Return to Paraguay: Conserving the Taguá, a Living Fossil

In 1972, mammalogist Ralph Wetzel and colleagues were studying armadillo ectoparasites in the Paraguayan Chaco when they came upon a peccary (what we call javelina in Texas) that didn’t look like those already known to science. The result was Catagonus wagneri – the Chacoan peccary, known only from a fossil discovered in 1930 by Argentinian paleontologist Rusconi. During the next two decades following this discovery, a cadre of various scientists ventured to Paraguay to learn everything they could about this rare living fossil. Some such as Jon Mayer and Phil Brandt went on to other careers, while others such as noted peccary biologist Lyle Sowls have passed on.

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Chacoan peccary or taguá (Catagonus wagneri).

I was fortunate in being the youngest of this earlier wave of scientists. In 2008, for my first blog ever for BEYONDbones, I wrote about my experience in the Paraguayan Chaco, fresh out of undergraduate training. Here is the part relevant to today’s blog, taken directly from the Introduction of the 2008 blog:

“I spent 1989-1990 studying a semi-captive baited herd of Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), an endangered medium-sized mammal endemic to the Chaco biome of central South America; taguá is the Guaraní Indian word for this distant relative of the pig sub-order. They are extremely rare, and very few people ever see a live one in the wild. Writing this piece takes me back to a time when I accomplished a lot by knowing very little. Only in my early 20s, I did a lot of growing up during my stint in the Chaco – hot water, electricity, air-conditioning, phones, TVs, stereos, etc. were nonexistent in my life, but the fauna was diverse and abundant, and the studies I was able to accomplish during my time there paved way for a lifetime of disciplined work.”

In early February 2016, I received an invitation to attend an international workshop in Asunción (Paraguay’s capital) dedicated to creating an action plan for the taguá. I received this with very mixed feelings, having not worked intensively with taguá for nearly three decades since I was very young and very green. I contacted the workshop coordinator to express my concern, and she gently and politely let me know that it was her hopes to get all the taguá biologists, present and past, together in one room, where the young could learn from the older and vice-versa. After figuring out how to get to the meeting and get the necessary blessings and permissions, I was holding plane tickets to return to Paraguay…

When I first went to Paraguay in the late 1980s to work with taguá, barely a handful of people were interested in this endangered species, let alone conserving them. I was truly heartened to see that has changed at this workshop!  All the necessary stakeholders were represented at the meeting – not just scientists, but also indigenous Guaraní who depend on taguá for protein and the hide for other uses. Landowners and administrators who advise ranchers on integrating wildlife and ranching were present, including representatives from the Mennonite colonies (Mennonites occupy a good chunk of the range where taguá occur in Paraguay) and important government officials including the heads of National Parks for certain states.

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Geographic range of the Taguá in the Chaco of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.

In total there more than 30 representatives from the range of the taguá (Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia) as well as a few biologists from other countries who met from late February to early March for a week of intensive meetings. On the first day of the meeting, the taguá biologists worked on reviewing the taguá’s status and distribution, and generating a population viability and habitat suitability analysis (PVHA) using a computer modeling program called Vortex. Various life history parameters from data I collected as a youth were entered into the computer program, and it spat out the number of individuals necessary to conserve the taguá well into the future.

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During the remaining three days, participants worked on identifying a vision for the action plan based on the main primary threats to the taguá. Participants were separated into three break-out working groups (habitat loss, hunting, lack of knowledge) to determine isolating problems and goals and actions that address the main threats to the taguá. The latter group (lack of knowledge) also worked on identifying potential roles for captive breeding programs. Additionally, a network of committed professionals and institutions was created to put the recommendations and priority actions into practice.

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The habitat loss break-out working group.

I think everyone enjoyed getting to work with other like-minded people toward a common goal. It was a lot of fun reuniting with old friends after so many years, as well as building new friendships. Hopefully, the governments of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia will incorporate the action plan into their respective conservation planning.

Today, Juan Campos is the director of the project I worked on so many years ago. The project’s name has been changed to CCCI/Proyecto Taguá (translated: Chaco Center for Conservation and Investigations/The Taguá Project). Juan is a true gentleman and is doing some outstanding work!  We are currently making plans to collaborate on various projects.

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Juan Campos, left, with a current version of yours truly.

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Me circa 1989.

