A tapir carcass found recently in Argentina's Forest Reserve San Jorge has helped wildlife officials track down an elusive jaguar that disappeared last October. The name of the "great male" is Aratirí, and the team is elated to report he's still thriving in the park. 

Aratirí can be identified by a connected trio of rosets on his flank. Image: Emilio White/Proyecto Yaguarte

The carcass was initially discovered by officials from Arauco, who work with the local Ministry of Tourism to manage sustainable forestation. A closer look at the remains revealed obvious signs of predation – and whatever had killed this large pig-like herbivore was big.

With signs pointing to a top predator, an alert went out to the team at Proyecto Yaguarte (Project Jaguar), an organisation working to maintain viable jaguar populations in the Atlantic Forest. One of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, the forest spans parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

The Project Jaguar team wasted no time before rushing to the scene to set up their camera traps. "A few hours after the team entered to place the high-resolution cameras, we noticed that [Aratirí] had returned to eat the tapir," Forestry Management official Esteban Carabelli told Misiones." [translated from Spanish]

Aratirí is one of the largest jaguars known to inhabit the area, and this isn't the first time one of his tapir feasts has been caught on camera. He was last seen in October of 2015, devouring a similar meal in Iguazú National Park.

"He's surprised us again with his powerful ability to hunt," says a statement from Proyecto Yaguarte, who have been keeping as close an eye as possible on Aratirí since he was first spotted in 2010. "These exciting images show [his] important role as a major predator. Not every day can you see jaguars feeding in their natural environment!"

The jaguars that roam this region make up the southernmost population of the species, whose range historically extended many kilometres south into Patagonia. Much like wolves and other top predators, the big cats are considered a keystone in the local ecosystem, keeping it healthy and balanced. 

"About 15 years ago we knew very little about what really was going on with the last jaguars in Argentina," writes the team. "The scarce information came mostly from passionate naturalists who warned of the difficult situation this species was in."

Today, jaguars occupy less than half of their historical range, and it's estimated that fewer than 200 adults survive in Argentina – just five percent of their original numbers.

"Humans have hunted these animals either out of fear, or because they are considered valuable trophies, or due to conflicts for domestic livestock predation," adds Proyecto Yaguarte. "This situation, together with the ... transformation of natural environments ... was leading large predators, and the jaguar in particular, to a sharp reduction in their distribution." 

Argentinan jaguars are a sub-population that's considered critically endangered – a grim situation that Proyecto Yaguarte believes can be reversed through a big-picture approach to conservation. This means placing as much emphasis on habitat restoration and protection as on the cats themselves. 

"How do jaguars use the environment? How much area do these animals need to survive? We have been answering these questions one by one and trying to transform responses into conservation measures for both the jaguar and the Atlantic Forest." 

For the team, every glimpse into the lives of jaguars provides valuable information on this path to recovery – and that makes Aratirí's recent kill a sighting worthy of celebration. 


Top header image: Andrew Whalley, Flickr