Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

The Globe and Mail, Saturday, September 27, 2003 -- Page F5


By Shawn Blore

A Brazilian park, encircled by farmland, was more like a jail than a haven for the mighty jaguar. SHAWN BLORE details the innovative solution -- travel corridors to link it with other reserves

To the human eye, it's a field of wheat and short-cropped pasture grass. From a jaguar's point of view, it's a moonscape, a fast-flowing river, a vast and impassable barrier. To the vice-director of Brazil's Iguaçu National Park, it was the last missing link in his plan to preserve the park's population of South America's largest, most charismatic, most threatened feline predator.

The park at the southern border of Brazil is mostly known for its waterfalls, highlighted in the Robert de Niro film The Mission. But in addition to the glorious cataracts and the snap-happy tourists, the park also boasts 185,000 hectares of pristine subtropical forest, off-limits to all but biologists and animals, territory enough in theory to support a population of about 200 jaguars.

In reality, the population is less than 50, and falling. "If you look at the park from above," says Apolonio Rodrigues, a shaggy-haired biologist who serves as the park's second-in-command, "it's like an island of trees in a sea of farms. Jaguars can't enter farmland. They're isolated." Over time, the isolation leads to more and more severe inbreeding, and a population that is genetically more similar and less fit to survive.

To solve this problem Mr. Rodrigues envisioned a series of wild corridors linking the park to other nature reserves farther north. Animals would be able to move along these corridors and interbreed with animals living in the park, creating what biologists call gene flow.

The closest sizable reserve lay just 20 kilometres to the north on the reforested banks of the Itaipu reservoir, a 120-km long man-made lake created to service the Itaipu Dam and Hydroelectric Plant. The long Itaipu corridor leads in turn to other reserves farther north. But between Iguaçu Park and the reservoir lay 20 kilometres of cattle, corn and wheat. This is where biological training and a lawyer's knowledge came in handy.

On paper, Brazil's environmental legislation is often more rigorous than in developed countries such as Canada. For example, Brazil has on the books a federal stream-side forest law that requires private landowners to preserve or rehabilitate strips of land on either side of rivers running through their land. The size of the strip depends on the size of the river. For a six-metre-wide river, the landowner has to dedicate 30 metres on either bank as forest.

Looking at aerial maps, Mr. Rodrigues noted two small rivers, one squiggling northward from the park, the other meandering south from the reservoir. The photographs revealed the streams' banks to be a scraggly, deforested mess. "We went to the landowners and told them about the law," the biologist says. "For some, it was the first time they had heard of it."

Mr. Rodrigues asked the landowners to bring their riversides into compliance. To sweeten the deal, Iguaçu National Park and the Itaipu Dam offered to chip in financial assistance. The park would pay for new fencing around the streamside reserves, the dam would pay for new tree seedlings. Even so, a few of the landowners balked.

This is often where things end in Brazil. In this case, Mr. Rodrigues managed to persuade the Parana state government to step in. "They told [the landowners], "Okay, you can join the program or you can obey the law as written, in which case you've got two years to fix those streamsides all on your own.' " The rest of the landowners fell in line.

The problem of federal highway BR 277, which cuts right across the corridor, was solved when the government sold a long-term concession to the highway to a private company that undertook to double the road and impose a toll. As a condition of the upgrade, the park managed to include a requirement that the highway be elevated on a viaduct over the rehabilitated river, allowing wildlife to travel underneath.

There remained one last problem. At the headwaters where the two rivers almost but not quite came together, there remained a gap, a slight ridge about 800 metres long, scraped clean of trees and planted thick with pasture. The land formed part of the 1,600-hectare Santa Maria ranch, a property owned by Sao Paulo businessman Licinio Machado Filho. Here, Mr. Rodrigues had no leverage of any kind, except the innate beauty of the project. So he went to Mr. Machado and asked.

"What really attracted me was the idea of bringing back the wildlife into the area," Mr. Machado says from his Sao Paulo office. "I spent every summer on that farm as a child. There used to be a lot more animals, of every kind, in the area."

Mr. Machado agreed to cede a corridor 800 metres long and 80 metres wide, a parcel that at current rates, he estimates to be worth $300,000 (U.S.).

On the farm where workers are just knocking off their six-day work week for a Saturday game of soccer, farm manager Fernando Freitas takes time out to show off the corridor. Work has just begun. A small fence is in place, a few seedlings are just poking up through the weeds.

"Four or five times in the past two weeks, we've had jaguars poke their heads out of the forest over there," he says gesturing to the forest on the southern side of the gap. "They must have come from the park. They look around, then go back into the trees. When this is done, they'll be back and forth through here all the time."

Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

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