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The F1 test driver turned wild jaguar lifesaver
After getting very closely but ultimately failing to reach the highest level of single-seater motorsport, Mario Haberfeld returned to his home nation and made his other great passion his life's work - saving endangered wild jaguars

  By Charles Bradley

Mario Haberfeld F1 testing

Not many racing drivers who have tested Formula 1 cars for McLaren, Jordan and Stewart have appeared in a documentary narrated by legendary broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. But Brazil's Mario Haberfeld was never an ordinary racer.

Delightful company out of the cockpit, but hard-as-nails inside it - and prone to his fair share of huge shunts - I've known Haberfeld since his British Formula Ford days of 1995. While he's still the amiable character he was then, his life is very different these days, but that steely determination remains.

Haberfeld now dedicates his life to saving jaguars via a remarkable project linked to eco-tourism and that work attracted the attention of the world-famous BBC Wildlife Department.

"In Brazil, all wild animals belong to the government," he says. "So when I told them how I wanted to save these jaguars they asked, 'What's your background?" And I said: 'I'm a racecar driver.' A guy started laughing in my face.

"Luckily, another guy gave me the permits I needed but he said I'd give up the project in one year. Seven years on, it's become one of the biggest news stories in Brazil."

Before all this, though, there was a time when Haberfeld was being tipped as a potential F1 driver. In 1998, he joined an illustrious list of Brazilians who'd won the British Formula 3 title - including Emerson Fittipaldi, Carlos Pace, Nelson Piquet, Chico Serra, Ayrton Senna, Maurizio Gugelmin and Rubens Barrichello. But while they all went on to race in F1, he never made it onto a grand prix grid.

Haberfeld's European racing career stalled out in Formula 3000. In a confidence-battering first season in 1999 with the West Competition Team (aka McLaren Junior, below), he failed to score a point. While team-mate Nick Heidfeld won the title, Haberfeld even failed to qualify for five rounds. A second season with Fortec Motorsport included a nasty accident at Barcelona that put him out of action for two rounds.

Mario Haberfeld F3000

A third F3000 year in 2001 with Super Nova yielded one points finish - a fourth place at Barcelona - and it was only in his fourth season, this time with Astromega, that the results began to flow. This included a runner-up finish in the Interlagos season opener.

But it was far from enough; the F1 door was closed. Haberfeld travelled back across the Atlantic to forge a career in America, first in Champ Car. Again, there was much promise, as he scored strong finishes despite not running for outright top teams.

Finally, he turned to Grand-Am, sharing a car with Adrian Fernandez, but there his racing odyssey came to an end. Unimpressed by the prospect of a future in Brazilian Stock Cars, Haberfeld turned his back on racing forever, and turned his full attention to his other great passion: conservation.

In Brazil, the jaguar is facing a bleak future. The big cat, once hunted for its fur, remains under threat from habitat destruction and the risk of conflict between the animals and humans means they remain in jeopardy.

Jaguars are the third-biggest cat in the world behind tigers and lions, and pound-for-pound they are the strongest. But they are elusive and fundamentally quite lazy creatures

After chasing around the world's racetracks, Haberfeld is more likely now to be found in his all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi on the dirt tracks of Brazil's Pantanal wetlands, working with his dedicated team to learn as much as they can about these mighty animals, and to do everything to educate the world about them via his Oncafari project.

"[I'd say] 95% of the Pantanal is private land, and you have a lot of cattle ranches," he explains. "Like when people see a snake, they kill it, because they think it poses a threat - so they used to do the same with jaguars. You'd also get poachers who wanted their fur, and a few generations ago if you killed a jaguar you were a real man.

"The fur industry was very big in the US; they once killed 20,000 jaguars in one year to supply that trade. Nowadays, if you get caught hunting them, you go to jail. But the big problem today is [farmers] hunting in retaliation for the jaguar feeding on their cattle.

Mario Haberfeld

"So, what we're trying to do - and what I've learned from all the places I've visited around the world - is that, through eco-tourism, you aggregate value to the animals. In the future, if a farmer kills a jaguar, he's actually going to be losing money.

