matias Rebak/Rewilding Argentina

Rewilding Argentina focuses on fostering a positive social and economic relationship with the indigenous locals that live near their restoration projects. Primarily, the work of Rewilding is centered on transforming the economies of the region away from agriculture and cattle ranching and towards ecotourism, which the foundation sees as a more sustainable and economically viable solution because it does not involve deforestation. 

“Every person from Corrientes feels like a Jaguar, so let the Jaguar come back,” Heinonen said. “Let the pride for that nature and that culture that makes them unique come back.” 

Visiting El Impenetrable, Iberá, or the projects in Patagonia to support the local economies through tourism is the most effective method to demonstrate your support for climate restoration.  You can also volunteer directly with the organization in their programs in Argentina: check out their website for more information.


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