Story of a Birth: The Origin of M’Bopicuá Nature Park
Twenty years ago, an old ranch full of bats marked the beginning of a story that became a “song to nature.”
The first animals to comfortably inhabit the facilities of what is now M’Bopicuá Nature Park had little to do with the ones that currently live there. They hadn’t arrived as a result of a rescue or a donation from institutions or as part of the plan of the first wildlife breeding station.
They were bats, which had made the old ranch of M’Bopicuá theirs, taking refuge between its roof tiles and cloth ceiling. Naturalist Juan Villalba, now the head of the nature park, found them over twenty years ago while inspecting the ranch shortly after it had been purchased by the company ENCE.
It was clear why the bats were there. The semi-abandoned farmhouse of the ranch, part of the meat establishment that had been founded in 1872, gave them the shelter and darkness they like so much. Juan was also seeking shelter, but why he was there is an altogether different story, which requires going further back in time.
Along with other researchers and naturalists, Villalba had been conducting surveys of the wildlife on the property ENCE had purchased in Uruguay since 1996. He did so at the request of engineer Rosario Pou, Vice President of ENCE for America, whom he had known since they worked together at the National Commission for the Environment.
In 1999, both Pou and the director of EUFORES contacted him again. The company had purchased the land in M’Bopicuá, where the old ranch is located, and they were both impressed by its potential and the fascinating ruins of the old saladero. “We wanted to do everything we could to preserve the history and nature of the site, take care of it, and try to get people to learn about it,” recalls Rosario Pou.
The idea was to build a breeding station for threatened species and promote their reintroduction on the company’s land, taking advantage of Juan’s international knowledge in the area.
The naturalist visited the establishment, which was so old that it was in quite a precarious situation, and designed a project thinking about which animals could later be released on the land owned by the company. “He convinced us that it was necessary, appropriate, and complementary to the work we were doing in the natural areas,” the engineer notes.
When Villalba finalized the plan and presented it to the board, they told him it was a very good project but that it needed someone to manage it. “I’m interested,” replied Villalba. The director looked at Juan as if he were hanging from the ceiling like the bats. “But would you come live here?” he asked, surprised. The ranch didn’t have electricity or running water and wasn’t fit to live in. “If it’s set up, no problem,” replied the naturalist.
That—not because he was looking for the darkness of the ceiling or the tranquility of the ranch—is why Villalba found himself face-to-face with the bats living in his and his family’s future house, this time seeking to convince the animals to find a home rather than giving them one.
A Homo sapiens and Other Animals in Search of a Home
For Villalba, who was living in Montevideo but looking to move with his family somewhere closer to nature, supervising the construction of the future nature park meant living there alone for a while. It wasn’t an easy process, but he decided to do it, believing more in the project he had pieced together in his mind than what he saw with his own eyes.
The construction required to house the animals began in 2000: the Homo sapiens in the old farmhouse and the native species somewhere that was then full of chircas and invasive plant species.
A beautiful Prosopis that towered over the vegetation served as a guide to start the plans for the station as Juan went over which species he would like to have there: the yellow cardinal, the dusky-legged guan, the gray brocket, the Pampas cat, the yacare caiman, and the coati, among others.
While the coati area and the yellow cardinal enclosures were being built (one for each pair due to their territorial zeal), the Homo sapiens environment was being refitted for Villalba. Unlike the yellow cardinal, Juan is not excessively territorial, so he has been able to live peacefully with the other three members of his family since then.
The nature park’s first residents, two Pampas cats rescued in Cerro Largo, even lived temporarily in Juan Villalba’s apartment in Montevideo while construction was being completed.
By 2000, between the arrival of species from a few reserves and the rescue of others, the site was taking shape. Some of the workers were so enthusiastic and determined to finish construction that the yacare caimans and birds were almost left without an essential area for their development: the islands in the center of the lakes, at first forgotten by a zealous worker who had to redo his assignment when Villalba returned after a weekend and discovered a giant pit, very different from the blueprint he had left.
