Steak, wine, and waterfalls: Salta to Iguazu

Salta, a colonial city in Argentina’s northwest, was home for the next few days. San Pedro had been a tiring experience, with a noisy dorm, and excursions starting hours before dawn and going on into the night. Trying to keep some control over our budget, empanadas had been our primary source of (delicious) food. In Salta we crashed,  lazed, indulged in the biggest, most delicious steak of our lives in a buzzing neighbourhood restaurant, enjoyed cheap good wine and freshly cooked meals in the hostel kitchen and leafy patio garden, and plotted our logistics for the upcoming Brazilian leg of our trip which coincided with the high season over Easter. We failed to see or do a single touristy thing in the city, beyond the steak, but soaked up the bustling evening atmosphere when half the city seemed to be enjoying their daily promenade on our walks to and from the supermarket.

Suitably rejuvenated after a few days, it was time to move on. Another night bus awaited us, this time for a 16 hour journey to Posadas, which we boarded in the early afternoon. We settled in to our seats at the front of the top deck, and watched the suburbs give way to lush tropical farms and countryside. In the glow of the late evening sun parrots flashed green and red in front of us. As night fell, dinner was served, with cold meats, cheeses, and bread making a change from the Peruvian chicken and rice bus staple. But then….we were served a second course! It might even have been chicken and rice. Then we were offered some wine. As if on a night-time safari we sipped our Argentinian white, and watched as nightjars rose up from the road in front of us, a snake slithered across our path, and a furry bottom disappeared into the undergrowth. Once in Posadas the next morning we switched onto another bus for a further 5 hours to Iguazu. We were pretty tired on arrival in the heat and humidity at our Iguazu hostel, but went for a wander to the tri-border viewpoint over the Iguazu river, looking across to Brazil and Paraguay.

The next morning we were up early, to be at the Iguazu park entrance when it opened at 8am. It was a beautiful day, and in the cool and quiet of the morning we virtually had the lower circuit of walkways among tropical trees to ourselves. Argentina (9)

We saw toucans and vultures, rainbows, got our first soaking from the spray of the falls, and had a late breakfast picnic of bread, honey and kiwi fruit sitting here:

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Then to the upper circuit, taking in more waterfall rainbows, before joining the throngs that had caught us up for the train to the Devil’s throat walkway.

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Another picnic pit-stop for lunch, and then we headed out along the 1km trail over the river, spying turtles and catfish, and the rising plume of spray from the falls at the end. Standing above the immense cauldron of water falling beneath you was spectacular, and we got soaked to the skin time and again.

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The next day we made a day trip to the Brazilian side, this time under a cooler, moodier, cloudy sky. We looked back at where we’d been the previous day, and got up close to the Devil’s throat falls from beneath them this time, with another drenching. We spotted flocks of swifts swirling in the rain and spray, before flying straight through the walls of water to their nests behind them. Then it was back to the hostel, to get ready to head to Brazil, for real this time, the next day. Argentina (22)Argentina (26)Argentina (27)

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San Pedro de Atacama to Salta

Despite being in the middle of the driest region on earth, we set off to explore some lakes before bidding San Pedro de Atacama farewell and heading onwards to Argentina. First, we explored the salt lakes that are vital habitat for flamingos. The lake was slowly evaporating, leaving behind encrusted salt, in the midst of a vast salt plain. Chile (69)

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Then it was onwards to the Altiplanic lakes at 4500m, vivid blue water reflecting the fiercely clear sky, ringed with tough green grass and small herds of vicunas.

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The next day we packed up and set our sights on Argentina, boarding a bus to take us up and out of the desert, over the Andes, and down the other side to Salta, a colonial city in the northwest of the country. We drove up high enough to pop our bags of crisps, past volcanic peaks, including one marking the border with Bolivia, a tantalising glimpse of a destination for next time. We passed lakes ringed with bright white salt, strange rock forms emerging from the desert, spotted vicunas, and somewhere up in the mountains we crossed the border into Argentina.

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Then the descent, by which time we were on the verge of dozing off, but our eyes pinged open when we realised we were in the middle of a brilliant white salt plain stretching into the distance.

Chile (93)Sometime later we entered a dense bank of cloud, and then started making our way down a series of hairpins. As we emerged from beneath the cloud giant cactuses dotted the canyon-like hillside, which gave way to a valley of pink, red, and purple striped hillsides. We had entered the UNESCO World Heritage valley of Quebrada de Humahuaca. As night fell rain started pouring, a welcome relief from the dryness of the desert. We drove onwards for a couple more hours, this time through urban and agricultural lowlands, streetlights and car lights illuminating the raindrops on the windows, and making the earlier succession of natural wonders seem impossible.

Jaguars in Argentine Chaco on verge of local extinction

This article was written for the environmental news website mongabay.com, and the original can be found here.
The majestic jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest of the New World cats, is found as far north as the southern states of the US, and as far south as northern Argentina. In the past jaguars ranged 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) further south, but their range has shrunk as habitat loss and human disturbance have increased. Overall, jaguars are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN, but the level of risk facing jaguars varies by region. Populations in Argentina, at the present-day southern range limit, have previously been identified as some of the most threatened of them all.

The Chaco is considered home to the largest Argentine population, but the inaccessibility of the region has meant that until recently very little was known about the exact status of the population here. To address this lack of knowledge, biologists have undertaken a major study of jaguar range and abundance, recently published in Fauna and Flora International’s journal, Oryx. The results of the study point to a striking conclusion: the jaguar population in the Argentine Chaco is in crisis, and at risk of imminent local extinction.