The man who initially sent me to Paraguay was Dr. Kurt Benirschke, who was one of the originators of the concept of breeding endangered species in captivity as a conservation tool. He is also the father of former San Diego Charger’s star kicker, Rolf Benirschke! Kurt instilled some great concepts in me at a very young age, like the one and only medicine you need in life is hard work. He used to tell wonderful stories of wildlife encounters he had in Paraguay and other areas. I remember on one such occasion he was telling me that just 25 years ago (some time around 1964), massive woolly spider monkeys or muriquis (Brachyteles arachnoides) lived in the tri-country region of I’guasu, but sadly the species had gone extinct. One of the most funny, yet very real and bittersweet moments of the week involved some storytelling of my own. Some of the younger biologists, newer yet already very experienced with Paraguay’s wildlife, were lamenting that black howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) were now becoming extremely rare in Paraguay. I told them they were mistaken, since I remembered them from when I lived in Paraguay just 27 years ago. They were extremely common, even in the neighborhoods of Asunción, where it was possible to see them using utility lines to get around! My new, younger friends looked at each other with shock, then looked at me with suspicion, and cautiously informed me that howler monkeys disappeared from Asunción many years ago. Saddened by this, I realized that things had come full circle – another fantastic, large and charismatic vertebrate had become locally extinct in another span of roughly 25 years. Hopefully it won’t be too late for the taguá…

On being prey..

My first blog, raided from old camp logs, was of early days of my career in the Paraguayan Chaco.  Specifically, a first-hand encounter with a scarcely seen large mammal, the Chacoan Peccary (Catagonus wagneri).  This blog is similar, in that it describes another first-hand encounter with a scarcely seen large mammal – the Jaguar (Panthera onca).

Jakob, my Paraguayan counterpart at the time, was a Mennonite who had lived in the Chaco for practically his whole life.  I was fresh out of my undergraduate program in my early 20’s, given this incredible opportunity to live and work in the Chaco by Dr. Kurt Benirschke (more about Dr. B in a future blog). 

We were doing some survey work in the northern Chaco, and continued straight north into southeastern Dept. Santa Cruz, Bolivia– somewhat of a risky move at the time, as parts of Bolivia weren’t nearly as safe back then.  We were able to observe numerous species of little-known birds and collected transect data throughout the northern Chaco on various game species: Chaco chachalacas (Ortalis canicollis), primates such as night monkey (Aotus trivirgatus) and dusky titi (Callicebus moloch), and a variety of larger mammals: brown brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira), collared (Tayassu tajacu) and white-lipped peccaries (T. pecari), and lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris).  We even collected data on other species of lesser-known mammals, including Felids (wild cats).

I successfully traversed three major life ‘stepping stones’ on that trip:
1) I got in and out of Bolivia safely (my first trip of what would be several),
2) I experienced the most tranquil moment of clarity I had experienced in my life thus far (in the middle of a vast private estancia [ranch] reserve), and
3) I encountered my first jaguar of what would be several (a live one, not its tracks).

The first experience was a personal adventure mission.  As I mentioned, parts of Bolivia weren’t nearly as safe back then.  Our vehicle was thoroughly frisked at all the military checkpoints, but we made them happy to let us pass with the standard bribe of a beer, bag of chipas or pack of smokes. 

Jakob (R) and the author (L), stirring the stew
Jakob (L) and the author (R), stirring the stew
(photo by J.U. Peters)

The second experience happened in the immediate vicinity of ‘Linea 6’ (Line 6) – much of the territory we were navigating was too primitive to refer to by place names or townships, as nothing on that level of order had been established yet, just pure pristine wilderness.  We were camping on a vast private estancia that comprised a portion of the southwestern periphery of Brazil’s vast Pantanal wetland. We spent all day walking through tropical dry forest studying monkeys, and driving through mostly desiccated wetland plain counting several species storks and ibises. We ended the day perfectly with Jakob teaching me how to catch scissor-tailed nightjars (Hydropsalis torquata) at our campsite with bare hands!  By the campfire that evening as our ‘critter stew’ simmered, it dawned on me how lucky I was to see pristine wilderness that was far from the threat of development.  It never even occurred to me that such a beautiful and tranquil place existed, but I thanked my lucky stars that I was able to experience it firsthand.

The story of the third experience technically comprises the contents of this blog.


Jaguar (photo by D.M. Brooks)

Jaguar (photo by D.M. Brooks)


On being prey..

