Refuge

I love the wilderness. I love being in it and feeling it. I love the humbling experience of feeling powerless towards it. I have lived in cities and I have enjoyed them. I love how convenient they are. I love their dynamics, their powerful energy. They are simply pure miracles of ingenuity. But at night, when the sun sets, when I close my eyes and seek my dreams, I long for the sound of the wind sneaking through the cracks, the rain tumbling on the roof, or the waves pounding on the beach. I close my eyes and retreat in my world where the Wild conducts her own symphony – the frogs croaking, the birds tweeting, the crickets chirping. I have often felt like a tamed wild animal, always looking out, over the horizon and wondering where I belonged. Many days I have felt caged, prisoner, torn between the comfort of a modern world, and the rawness and purity of the Wild. Yet, I have always had the freedom to choose, to move from one world to another. In all honesty, I consider my personal contradictions a privileged dilemma.  But the animal in front of me, with his mouth wide open fletching his razor sharp 2 inch long canines, a fur coat with patterns and hues beyond beauty, deep blue eyes with a piercing black iris fixed on me, this creature, this wild animal, has never asked for the conveniency of daily deliveries and a roof over its head. This jaguar, this magnificent predator of the jungle, is behind bars because it has been found at the frontline of an over expanding human world, with no room for the wild. This cage unfortunately, has become it last refuge, literally.  This wild cat was fortunate enough to find a land owner who preferred to capture it and call the authorities, rather than killing it – the usual solution. For him and for all the other animals in this center, their fate took a drastic turn when Man showed up. It was either being killed or living in close confinement.  With hunger for progress and gain, our modern world keeps growing, infringing its reach, taking without asking.  And the last refuge for the wild has been parks around the world, created to protect nature’s treasures.

I am in Misiones, a province in the northeastern part of Argentina. It is a little narrow strip of land, squeezed between Brazil and Paraguay. While the neighboring countries have been leveling down the forest and replacing it with agriculture and cattle, Misiones has been more or less successful at understanding the economic value of the almost extinct Atlantic Jungle* and its inhabitants and the province has done what it can to preserve it. From the air, the area almost looks like a small peninsula of trees, threatened by a raging sea of deforestation. Its dark green color much in contrast to the surrounding plain landscape. In the 1990’s, Argentina put a lot in effort into establishing parks and natural reserves. In fact, the momentum for conservation was so strong that a total of 800,000 hectares, about ⅓ of the province, ended up protected, off-limit to logging companies and agricultural plantations. But at the turn of the century, things changed drastically. For the past 15 years, economic realities and a change in government, have shifted the efforts in conservation and now the forest is being cut down from the inside out. Logging companies are given more to cut, protected areas are being opened up to build new highways. To make matters worse, illegal immigrants from Brazil are squatting in the forest, slashing and burning the last remaining remnants of pristine wilderness, while local politicians are granting them asylum as long as they vote for them. In other words, the forest is the new currency for votes and the exchange for corrupted hands. Every year, countless new patches of jungle are being turned into tobacco and yerba mate fields or as silent barren land surrounding the immigrant’s makeshift shacks amongst piles of garbage. Even when so-called sustainable “Selective Logging” is performed, the damage inflicted to retrieve the trees is enormous. Parks and Reserves are still officially there when looking at a map, but on the ground the reality is far from what it should be.

For the past 3 weeks, I have been traveling through the area. I am here to photograph the country’s wildlife for a show that the government is giving me at the Consulate in New York. But honestly, I have been barely able to snap one single image. After staying at the Marcio Ayres Research Center located in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Yaboti, at the ranger station of the Provincial Reserve Urugua-i and at the science research center of National Park of Iguazu, I am drained of any inspiration. Ever since my arrival, my days have been filled with horror stories. I feel more like a therapist, listening and taking in each person’s account of how the jungle is being cut, how the animals are being killed, how the local authorities are corrupted and how powerless they feel.

There are so many stories to tell. A report done by the rangers, on road kills on the new international road that cuts right thought the Uruagua-i reserve, counts 3 to 5 casualties a day, every day of the year, including jaguars and tapirs. When they presented their result to the government, they were told to do nothing and most importantly not to contact the media, if they wanted to keep their job.

A new super highway is being built right through the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Yaboti to accelerate the logging traffic between Brazil and Paraguay.