Biologist Veronica Quiroga with a jaguar pelt hunted in the Argentinean Chaco.
Biologist Veronica Quiroga with a jaguar pelt hunted in the Argentinean Chaco. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

A vast wilderness of dry forest, scrubland and plains, the Gran Chaco is the second largest forest region in the Americas. It encompasses parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, and is a hot, inhospitable and sparsely populated region. It was partly this isolation that drew biologist Verónica Quiroga, of the National Research Council of Argentina, lead author of the study, to the Argentine Chaco, where she has been working for over a decade.

“From the first time I went to the Chaco and watched the first mammal footprints marked in the dry powder, I knew that I wanted to work some time in that environment and with large mammals,” she told mongabay.com. Her studies of mammals in the Copo National Park sparked an interest in jaguars in particular. “The first alarming conclusions were that very little was known of the species in the Chaco region, that nobody was studying jaguars particularly there and that, apparently, populations were having an important numerical decrease throughout the region.”

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Biologist Verónica Quiroga colecting scats of pumas in the Aborigen Reserve. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

Quiroga and her team have since carried out an intensive long-term survey of jaguars in the Argentine Chaco. They focused on locations thought to have the highest likelihood of jaguars, including Copo National Park and Aborigen Reserve, as well as sites that differ in their levels of legal protection, livestock burden and hunting pressure. A large network of camera traps collected more than 5,320 nights of footage, and over 120 local people were interviewed about their knowledge and experiences with jaguars. The team walked more than 900 kilometers (560 miles), searching for signs of jaguar presence. But despite this exhaustive effort, the results were bleak. No photographs of jaguars were captured by the camera traps, and very few tracks were found. In total, 35 records of jaguars were obtained, and only 13 of these were direct observations.

Jaguars inhabit three regions in Argentina, and the Chaco population is important to maintain population connectivity not only within Argentina, but also between populations in Bolivia and Paraguay.

“Until this study began, it was believed that the Chaco population of jaguars was the largest in Argentina, by the large surface area occupied and its connection with other populations, like the Paraguayan Chaco,” said Quiroga. “It was a big surprise to discover that not only the densities were very low, but this population is the most threatened of the three remaining in the country.”

A puma (Puma-concolor) marking its territory on the banks of the Bermejo River in La Fidelidad.
A puma (Puma-concolor) marking its territory on the banks of the Bermejo River in La Fidelidad. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

The conversion of jaguar habitat to cattle ranching and the persecution of jaguars themselves are the main drivers of this population decline. The number of hunted jaguars reported in interviews can be used as an indicator of jaguar abundance, and the study found that this has dropped ten-fold over the last decade. Rather than indicating a change in hunting practice, or in the perception of jaguars as a threat to livestock and people, this reflects the rate at which local people now come into contact with jaguars. Although the overall range size has not decreased, the dramatic drop in abundance will spur conservation action.

“At this time it is necessary, with utmost urgency, to develop a campaign to improve awareness of the problems facing the species, its conservation value, and its importance in the ecosystem as top predator,” Quiroga explained.

“We also need a campaign to suggest changes in livestock management to prevent possible conflicts with the species. It is necessary to work with rural schools, with park rangers, with local communities and with other key actors of the rural Chaco region, to try to change the local perception about the species.”

An Aguará guazú (Chrysocyon-brachiurus) in dry chaco forest from La Fidelidad Argentina.
An Aguará guazú (Chrysocyon-brachiurus) in dry chaco forest from La Fidelidad Argentina. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

The jaguar’s decline in the Chaco is indicative of wider population declines affecting other species, such as the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), the endemic Chacoan peccary (Chacoan wagneri), and puma (Puma concolor). Therefore, action taken to benefit the jaguar will also benefit many other species.

“The creation of new protected areas, as well as the correct implementation of those that already exist, such as conservation corridors where poaching is controlled, are urgent actions to be carried out by the local government,” Quiroga said.

Quiroga and her team are continuing their work to document and protect the mammals of the Argentine Chaco. A major focus for their future work is a region known as La Fidelidad, which has been proposed as a future national park.

Verónica Quiroga and Veterinarian Juan Arrabal checking trails in Copo National Park.
Verónica Quiroga and Veterinarian Juan Arrabal checking trails in Copo National Park. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

“This area is located in the heart of the Argentine Chaco, it is 2,500 square kilometers of Chaco forest in excellent condition, without rural inhabitants and with a great potential for the recovery of the jaguar. This site is one of the last with these characteristics in the region, is in a strategic location with respect to other protected areas, and has a high availability of prey for the jaguar,” Quiroga explained.

“Our research efforts will be focused in the coming years at La Fidelidad and in other sites of the Chaco region where we believe that the jaguar still has a chance.”

Tapir (Tapirus-terrestris) in dry chaco forest from La Fidelidad Argentina.
Tapir (Tapirus-terrestris) in dry chaco forest from La Fidelidad Argentina. Photo courtesy of Verónica Quiroga.

Citations:

  • Quiroga, V. A., Boaglio, G. I., Noss, A. J. and Di Bitetti, M. S. 2013. Critical population status of the jaguar Panthera onca in the Argentine Chaco: camera-trap surveys suggest recent collapse and imminent regional extinction. Oryx. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0030605312000944