4 July 1990
Cerro León, Defensores del Chaco Natl. Park, Paraguay

Well, Happy 214th B-day to the USA!  Wish I were home to celebrate, but in a way I’m having a celebration of my own tonight.  What an incredible trip this has been.  We made it into Bolivia and back in one piece, and I’ve seen all sorts of wildlife I haven’t seen yet in the Chaco since we’ve now reached the northern, more tropical sector.  As I write dusky titi monkeys are vocalizing their duet calls between territories.  I’m hearing more pairs (= higher densities?) here in the hills, than in the lowlands both here and in Bolivia.  What an incredible expedition this has been!

Last night we had just cleared the Military station at Fortín La Gerenza, where they were eager to make us unpack everything in the truck until we handed them some chipas and brewsky.  Although I’m inclined to think poorly of the soldiers for this behavior, I know that their bribes are driven by desperation.  When we were further north, just a short distance from the Bolivian frontier, there was a shack perhaps a few feet square, mostly open, not sheltered with mosquito screen, shade or anything.  Inside were a couple of empty boxes that once contained shotgun shell cartridges, a dirty blanket and some moth-eaten clothing punctuated with holes.  The dying coals of a recent fire were close to the shack.  As we went down the road, we came upon a young soldier, perhaps 16, barefoot and wearing crusty clothes, he was carrying a shotgun over his shoulder.  He told us he ran very low on cartridges a week ago to hunt dinner, and was waiting for the compound to drop off more supplies.  Feeling sorry for the kid, we had lunch with him, and left him with some food and supplies.  We didn’t have the size ammo he needed for his shotgun, but we promised to relay the message to his headquarters that he was in dire need of supplies or being relieved by someone.

Brown Brocket (photo by D.M. Brooks)

Brown Brocket (photo by D.M. Brooks)

So when we got to La Gerenza we did relay the message, only to have it fall on the deaf ears of the guards frisking the truck.  So we asked to speak with an officer in charge, but got the typical ‘mañana’ runaround.  Well, not knowing what else to do, we reluctantly pulled out of La Gerenza.  By then it was nightfall.  There were many brown brocket deer on the ‘dirt road.’  You could pick up their eye shine as they looked up into the truck headlights, then they would look away (eye shine disappeared), then eye shine again for a moment until the little deer vanished as it entered the dark abyss of dry forest.  There were several deer encounters over the course of an hour or two.  Then there was one who didn’t look away out of the truck’s headlights, just kept staring straight ahead and its eyes seemed to be further apart.  It was hard to see details from far away due to the road dust on this hot, dry night.  But as we got closer I could barely make out the shoulder blade haunches on the back alternating up then down, up then down, advancing closer with a slow and stealthy strut.  As Jakob sped up the animal turned and sauntered into the forest.  We slowed down because we figured we had lost it.  Just as we got 20-30 feet away from the area where we saw it, the animal’s front half poked out of the forest onto the road.  I could see it was no deer at all, but a jaguar!! 

It was hard to make out the details, as there was much road dust everywhere blending in with the only beam of light, that of the headlights, surrounded by the pitch black of the forest that engulfed the dirt road on either side.  As soon as we realized what it was we jumped out of the truck.  I could hear the jaguar walking on dry leaves in the darkened abyss of the forest perhaps 10-15 feet from where I stood at the edge of the road.  As Jakob’s door slammed shut I heard the jaguar make a quick ‘whoosh’ sound like it was crouching.  Then it dawned on me that large cats often crouch before attacking their prey.  That’s when I slowly slipped back into the passenger side of the truck.  Something overcame my body, such that I involuntarily froze absolutely motionless.  Even though I could not see the jaguar I could feel it watching me as I sat there in its cold, gripping field of view.  Something conjured up from our ancestors in millennia past, where I felt what it was like to be prey.  I think every hair on the back of my neck was erect.  I then realized the window was still open, and as I tried to weigh the advantage of rolling it up and risking stimulating an attack through my movement, versus remaining absolutely motionless but providing an opening for the jaguar to attack directly.  Before I came to a decision, Jakob started the truck and we were off. 

