Ecotourism for conservation with Onçafari biologist Lili at Caiman, Pantanal

12 minute read

Written by Rebecca Woolford, Senderos

To illustrate the sheer scale of the biggest tropical wetland in the world you can fit Switzerland, Austria and Belgium inside the Pantanal, located in South America and STILL have room left. 

Despite being the largest freshwater wetland on Earth, boasting an astonishing array of flora and fauna, including the majestic jaguar, a confluence of human activities in Brazil and worldwide continues to add pressure to what is an irreplaceable ecosystem. 

Featured in David Attenborough’s TV series Planet Earth, Onçafari's conservation efforts are recognised around the world. Lilian Rampim (see below) is the operations coordinator at Caiman and is key member of the Onçafari team. Sharing failed conservation attempts, evolving concepts, and stories from the frontline, Lilian shares key insight into the complex and interconnected relationships between ecotourism, conservation and farm culture in Brazil. 

Senderos' stories celebrate the positive impacts that sustainable, regenerative, purpose-led tourism can bring to destinations, especially with the help of impactful NGOs like Onçafari.

Lillian Onçafari Senderos Stories
Lillian in a Onçafari jeep Senderos Stories
The incredible Lillian Rampim at work in the Pantanal with Onçafari 

Welcome Lili, it's great to have you here. Can you tell us a little bit about Onçafari and your work alongside Caiman? 

“Onçafari is a non-profit. Onça in Portuguese means jaguar and safari is a Swahili word for journey. Our work is focused on conserving biodiversity in various Brazilian biomes. 

I've been a part of the Onçafari team for the past 11 years, we specialise in habituation of jaguars in the Pantanal and maned wolves in the Cerrado. 

Once a Jaguar, or any type of wildlife is somewhat 'habituated' to the presence of human beings inside the safari vehicles they no longer see us as a threat and this facilitates Ecotourism. What we have achieved has been so successful it was featured in the TV show Planet Earth 3.

Every morning myself and the team try to locate the jaguars. Once we are in the right place we use a very special antenna to track them. Our starts are early, around 5.30am, returning to the lodge at around 9.30am.  

We know better than anyone where the wild jaguars are with the help of camera traps and the GPS radio collar. There are about six jaguars here that wear a radio collar. Once we know the location of the jaguars we share these valuable updates with the guests who stay at Caiman. 

Our amazing guiding team provides guests with deep insight including: The name of the jaguar, how old it is, its gender, how many sexual partners it has, how many cubs, what its behavioural characteristics are etc. We often see jaguars swimming, climbing trees, mating, breastfeeding, it’s so varied. We also offer guests the chance to install a camera trap, they choose the place and after one month we share the videos with them.”

Jaguar in the Wild in the Pantanal - Onçafari
Onçafari Lily and Mario - Sendero Stories
responsible ecotourism initiative between Caiman and Onçafari. Images from Caiman. 

With safaris often getting a bad rap for overcrowding and causing distress to wildlife. What does best practice look like?

“At Onçafari we’ve created a protocol on how best to approach a jaguar. 

For instance when you park a vehicle you can reduce the wildlife’s anxiety levels by placing the side of the vehicle, not the front, towards the animal. That might seem like a small difference to us humans, but it’s big to the wildlife. 

The number of safari vehicles we recommend in any one sighting is not a black or white answer, it depends on the location of the wildlife. 

For instance, if there’s a jaguar in the pasture where the space surrounding it is wide and open, as many as 10 safari vehicles can enjoy the sighting. In contrast, if you have a jaguar up a tree, then this immediately limits the number of vehicles. Beyond this it also largely depends on the jaguars character and preference. 

There’s a wild jaguar in this region that openly accepts two vehicles, but that’s his limit. We soon learnt that when a third vehicle arrives this particular jaguar moves on. So, we now know to respect this and we never ever radio in the 3rd vehicle. Other jaguars have different limits.”

Onçafari and Caiman are on a mission to prove the Jaguar is worth more alive than dead. What can you tell us about this complex and challenging mission in the Pantanal?

“The first thing to understand is that 98% of the Pantanal is privately owned. Livestock is a big deal here, it’s a huge part of the economy, after all Brazil is now the world's largest exporter of beef.

So, when safeguarding endangered wildlife in Brazil, removing cattle is not an option, it’s a deeply integrated part of society and culture and so as conservationists we need to find ways to work alongside. 

It's commonplace to hear the occupation of ‘cowboy’ in Brazil. Many people know little else, they see it as a good profession that they’ll encourage their kids to follow in their footsteps. 

The second thing to understand is that these domesticated cows have lost their survival instincts. And for the jaguar this just makes it a real easy hunt, the calves are often the target. For a small amount of energy a calf is a great reward for a jaguar. For many Brazilian farmers they only see the jaguar as a problem, so this creates wildlife/human conflict.  

Without the tool of ‘ecotourism’ I can visit countless farms as a conservationist and share the facts about these 'apex predators', the importance of their survival in big picture thinking and explain why we shouldn’t be shooting them and it often falls on deaf ears. 

Ecotourism is a vehicle which enables conservationists, biologists and scientists to approach the conversation in a different way. To share examples of how people are willing to pay money to see these beautiful creatures in the wild. These conversations can open up some cattle ranchers to the possibility of an alternative source of income.

Beyond having conversations with farmers we also install electrical fences to deter the jaguars. There are 3 in place at Caiman for example which we maintain. We also use radio’s which hang on the neck of a scarecrow, or bright lights to keep the jaguars from coming too close.