The extra work paid off, because today, around three hundred herons and neotropic cormorants can be seen arriving in the evening to sleep and leaving at dawn, making it an island with “high turnover. “At dusk, you can sit there and feel like you’re at an airport, with birds flying in from every direction,” says Villalba.
From that first year, in which he found himself alone in the ranch’s old farmhouse, Juan remembers the nights in front of the fire, listening to the hooting of the South American great horned owls and the noisy bellowing of the chital, which took him back to his times in India, to which this species is native.
In March 2001, after being inspected by the authorities, the breeding station was officially certified. By that time, Juan was already living there with his family and the bats were living in a more natural environment, honoring the Guaraní meaning of M’Bopicuá: “bat cave.”
Twenty Years Is Nothing?
The nature park currently has sixty-two species in its facilities, a sign of maturity compared to its start of two young Pampas cats. The peccaries, which have formed a herd of over three hundred individuals, are proof of what has happened.
However, the development of M’Bopicuá Nature Park was not without uncertainties, such as the ones that are natural to any growth process.
2001 was a hectic year that brought many distinguished visitors due to the start of construction of the M’Bopicuá port: Presidents, senators, artists, leaders, and diplomats from other countries mingled with the yacare caimans, the coatis, the ferrets, and the cats.
The crisis in 2002, which could have been a coup de grâce when the child was just beginning to walk, didn’t interrupt its march. In fact, the activity generated in the region was a cause for optimism in dark times for the country.
2006 was somewhat more complicated. When ENCE decided to change its plan and build the pulp mill in Colonia, the question arose as to what would happen to the breeding station. The conversations held with the Uruguayan authorities regarding the company’s future in the country and the fate of the reserve were clear: “It’s untouchable,” they said.
The project that had begun among chircas and bats was already standing firm, but it still had one more step before reaching adulthood. In 2009, the companies Arauco and Stora Enso established Montes del Plata and bought ENCE’s investments, including the land in M’Bopicuá. This time, the possible uncertainty did not last long: At their first press conference, the members of the board expressed their pleasure at having the breeding station and confirmed their commitment to continue the project and develop it further.
It was then that the reserve had a growth spurt and became the current nature park, after Villalba wrote down about fifty different names in search of a definition best suited to the project. A nature park, as Villalba says, is very different from a zoo, because it consists of the interaction of animals in their natural environment and breeding to reintroduce them to the wild. They settled on M’Bopicuá Nature Park, a name that’s very easy for us to remember but a real headache for English-speaking visitors and naturalists.
For Villalba, the greatest source of pride during these twenty years at the helm of the nature park is having successfully reintroduced various species, “which is no walk in the park” (or it’s not like shooting fish in a barrel, to keep the animal theme). “You don’t just put a male and a female in a cage and ensure their reproduction. Mammals, for example, are very selective, and if there’s no compatibility, they can ignore each other for years,” he explains. Some species are very solitary and aren’t used to living in pairs, even to the point of becoming aggressive.
We won’t yet reveal the nature park’s secret (although we can guarantee it doesn’t include candlelit dinners, smooth jazz, or couples counseling), but it has been very successful, especially with margays, Pampas cats, peccaries, and tamanduas. “It’s proof that the animals are being kept in the proper conditions in terms of habitat and diet because otherwise, they won’t reproduce,” says the naturalist. It’s not easy to play matchmaker between animals, but when it works, it’s very reassuring. Even National Geographic recognized the nature park’s success in this field, which deserves its own story, of course.
The nature park’s story doesn’t end here or in the words of an article, nor is it limited to its facilities, because an important part of the story is now told by the species that have been released into the wild in different parts of Uruguay. It’s ever-changing, living, and built day by day thanks to its true protagonists—the animals. Seeing its birthday was, as Pou recalls, “a song to nature.”