Rangers that are so underpaid they have to pay for their own uniforms, hats, radios, and even for the badge that says “ranger” on their shirt. Rangers with no support whatsoever. Their job is to patrol the jungle, but they aren’t given enough diesel to do it. They have to chase down illegal hunters that are armed to the teeth, but don’t have the right to carry a firearm. An amazing research station, with brand new accommodations, a satellite, a computer station, running water and solar panels, sponsored by European organizations, left to decay with no one to care of it. Local conservationists who tell me how their work of over 30 years is now being trashed as if no laws existed and as if past agreements stood for nothing.

The list goes on and on. But the one I want to tell you is the one about a particular jaguar, the other one in the cage, lying next to the animal that I am photographing. It is the story of a male jaguar, in his prime years, one that should be roaming the dense forests like a stealth warrior, tracking peccaries, but instead is confined behind those bars. It is the story of how this mighty predator of South America got to loose all his teeth. Jaguars have the most powerful bite of the “big cats”. Their huge canines are used to crush skulls, break necks or pierce through the tapir’s one inch thick skin. So a jaguar with no teeth would be like a cheetah with no legs!

Even if protected, locals see them as a threat. When an animal is seen in a populated area, or near a farm, procedures are taken to capture it. At the same time, unfortunately but most likely, a team of illegal poachers is hired to hunt it down. Even if the traffic of jaguar’s pelt is not what it used to be, 18,000 a year back in the 1970’s, it is still extremely valuable on the black market.

When one was spotted near a school some years ago, authorities were called to secure the area. With children around, it didn’t take long before a trap was set up. Jaguars are by nature curious creatures, and often, to their misfortune, their curiosity spells disaster. In this case, a simple steel cage, with bait inside, was enough to lure the animal in and capture it. The problem was that the event happened on a friday, when the director, in charge of supervising the transport and logistic, was having dinner. When he learned of the capture, instead of excusing himself to attend the more urgent business, he decided that the big cat would be fine, in the cage, until the weekend was over! The rangers inI love the wild. I love being in it and feeling it. I love the humbling experience of feeling powerless towards it. I have lived in cities and I have enjoyed them. I love how convenient they are. I love their dynamics, their powerful energy. They are simply pure miracles of ingenuity. But at night, when the sun sets, when I close my eyes and seek my dreams, I long for the sound of the wind sneaking through the cracks, the rain tumbling on the roof, or the waves pounding on the beach. I close my eyes and retreat in my world where the Wild conducts her own symphony – the frogs croaking, the birds tweeting, the crickets chirping. I have often felt like a tamed wild animal, always looking out, over the horizon and wondering where I belonged. Many days I have felt caged, prisoner, torn between the comfort of a modern world, and the rawness and purity of the Wild. Yet, I have always had the freedom to choose, to move from one world to another. In all honesty, I consider my personal contradictions a privileged dilemma.  But the animal in front of me, with his mouth wide open fletching his razor sharp 2 inch long canines, a fur coat with patterns and hues beyond beauty, deep blue eyes with a piercing black iris fixed on me, this creature, this wild animal, has never asked for the conveniency of daily deliveries and a roof over its head. This jaguar, this magnificent predator of the jungle, is behind bars because it has been found at the frontline of an over expanding human world, with no room for the wild. This cage unfortunately, has become it last refuge, literally.  This wild cat was fortunate enough to find a land owner whom preferred to capture it and call the authorities, rather than killing it – a solution most of the time taken. For him and for all the other animals in this center, their faith took a drastic turn when Man showed up. It was either being killed or living in close confinement.

With hunger for progress and gain, the modern world keeps growing, infringing its reach, taking without asking.  And the last refuge for the wild has been parks around the world, created to protect nature’s treasures. The province of Misiones in Argentina is by far a pioneer in preserving its fauna and flora capital. It has one of the highest ratio of parks in the world. Its 79 parks total 800,000 hectares, almost a ⅓ of the province. It is also the only province in Argentina with a Minister of Ecology and their amount of rangers is one of the highest in the world.

“Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it. It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions. The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures. The fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot. I am not interested to know whether it is profitable to the human race or not. The pain it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis and sufficient justification of my enmity towards it without looking further. In studying the traits and dispositions of the so-called lower animals, and contrasting them with man’s, I find the result humiliating to me.” Mark Twain

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