In the early 1980s Douglas was guiding bird and wildlife tours into Brazil’s Pantanal on the somewhat recently opened Transpantaneira raised dirt highway. He noticed a large concentration of endangered hyacinth macaws, the world’s largest parrot, on the land of a Pantaneiro named Lerinho de Arruda Falcão. Lerinho had a simple bar in a shack by the side of the road, so Douglas arranged to take his tourists there for a lunch Lerinho would prepare, and the tour would purchase both the lunch and drinks from his bar. Douglas had recently used Focus Tours profits to provide 6 pair of binoculars to the guards that were fighting poaching here, and saw working with Lerinho as a way to help a local landowner see the value in protecting his macaw population.
A few years later, Lerinho presented Douglas with a canine of a jaguar that he had recently killed, telling him that he had proven himself to be true friend of his Pantaneiro community. He stating that if Douglas were to accept this symbol, he would become a Pantaneiro and a member of his family. Of course, Douglas accepted. Pantaneiro ranchers would start stopping instead of driving by when he was on the road looking at wildlife with a group, to thank him for his support, much to the amazement of his clients. Douglas had also learned that Lerinho was a jaguar hunter, killing them in the traditional way. His dogs would tree the 200kg jaguar, and he would approach with a steel tipped spear. As the cat leaped on him, he would raise the spear and the cat would impale itself, dying just centimeters from his face!
The next month Douglas made an offer to Lerinho: If he would stop killing jaguars, Douglas would help his family get into tourism showing clients jaguars, and he would earn more than he was by loosing cattle and then killing the cat. Lerinho agreed and Douglas set the plan into motion. He had many clients in those years, being the only professional nature tour operator offering Brazil at the time. Focus Tours would receive tour payments in advance, so Douglas would prepay the room nights by sending Lerinho the payment, which he would then use to build the lodge. Two rooms at a time, he could host the smaller groups and Douglas would pay one night, and discount the other night that he had prepaid. This kept funds coming in for Lerinho, and Douglas got his money back in a Win-Win partnership.
A turning point came with a client named Joanne Devlin (a Board Member) of Black Diamond Paving in San Jose, California. Her company was paying to preserve one hectare in the tropics for each hectare they paved in the USA. Brazil had recently announced a law (RPPN) enabling landowners to create private and permanent reserves on their land. With Joanne’s assistance, Douglas offered to pay Lerinho more than the market price for each hectare he put into this reserve status, and thus Focus Tours and Black Diamond were responsible for working with Lerinho to create the 2,000 hectare RPPN Reserva Ecológico do Jaguar, the Jaguar Ecological Reserve.
Focus Tours clients were delighted to know that their tour was helping to preserve both the Pantaneiro culture and jaguar preservation. Joanne and Douglas soon founded the non-profit Focus Conservation Fund, in the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico. This allowed American clients to benefit from donations to this project, which also quickly increased the company credibility and donations. We were able to purchase beds, linens, mosquito nets, fans, a dry cell battery backup system that would charge when the generator was on and provide electricity later, pots and pans for the kitchen, tables, chairs, silverware, etc. for the restaurant, and a screened in restaurant as well. We were able to get volunteers that spent months teaching English and provide support for international tourists that were starting to arrive on their own. We were also able to use our connections to give the Jaguar Ecological Reserve international fame. See www.jaguarreserve.com
One young volunteer was 14 when he first visited with his mother. Ethan Shirley (a Board Member) spent 4 summers at the lodge and reserve, and then, as a student at the University of Michigan, raised funds to build a school for the local children, in partnership with the local government. He has recently confirmed that two study-abroad programs from his university will be coming to build a bio-sand water filter and a biogas digester, as well as a cement water tower and a trash incinerator to reduce harmful toxins released from burning plastics. Read more about Ethan’s continued involvement at sites.google.com/site/pantanalcer.
Focus Tours and the Focus Conservation Fund are both partners in this school as well.
The program ended in 2005, after getting the lodge and reserve international press coverage. Douglas told the Pantaneiros that the program was not his program but their program, and to be a success, they needed to make it work on their own. We are delighted that 10 years later, the program had grown. The 6-room lodge now has 15 rooms, they have trained 8 other guides, and bring in a very substantial amount of money from tourism each year. It is being recognized as one of the most successful community based ecotourism projects in the world.