"We see it a lot in Africa. Nobody goes there to see a hippo - although hippos are great - but you go to see a lion. It's the same in Brazil, where we have jaguars instead of lions. Where we operate - a 53,000-hectare ranch, owned by a friend of mine - we're very conservation-conscious. The local farmers know they're going to lose a few cows to jaguars per year, but the eco-tourism business we have that brings people here, this compensates them a lot more."

But there was a fundamental problem to eco-tourism based on jaguar spotting. Despite their size - jaguars are the third-biggest cat in the world behind tigers and lions, and pound-for-pound they are the strongest - they are elusive and fundamentally quite lazy creatures. Even when they hunt, usually at night or early morning, they are primarily opportunistic feeders - lying low and waiting until something walks past to strike.

Mix that with the Pantanal's lush vegetation, and despite his team recording 133 different jaguars on their site over seven years, until now, there was no guarantee of finding one. The owner of the Caiman Ecological Refuge that Haberfeld's team works out of, has owned a safari lodge for 20 years. But as Haberfeld explains: "The people that came enjoyed the lodge, enjoyed seeing the monkeys, tapirs, birds - but they didn't see a jaguar. It's what everyone wants to see, right?

"The way to fix that was to make jaguars feel viewable by people. What I learned in South Africa, and what we adopted, was a project from Kruger Park. They had the same situation, but with leopards."

Haberfeld's idea was, if it had been done successfully before in Africa, why would it not work in the southern Pantanal too?

"One guy, at a place called Londolozi [in South Africa] owned a cattle ranch that wasn't very profitable - in fact, his father won the land in a tennis match! Anyway, he started following a female leopard for a couple of years in his car.

Mario Haberfeld jaguar

"Guess what: the leopard always ran away, because it's what they do - they were hunted for their fur by people for decades. But after three years, because he didn't try to hurt it, the leopard decided to stop running, it kind of got used to him. The leopard had cubs, and they learned from the mother not to be scared of this guy. It didn't pass on the fear.

"He saw that leopard every single day. You know, at that time, you could not see a leopard anywhere in the world. They were so elusive, like jaguars. So, he made a great success of his safari lodge - people could come and, because of him, see wild leopards [in] the only place in the world. Then the neighbours started to copy him.

"Through eco-tourism, we're trying to save the jaguar. It's what everyone wants to see, but remember the jaguar is toward the top of the food chain. So, to save it, you also need to save what's underneath - the whole biome, the forest, everything" Mario Haberfeld

"Now, on a huge piece of land, which was private land for sheep, they made a big reserve - and joined it to the Kruger Park. So now the animals can roam free in a larger area. The land value of these properties went up a lot due to the eco-tourism that followed this.

"Now, this guy's neighbour sold his land [at] 10,000 hectares for $100million. The most valuable agricultural land in the country. So, this has gone from land worth nothing, that he won in a tennis match, to that!

"[It's] good for them, good for the animals - because nobody shoots them, and they have more space to roam. Good for the local people, because eco-tourism creates a lot more jobs than a cattle ranch. Everyone gains with eco-tourism. You can run a huge cattle ranch with 20 men, but to run a safari lodge, you need 55 people to do it properly, and women as well as men, so you can have families working there."

Brazil's jaguars are the equivalent of South African leopards, albeit larger and sturdier. And eco-tourism was faced with the same problem - people were willing to pay to see them, but the cats were too scared to allow themselves to be seen.

The solution was to repeat what happened in Africa and get the skittish jaguars used to the company of nearby cars. Then, when they had cubs, it would be normal for cars to be around them.

Mario Haberfeld jaguar lodge

"We started from a place where there would be three jaguar sightings a year," Haberfeld adds. "And, of course, the jaguar always ran away. Last year, we had over 700 sightings. And some of them were for over an hour.

"Last year, 95% of our visitors saw at least one jaguar after staying here for three to four days. This year, it's been pretty much 100%.

"These jaguars have been seeing our cars since they were born, they don't care they're there, they don't care that there's people sat inside. Sometimes, they don't even look at you. Or they look at you like you're a tree or something! Get out of the car, they'd run away for sure - which is also good, because we don't want them getting used to people. That causes a new problem...

"Through eco-tourism, we're trying to save the jaguar. It's what everyone wants to see, but remember the jaguar is toward the top of the food chain. So, to save it, you also need to save what's underneath - the whole biome, the forest, everything.

