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Onçafari Interview with Mario Haberfeld

Interviews

Onçafari Jaguar Conservation with founder, Mario Haberfeld

Following Onçafari’s new partnership with Nike and Charlie’s first-hand experience with the team, we sit down with president and co-founder Mario to find out more about their world-leading jaguar conservation projects in Brazil, and what’s next for the Onçafari team. 

With such a successful career in racing, what brought you to founding the Onçafari project?

I’ve always had two passions in life, racing and wildlife. My dad took me to Africa for the first time when I was 12 years old, to Tanzania in the Serengeti. Living in the back of a truck, we spent three weeks driving around the Serengeti, camping every night and only having showers when we found waterfalls. It was a great experience, so I fell in love with wildlife then, at the same time I started my racing career, which I did for almost 20 years and never really had the time to get really involved in wildlife because of that. I have tried to go back to Africa every year since, but it was only quick trips on safari.

When I decided to retire from racing, I wanted to work with wildlife. I had no idea how I could do that, I’m not a biologist, scientist or anything for that matter, so I decided to travel around the world to see all the big mammals in the wild, from giant pandas in China, polar bears in Canada, gorillas in Uganda, tigers in India, I’ve found a way to see them.

What I discovered was that ecotourism was responsible for saving many of them because with ecotourism the animals can have an economic value, you empower the local community, I thought it was a great way of helping Brazilian wildlife. Brazil is the most biodiverse country in the world but we’re quite behind Africa with regards to ecotourism. For example, nobody goes to Africa to see a zebra, I mean you might see them but it’s not the reason you go there. So, the idea was that people needed to see jaguars in Brazil for ecotourism to work and that’s how Onçafari started by making it possible to see them in the wild.

Now ten years into the project, how has the mission of Onçafari developed over the years?

Honestly, it developed a lot more than I originally imagined. When I founded Onçafari the idea was to develop ecotourism and make jaguars viewable by people and we achieved reliable viewing within five years. We had 1,100 jaguar sightings in the last year alone and 99% of the guests that came to Caiman saw at least one jaguar. And it’s getting better now as the cubs of the habituated jaguars each year get more habituated because they learn from their mother.

We also have a scientific branch of Onçafari where we do a lot of research on jaguars, pumas and maned wolves, a social development branch, an educational branch, we have a rewilding branch, where we were the first to successfully reintroduce jaguars into the wild. These jaguars had cubs, grand-cubs – this is the case at Caiman but also in the Amazon and Argentina.

What does a ‘day-in-the-life’ of Mario Haberfeld look like, what are you involved with now?

For 10 years I’ve been 100% dedicated to Onçafari – it’s my full-time job. In the beginning I was a lot more involved in the field helping habituate the first jaguars, tracking jaguars, checking camera traps and so forth. But now my job is a lot more bureaucratic so in the office working with our backers and sponsors which is a big part of what we need to do.

Our organization now has quite a lot of credibility with sponsors like Bank of America, Land Rover, The North Face and Nike – this is how I spend my time pretty much every day. I still travel at least once a month to check in on how things are going in our base and now, we operate in 4 out of the six biomes in Brazil with nine different bases.

An important part of the equation I would say is that between 30-40% of all our expenses are covered by our ecotourism because people that go out with us and do safaris with Onçafari end up making donations. Another policy we have at Onçafari is that we try to inject as much funding as possible into conservation, so we have very low spending and have partners for pretty much everything we use. Land Rover give us the vehicles, Good Year gives us the tires and North Face gives us our uniforms, Bushnell the camera traps and so forth.

As you know, there’s been an increasing number of forest fires in the Pantanal over recent years, what threat does this pose to jaguars today?

For people who still don’t believe in global warming, I think Pantanal is a great example of how the climates are changing as we speak. For example, we should be at the end of the wet season so it should be full of water and starting to decrease but the Pantanal never filled up this year so we have fires in the area and the frequency or fires is increasing –unfortunately a lot of animals lose their lives in these fires, especially the slower ones like caimans, anteaters and even monkeys as they climb the trees and the trees burn. The fires have been a disaster over the last few years.

Onçafari hasn’t lost any jaguars, but it definitely affects them because prey species are diminishing and their habitat changes. It’s definitely a problem long-term so I think we all need to work together, to decrease the impact of global warming. I don’t think it’s so bad for jaguars at the moment but eventually it’s going to be and at the end of the day, Onçafari’s focus is the jaguar because they’re at the top of the food chain. By protecting the Jaguars you’re protecting the whole of the biome.

Not a lot of people realize how big the area is, but you can fit Switzerland, Austria and Belgium inside the Pantanal and you still have space left. In the fire of 2020, an area about the size of a third of the Pantanal was lost, so it’s the equivalent of Switzerland, burning in a matter of months.

Why is ecotourism so important to Onçafari’s work and the conservation of jaguars?

Traditionally in the Pantanal the jaguar was seen as a pest because we’ve had cattle ranching for over 250 years in the Pantanal. Jaguars naturally hunt the cattle from time to time, and despite it being illegal to hunt in Brazil, we know jaguars are hunted in retaliation. Ecotourism is important so we can transform the jaguar from being seen as a pest to being seen as an asset which creates value for the landowners as it increases the value of the land. Ecotourism also benefits entire communities by creating more jobs. People that used to hunt Jaguars now protect them.

Our clients at Pelorus like to go off the beaten track, what makes a safari with Onçafari special?

When people visit Caiman these days, it’s quite likely they’ll see a jaguar because we’ve got to a point where the animals are relaxed around vehicles. The difference between going on a normal safari and a specialist safari is that you become part of our team, and you help with habituation. You see all the equipment and tricks we have to find jaguars, tracking using camera traps, using VHF signals, GPS signals from satellites on a collared jaguars that we have for research.

Our team know these jaguars intimately. Our guides will tell the whole story of each individual jaguar, its family, its cubs, etc. You’ll also hear about our ongoing conservation projects and visit our rewilding centre to get the full experience.

What has been your most memorable encounter with a jaguar?

It’s hard to mention one but I will always remember  finding three jaguar cubs that were from the jaguar Esperança, who started the whole habituation project. We managed to find them in a den when they were only six days old. Being so close to such a powerful animal and at the same time so vulnerable was very nice to be a part of and incredible to see them growing and becoming independent.

It’s always quite emotional when we see the descendants of Fera or Isa who are the jaguars we rewilded when their mother died. It’s was an incredible thing we achieved with those two jaguars and now there’s twelve extra jaguars in the wild from those two alone.

From documentaries with David Attenborough and now a partnership with Nike, what’s next for you and the future of Onçafari?

One area we’ve been focusing on lately is our Forest branch where we look for biologically important land that’s under threat and find ways of purchasing that area. Onçafari now has three properties, for example we bought 35,000 hectares of land that was planned for deforestation – 99% of it is still untouched. We’ve set aside funds for conservation in perpetuity. We’re building a rewilding centre there that is being built to rewild all animals of the Pantanal from jaguars and pumas but also tapers, birds and monkeys.

These 35,000 hectares have about 55 miles of riverfront, it’s a huge area but we have like-minded people that own areas around Caiman, so we’ve formed a sort of wildlife corridor of about 430,000 hectares with our neighbors.

Many of the images featured in this article are courtesy of Onçafari