Conservationists in Argentina are celebrating the birth of three giant river otter cubs. Classified as extinct in Argentina, the birth of the cubs is a result of a massive rewilding project in the country's wetlands. It brings hope for the species - and also creates more opportunities for sustainable ecotourism in the area.

After decades of absence, the three cubs were born in May in the Iberá wetlands of north-east Argentina. The historic birth is part of a major effort to bring the species back by the local Corrientes province government, the National Parks Administration and the Rewilding Argentina Foundation, one of the conservation groups founded by Kris and the late Doug Tompkins to restore wild areas of Chile and Argentina with money from their retail companies, The North Face, Esprit and Patagonia.

"These three cubs are the first that were born in our country in decades and represent the hope to recover a species in Argentina," said Talía Zamboni, a biologist for Rewilding Argentina. "The project being carried out in Iberá is the only one of its kind, never before has there been an attempt to return the giant otter to a place where it had disappeared due to manmade causes."

Two giant river otters in Argentina's Ibera wetlands
Coco and Alondra, parents of the three giant river otter cubs born in Iberá Park ©Matias Rebak

The giant otter, or choker wolf, is the largest of the otter species. Stretching six feet long (1.8 meters), the South American predator once widely roamed the Amazon Basin but decades of hunting and habitat degradation and destruction, particularly the conversion of grassland for timber, has devastated its species which is classified as endangered globally and extinct in Argentina and Uruguay.

But in recent weeks the situation has improved in Argentina. In May there was the first sighting in 40 years of a giant river otter in the wild. It happened in Parque Nacional El Impenetrable (El Impenetrable National Park), a huge stretch of once-threatened wilderness in the Gran Chaco forest that conservationists have transformed into a sustainable tourism hub. Then followed the birth of the three cubs in the Iberá Park to parents Coco and Alondra, two giant river otters that were recently reintroduced to the wetlands.

Read more: 3 reasons to visit Argentina’s Patagonia National Park right now

Argentina's environment minister Juan Cabandié said the reintroduction of the species brings hope to the future of the area. "It also brings new development possibilities to Iberá through wildlife observation ecotourism, which is today one of the leading economic activities in the Province of Corrientes," he added. "It brings back local pride and identity, as these species were part of the culture of the place."

The giant otter is the top predator in northern Argentina's wetlands, and as as such, it is vital to the ecosystem. Although further studies are required, scientists believe that reintroducing the animal to the wetlands should create a significant impact on the structure of the ecosystem by controlling populations and balancing the food chain.

"The giant river otter is an apex predators in the freshwater systems of the Neotropics," Matías Greco, a vet from Rewilding Argentina told Lonely Planet. "As such, this species has the potential to have widespread direct (by killing) and indirect (by changing prey behavior) effects on prey species triggering what we call 'trophic cascades' with effects on vegetation and a myriad of other organisms and ecological processes."

A Marsh Deer (Blastocerus dichotomus) wading in the water in Esteros del Ibera
A marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus) wading in the water in Esteros del Ibera, Argentina ©Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock

The giant otters are part of a bigger scheme by Rewilding Argentina to reintroduce several animals to their former habitats in the Iberá wetlands, including jaguars, marsh deer, red-and-green macaws, anteaters, lowland tapirs, yellow anacondas, black alligators and collared peccaries.

The Iberá wetlands — one of the world's largest freshwater reserves — are home to more than 4000 species of flora and fauna, and its wildlife makes up 30% of Argentina's total biodiversity. Twenty years ago the Iberá wetlands was a threatened area but now it's one of South America's greatest ecotourism projects where visitors can enjoy wildlife spotting, hikes through nature trails and boat rides on the lagoon and waterways.

Read more: Iberá National Park: Northeast Argentina's wetland wonderland

Grassroots activists from the Sin Azul team celebrate Argentina's historic salmon farming ban ©Rewilding Argentina

As conservationists celebrate in the north of the country, there are also environmental changes happening in the south. Tierra del Fuego, Argentina's southernmost province, approved a bill in June that bans salmon farming in open pen nets. The ban will help to protect the fragile marine ecosystems of the province, home to half of all kelp forests in Argentina, and makes Argentina the first country to introduce such a ban.

Campaigners say the historic decision is a victory for the community of Tierra del Fuego and for all the grassroots activists working to protect the fragile marine ecosystems at the tip of South America. It's especially significant for Rewilding Argentina, which has been working to protect the region’s Peninsula Mitre and its wildlife, including threatened species like the Southern river otter, humpback whale and Southern steamer duck.

Read more: How to find an ethical wildlife conservation project

Across the border in Chile, there are hopes that a similar ban could be introduced particularly in areas with intensive salmon farming including the regions of Los Lagos and Magallanes, and in the Parque Nacional Kawésqar National and the Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini.

David Alday, a representative of the Yagán community (the original inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego) from Puerto Williams in Chile said, "we are not just fighting for our community but for decisions that will have positive effects on a global scale. I see 30 years from now an abundant archipelago full of biodiversity and surrounded by national parks. Being optimistic, I see this area as an example for the universe."

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