Lessons from Africa

Mario Haberfeld - Oncafari by Gol Magazine

We are thrilled to share this article (recently published in the esteemed in-flight magazine of GOL, a large Brazilian airline), showcasing the remarkable story of our Brazilian friend and conservationist, Mario Haberfeld. The article highlights how Mario’s travels inspired him to take lessons from his African safaris, to help safeguard Brazil’s indigenous species. It is a proud time for Africans that the continent’s conservation ideas have been successfully exported internationally, and we at Bellingham are particularly proud to have played some part in Mario’s story.

We sincerely hope that you find this article enjoyable and that Africa (and now Brazil!) continues to make conservation waves on a global scale.

Warmest regards,
Jen, Simon and the Bellingham team xx

Mario Haberfeld CEO Oncafari in Brazil


The travels of former racing driver Mario Haberfeld to the African continent inspired the creation of the Onçafari association, a biodiversity conservation initiative in Brazil that began with trying to enable the viewing of jaguars in the Pantanal.
By  Carol Sganzerla – GOL Magazine (Brazil)
Photos  Raquel Espírito Santo
Translated version  Simon Bellingham
Click here for the original article in Portuguese

The life of Mario Haberfeld, 47, can be divided into two parts. Not surprisingly, his two great passions, racing and nature. Although they may seem like distinct and contradictory universes, both require a similar mindset to navigate: the race against time. On the race track the driver needs to accelerate to get the best results and danger is always imminent; helping to beat the imminent risk of the extinction of Brazil’s flora and fauna is also a race requiring careful navigation.

It was in early adolescence that the boy who practiced horseback riding, dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, and liked to watch documentaries about animal life approached the two worlds that would take him far. Mario still remembers the feeling of spending his 13th birthday camping in Ngorongoro Crater, in Tanzania, on the first family trip to the African continent. “Nobody went there from Brazil in the late 1980s. It was very rustic. We also visited the Serengeti National Park, sitting in chairs fixed in the back of a truck. Nothing was planned, the truck would get stuck and we would stop anywhere at night, and the guide would say, ‘Here’s your tent, figure it out.’ But I loved it.” Since then, trips to Africa became frequent, almost annual.

Mario cannot explain exactly why he took a liking to racing cars, except for the fact that he had been around three-time world champion Nelson Piquet since he was a child. Nelson Piquet was a close friend of his father, the packaging entrepreneur, Roberto Haberfeld. It was also at the age of 13 that Mario became a professional kart driver and began to have a disciplined life of training, commitments, and competitions. In his debut year, he won the São Paulo championship.

At 17, an opportunity led Mario to enter Formula Ford and move to England, winning the English championship in 1995 and subsequently the world title. “I lived in the same house as the Formula 1 race car driver, Ruben Barrichello, in Cambridge for about seven years, he always helped me a lot in the races.” In the following years, Mario competed in the British Formula 3, where he was crowned champion in 1998. “There’s nothing like the feeling of winning a race.” The invitation to be a test driver in Formula 1 came shortly thereafter, and Mario had stints in the Stewart, McLaren, and Jordan teams. “Motorsport taught me to work as a team. Everyone sees it as a one-person sport but I think it’s one of the most collective sports. If someone forgets to tighten a screw, the car can break or, in the worst-case scenario, you can die.”

Oncafari founders - For Blog 2023

During the two decades he raced, Mario continued to explore wildlife on his travels. And, Africa always called to him. On one of these trips, when he was almost 30 years old, he met the guide Simon Bellingham, who would become a great friend and driver of all his safaris. “He opened a wildlife travel company, and in theory, it was possible to see any mammal in the world. I said, ‘Simon, there are a lot of animals I want to see, take me there.’ And we went to see pandas in China, polar bears in Canada, gorillas in Uganda, and tigers in India.”

Once, in Mana Pools National Park, “one of the wildest places I’ve ever been to,” on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, going down the Zambezi River for seven days in a canoe, they were surprised by a submerged hippopotamus. “I was at the back of the canoe, and when I went to grab my camera, I ended up falling on top of a hippopotamus. I was like a cartoon character, almost walking on water, but I managed to get back in the canoe. Hippopotamus are the most deadly animal in Africa, besides mosquitoes – they can be very aggressive in their territories,” he explains.