Started in 1985, Caiman is a retreat that welcomes guests from around the world, and they are a blueprint for ecotourism in the Pantanal. Raising livestock, promoting ecotourism and protecting biodiversity - all exist in balance and work in harmony.”

Onçafari Jaguar Conservation - Senderos Stories
Onçafari Jaguar - Senderos Stories
Lillian Rampim taking measurements from a wild jaguar in the Pantanal with the Onçafari conservation team

15 years ago an innovative initiative was created to reduce the shootings of jaguars in the Pantanal. Why did it stop and how has it evolved since? 

“15 years ago people started to wake up to the problem which was only getting worse. More people were shooting jaguars than ever, despite them being an endangered, keystone species essential to a healthy ecosystem. 

The initiative was simple enough. A fund was set-up in the Pantanal to enable a ‘pay back’ scheme for any cows or calves killed by a jaguar. If a cow carcass was found by a farmer or private landowner they would take a picture and the GPS coordinates would be shared with the fund. 

This worked for about a month, just one month before some people decided they could outsmart the system and saw an opportunity to profit. 

There were unfortunately some landowners creating bite and scratch marks in the cows and naming the jaguar as the cause. After a while the jaguar specialists started to suspect something fishy was going on. After visiting some of the carcasses they reported back it was caused by a knife or machete, not a jaguar. 

This initiative doesn’t exist as it once did, but it still exists at Caiman. Ecotourism provides the funds to pay off the prejudice the jaguar still gets. 

Each time a cow is found dead on the 53,000 hectares at Caiman, our team visits the site, inspecting the bite and scratch marks. We're also looking for signs of footprints. There are a number of natural causes without the help of a jaguar that cause the premature death of cattle, snake bites and lightning strikes for instance.

Roberto, the founder of Caiman is a passionate conservationist, so he’s willing to invest time and resources in investigating each cow carcass as and when they come up. Roberto’s approach and commitment to protecting biodiversity is unique.

Caiman is a shining example of how ecotourism, conservation and farming can co-exist in perfect harmony.”

Caiman Brazil - Senderos stories
Terrace Caiman in Brazil - Senderos
Guests enjoying a close encounter and the terrace fire pits at Caiman, Brazil

What was one of your most memorable encounters in the Pantanal and why was it the most memorable? 

“This is a hard question to answer. Every single sighting and moment with jaguars is such a privilege to be a part of. There was this one time in 2014 that I must share with you, it's actually a sequence of events. 

It started in 2012 when we started monitoring a Jaguar called Esperança, otherwise known as the ‘mother Jaguar’ - it also means hope in English. In 2012, she had her first cub, Natureza, and we had the opportunity to monitor and habituate them both. It was a very special time. 

In May 2013, the team and I discovered the first jaguar den in the world after closely monitoring the movements (or in this case the lack of movement) of Esperança. She’d gone into hiding to have triplets! 

Capturing footage inside the den was a real highlight, however the memorable encounter happened later on...

It was October 1st 2014, the team and I were inspecting a cow carcass. Out of nowhere Esperança suddenly appeared with her three triplets. Relaxing in the pasture with her cubs, we didn't want to miss such a rare opportunity with her and stayed three hours before it happened…

Esperança suddenly sits up, her ears pointing toward the forest and the energy changes. This ‘mother jaguar’ then got up and walked away into the forest leaving the triplets behind. 

I started to ask: What should we do? Should we stay with the cubs? Should we follow her? What the hell is going on? In the distance the sounds of aggression, fighting and roars were heard. 

It then became crystal clear. I looked at Léo who was in the safari car with me and I said, “Man, she has just entrusted us with her precious triplets whilst she fights off danger. Esperança knew she could leave her cubs with us and they’d be safe. It was an emotional day.” 

Pousada Trijunção - Brazil - Cerrado - Senderos
Maned wolf Cerrado Oncafari - Senderos
Images from Pousada Trijunção in the Cerrado with the OnCafari team

The OnCafari team not only works in the Pantanal but in Brazil’s 2nd largest biome, the Cerrado. What can you tell us about your work there?

“In the Cerrado, a Brazilian savannah, we work with a completely different species. The maned wolf and our habituation efforts there were featured in the TV show Planet Earth 3 with Sir David Attenborough. 

About seven years ago we started the ‘habituation process’ with Maned wolves in the Cerrado, drawing upon the experience and knowledge we had gained from the jaguars in the Pantanal. We naturally made a few adjustments because we were working with a completely different species. 

The data and science we’ve gathered so far are providing groundbreaking insights into a species which so little is known. We are able to learn so much more and better understand their natural behaviours because they're so accepting to us in their environment.

In the Cerrado there’s a place where black pumas are known to roam. Elusive, mythical creatures, we’re excited to learn more about them too. Today we work with Pousada Trijunção which is a part of the OCanto group.” 

To find out more about the Cerrado, and the maned wolf click here

What's next for Onçafari?

“We’re excited to keep evolving in the areas we specialise within. We’re focused on becoming even better, to create an even bigger impact in the ecotourism sector and in collecting critical scientific data. We’re also buying up land that would otherwise be occupied by monoculture, soybean plantation and instead are creating wildlife corridors, not only for jaguars, but for all the wildlife that call this place home. 

Jaguars are where we specialise, but our world-leading habitation process is also being used with maned wolves, and pumas. 

Our conservation work began with the Caiman, but we are also working alongside the OCanto group in the Cerrado, as well as in the Amazon and Atlantic Forest.”

To learn more about the partners mentioned in this interview please click below.

Caiman

Pousada Trijunção

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