"We do some scientific research also, but I'm not a scientist, I don't wait 10 years to write a paper that gets published in Oxford or Cambridge - if I find something, I put it on Facebook! So, we captured some of the jaguars and put radio collars on so we can better understand their lives."

So how did Haberfeld's team come to the attention of the BBC and Attenborough? In a world-first, Haberfeld and his team managed to reintroduce two orphaned cubs into the wild.

It was one of the most audacious re-habituation programmes of all time, which included having to virtually kidnap the animals from a zoo.

Mario Haberfeld jaguar

Two years ago, in a town on the banks of the Paraguay river, there was a flash-flood. The rain was so intense that it forced a female jaguar with young cubs to enter a nearby town on higher ground to escape.

"A woman woke up to find three jaguars in her back yard, so they all climbed a tree," explains Haberfield. "She called the fire brigade, and the right thing to do was leave them until the night, then they would climb down and run away.

"But the firemen felt pressure to do something, so they got a vet to dart it - but the vet had no clue about drugging jaguars. You need to know the dosage of the drugs, for the right weight of the jaguar, and you have to wait for the drugs to work.

"The vet shot the mother jaguar seven times. Eventually, the jaguar fell from the tree, it missed the net the fireman had, and it fell into the water. The mother died.

Racing's loss was certainly conservation's gain. Haberfeld's new vocation deserves all the support it can get

"They got the cubs down safely and sent them to a zoo. We heard about it, but were told we couldn't reintroduce them to the wild, because the cubs learn so much from their mother, and it's never been done successfully before. I said, when I started this project, I was told I was crazy and couldn't do it. So why not this?

"It took six months, I had to talk to the president, the governors, there was so much politics. In the end, it worked out. We found them [and] practically had to kidnap them from the zoo. The state governor was impeached, so the next day we just went there - we had authorisations but they didn't want to know, so we took our chance.

"We built a 10,000 square metre enclosure where we work, all natural - just put a fence around - [and] we brought them there. [Then] had to teach them how to hunt. A similar project had some success, but after a month the jaguars they reintroduced started looking to people to give them food. So, that didn't work.

Mario Haberfeld jaguar lodge

"We knew we had to do this process without any human contact, without them seeing us. We used a lot of cameras, to observe them. When we started with live prey, a pig from the butchers, [but] the pig would chase the jaguars!

"They had one year of this process, where we allowed them to learn how to hunt wild prey. And then we released them into the wild. They could go back to the enclosure, we left the doors open - and to start with they went back a lot. But soon they realised the source of easy food had stopped, so they had to go and find it.

"One was very successful - [it] hunted a peccary [a sizeable wild pig] after just one week, which is one of the most difficult things for them to kill. The stronger hunter inside the enclosure struggled a lot at first. It was hunting egrets [a skinny bird], not really big enough for a jaguar to survive [on]. Just as we were getting really worried, it hunted a caiman [a small alligator]. And they have been fine ever since. They have their own territory - and now they are the jaguars we see the most. Even though we did not deliberately habituate them, they can go anywhere.

"They have GPS collars, as part of the authorisation, and they have been released for over two years now."

Racing's loss was certainly conservation's gain. And having seen Mario's operation first hand, I can absolutely vouch that his new vocation deserves all the support it can get.

Oncafari is now working in the Amazon, with another two cubs in a similar situation, and there's a gofundme page that supports the proven reintroduction programme.

For more details, check out their website, Facebook page or follow them on Twitter @Oncafari.

Mario Haberfeld jaguar

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Charles Bradley was editor of AUTOSPORT magazine until late 2014. He started his career as a freelance reporter for AUTOSPORT and Motoring News in 1989, while simultaneously completing an apprenticeship with aircraft manufacturer British Aerospace in his native North Wales.

He accepted a staff job with MN in Central London in 1995 and worked his way up to deputy editor. He transferred to in 2000 and later became its editor before switching over to the magazine.

Charles has covered many aspects of the sport, from Formula 1, Le Mans sportscars, GP2, Indycars, DTM, NASCAR, BTCC and F3 to club racing.
Contact Charles Bradley
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