As he continued to cross the skies, Mario grew tired of the race tracks. It was 2008. “Motorsport was in decline in the United States, and I thought it was time to stop,” says the former driver, who at that time lived in Miami with his wife, Ana Haberfeld, and his children, Roberto and Mariana, still babies. “I had the privilege of being with them during that phase, I was the only dad who took his kids to school. It was great, I would go to the beach, take them to the aquarium. But I found out that retiring was the worst thing I did. I woke up with no purpose,” he recalls.

It was time for Haberfeld to find a new motivation. In this search, he called his friend Simon to visit the Pantanal, a region that Mario himself hardly knew – “this is a common Brazilian flaw, that they do not know their own country,” he justifies. Arriving at the world’s largest flooded grassland, the South African guide couldn’t take his eyes off the capybaras. “Imagine if we could see jaguars here?” And he threw it out: “It’s possible to see tigers on game drives in India, lions on game drives in Africa, but you cannot see jaguars on game drives here. We need to find a way,” Simon’s words sowed in Mario the desire to do something.

Jaguars protection done by Oncafari in Pantanal in Brazil

Both Mario and Simon knew that the jaguar would be a drawcard, “protecting the jaguar would be protecting the entire forest. Nobody goes to Africa for the first time wanting to only see zebras, everyone wants to see an iconic predator like the lion. And here, they want to see jaguars,” remarked Mario. The two spent a month at the Caiman Ecological Refuge, owned by entrepreneur and environmental activist Roberto Klabin, an old friend and the owner of a 53,000-hectare part of the Pantanal. “I told Roberto, ‘This is the safest place to start, you’ve been preserving it for over 30 years.’ Roberto said, ‘I only see jaguars two or three times a year. But if you want to try, go ahead.’ I don’t know if he believed it would work, but he gave us full support,” recalls Mario.

The idea was to replicate in Brazil the Sabi Sands Private Nature Reserve model in South Africa, a region formed in the 1930s by merging some cattle farms. Just as lions threatened cattle in African savannas, in the Pantanal, jaguars were seen as enemies by farmers. Haberfeld wanted to reverse this logic and show that live animals were worth much more than dead ones, just as what happened in the Sabi Sands. Mario and Simon, along with a team of biologists, spent over a year getting jaguars accustomed to the presence of vehicles using GPS collars, motion sensor cameras, and an extra dose of patience. The goal was never to domesticate them, but to make them relaxed enough to allow observation, making ecotourism possible. In addition to getting jaguars accustomed to the presence of vehicles, they reintroduced rescued jaguar cubs into the wild. Two of them, “who had lost their mother in an incident,” were isolated in an area of Caiman Ecological Refuge and began to be fed with live prey without contact with people. “We released these first two, Isa and Fera, about eight years ago. We see both of them once a week. They have had offspring that have had cubs of their own. Scientifically, to say that the reintroduction project worked, they need to have fertile descendants. And it happened.”

Lili Rampin, field coordinator biologist at Caiman Ecological Refuge, says that when Mario invited her to the project ten years ago, she didn’t believe it would work. “I had never heard of a jaguar relaxed in the presence of vehicles, a free animal near a vehicle… without even being intimidated, I said, ‘I doubt it will work. Do you think the animal will just stand there and stare at me?’ Haberfeld insisted that she see the work up close, which had been going on for a year.” When I arrived, there was already a jaguar that was relatively accustomed to the presence of vehicles, and I saw it 30 meters away from me. I said, ‘This is for real.’ It was a little bit-by-bit job. I started with four more people on the team, the GPS didn’t even exist, we used radio signals. We traded day for night. I got addicted to lollipops so I wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel and crash,” she recalls. “Things changed drastically. Caiman’s longest-serving employee says they never used to see jaguars; the animal was always driven away, considered a pest.”