Postlog (3 March 2009): Well, what I experienced on that trip was both an intense and incredible experience.  I have the gift of remembering the detail as if it occurred just yesterday.  Back then (two decades ago) large cats roamed freely in the vast and pristine northern Chaco.  The Ruta Trans-Chaco (a paved road from the capitol of Asuncion clear into Bolivia) was not even halfway developed through the Paraguayan Chaco, and consequently of little threat to the pristine wilderness in the north.  Today it provides regular international traffic, and with easier access comes the unstoppable decay of the unspoiled land.  Back then, there were hunters who were paid well by cooperatives of estancia owners to do nothing but hunt large cats.  As these ranches were rare in the northern Chaco, so were the hunters who rapidly depleted populations of these top carnivores. 

Although I had a meeting in Asuncion about 10 years ago, unfortunately I was unable to retrace my prior footsteps since I had to be in northern Mexico for another meeting only 2 nights after my arrival.  The trip from the airport to Asuncion that used to be a dark undeveloped road is now full of Blockbuster video stores, Pizza Hut, and other similar signs of intense urban development.  Not a good omen for things up north.  I really need to get back to the Chaco for a visit to see how the big kitties are faring…

The Last Catagonus

When I was first told that the museum was going to have a blog site, I thought – ‘Oh great!  Now everyone who wants to know what I ate for lunch every day will have access to that sort of information.’  Then, Erin told me it won’t be the sort of blog site where everyone can find out what I ate for lunch on a given day, but a way of letting people know more than the credentials listed on my museum webpage

So when trying to decide what to write about, I figured – why not put some of those old camp diaries that are just collecting dust at home to good use? 

So here is my first attempt.  For some background, I spent 1989-1990 studying a semi-captive baited herd of Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), an endangered, medium-sized mammal endemic to the Chaco biome of central South America; Taguá is the Guaraní Indian word for this distant relative of the pig sub-Order.  They are extremely rare, and very few people ever see a live one in the wild. 

Writing this piece takes me back to a time when I accomplished a lot by knowing very little.  Only in my early twenties, I did a lot of growing up during my stint in the Chaco – hot water, electricity, air-conditioning, phones, TVs, stereos, etc. were non-existent in my life, but the fauna was diverse and abundant, and the studies I was able to accomplish during my time there paved way for a lifetime of disciplined work.  I hope everyone out there in cyberspace enjoys reading this.

                                                                                          – DB, 7/21/08

The Last Catagonus

12/31/89
Estancia Toledo, Dpto. Boquerón, Paraguay

At 08:34 hrs, this dude saw WILD TAGUÁ!!!!  I cannot describe the sensation of witnessing them in all their glory.  Even the folks studying population dynamics of this species have never stumbled upon them in the wild – tracks yes, and the individuals that the indian’s dogs ‘cornered’ in order to radio-collar maybe five times.  Even my counterpart Jak, who was born and raised in the Chaco, and has spent much of his whole life in the wilderness has barely seen wild Taguá!  The thing that kills me is they are right in ‘my own backyard’!  I saw them on Gabor’s land between his Estancia and house lot, on the south side of the dirt road.  There were two individuals at least in their second year with a ~2 month old baby [very cool that these rare species were breeding, sustaining, etc.]!!!

As the sun lit the dust which yielded off the road, I saw two huge, gray wild boar – wait, those can’t be wild boar, they don’t occur here!  Oh…part of my study herd left their 5 hectare habitat!  No wait, those don’t look like any Taguá I know…  Their dorsal hair was halfway pilo-erected.  They just lowered their heads and stared at me, displaying their ever so meek, yet ever so costly alert stance [it is this very behavior – the alert stance – that is mostly responsible for the Taguá’s decline, as they are easier for hunters to shoot].  Then they fled past me along the simbra fence line.  It was here that I saw the little brown baby, bringing up the rear.  I was in the middle of the edge of the road, no more than 20 meters away.  I was so shocked.  Then they stopped ~40 meters down their path and stared again, only to see that I was slowly walking in their direction.  Then they fled some more and went through the simbra and into the bush.  It was the same area where I saw the female antshrike a month ago, and found the road-killed rainbow boa a few weeks ago.  I snapped a picture of the dust flying and the gray rump kicking up into the air – just like my study herd does.  I was so shocked that I had to check the tracks to make sure I wasn’t crazy.  There they were, also saw some huge canid tracks – maned wolf?  probably not – too dry in the area… 

I will never forget this day – the last day in time of the 1980’s.  In a way it is almost bittersweet symbolism, as many predict mass extinction of all mega-vertebrates by the end of this decade…