At the beginning of the project, the locals’ reception of the idea was not very warm. “When a guy from Africa and another from São Paulo came to help the jaguars, which were considered enemies of their source of income, they were suspicious, of course. Today, there is harmony. Caiman Ecological Refuge has cattle farming, and the cowboys let us know when they see a jaguar. I think their mindset has gradually changed. People see jaguars differently today. They began to understand that a jaguar is worth much more alive than dead,” says Mario. He tells the story of a former employee to explain the changes in behavior he witnessed: “A guy who worked with us used to hunt jaguars with his father as a teenager. Then he became a cowboy, earning a minimum wage. Later, he trained to be a guide and now earns much more. And his wife, son and daughter all have jobs, so the family’s income has increased thirtyfold. I joke that if you tell him you’re going to hunt a jaguar, he’ll hunt you.”

Since its establishment in 2011, the Onçafari Association, in partnership with the National Center for Research and Conservation of Carnivorous Mammals (CENAP) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), has already identified over 230 jaguars, and the estimated number on the Caiman Farm is around 60, with half of them habituated. Last year was the first time that 100% of the guests spotted jaguars. “Since the implementation of the program, hotel occupancy has increased by almost 600%, promoting job creation. When the project started to show results and more and more people spotted the jaguars, I truly understood the magnitude of the work,” says Roberto Klabin. “Thanks to Onçafari, Caiman receives an increasing number of visitors, which demonstrates the value of partnerships between tourism ventures and rewilding and environmental restoration projects.” Mario adds, “The purpose of Onçafari is to show the way through ecotourism, safari, valuing animals and creating jobs. We have proven that it works and can be a powerful conservation tool.” The project is currently established in ten locations, including the Trijunção Lodge (read the box) on the border of Bahia, Minas Gerais, and Goiás, where the maned wolf is the main attraction. In the Amazon, the Thaimaçu Lodge, in southern Pará, has been working on the reintroduction of jaguars since 2019. The Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge, located on the banks of the Negro River, conducts fauna monitoring but does not offer visitation activities through Onçafari.

Maned wolf protection at Pousada Trijuncao by Oncafari in Brazil


A racing heart and eyes that barely blink for fear of missing the appearance of a large animal are reactions that can be experienced at another Onçafari base, located in the Brazilian Cerrado and already on the list of the best hotels in Brazil to enjoy nature; Pousada Trijunção, founded in 2018, on the border of Minas Gerais, Bahia, and Goiás, 388 kilometers from Brasília (it is possible to get there by land or chartered flight from the federal capital, Brasilia). The local star, however, is not a jaguar, but the maned wolf, species Chrysocyon brachyurus. “Last year, they were seen more than 1,200 times,” explains Mario Haberfeld.

The departure time for sighting these animals – there are six individuals being monitored (Nhorinhá, Savana, Loba, Buriti, Pequi, and Baru) – takes place before sunrise.

Upon returning from an outing, guests can continue to enjoy the landscape through the large glass windows of one of the seven suites. In the master suite, which measures 90 m², it is possible to immerse oneself in the hot tub before choosing which of the two balconies to rest on.  There are also night sightings of the Cuvier’s dwarf caiman in Lake Araras, and mammals such as the Hoary fox.

When it comes to conservation, Mario argues that the more others are inspired by his initiative’s model, the more benefit it will generate. “Onçafari has this different vision of promoting conservation in general. The more the project is replicated, the better. If you ask me today what one of the biggest problems in conservation is, I would say it’s still ego. The guy wants to appear more than the animal. And that’s wrong,” he emphasizes.

The Association currently has the support and partnership of 20 brands. “Not only are entrepreneurs increasingly aware, but so are established companies. Many take ESG (an acronym used to group initiatives in the environmental, social, and governance fields) seriously. Maybe 30 years ago it would have been impossible to do what I’m doing, nobody would want to help,” believes Haberfeld. “Today, there are many people wanting to participate. Every resource we get goes to conservation.”

Onçafari is also responsible for managing an area of over 430,000 hectares, resulting from the union of farmers and entrepreneurs who created the Aliança 5P group – Pantanal, preservation, partnership, livestock, and productivity. “In three years, we have created one of the world’s largest ecological corridors on private land. There, nobody will hunt jaguars, everyone accepts the research project, and we will start ecotourism. One of the strategies today is to acquire more and more land to protect an even larger area.”

Looking back, Mario Haberfeld feels that he ran all that he ran just to get here. Offer him to drive a Ferrari in Monaco or go to the Pantanal, and there is no doubt. “It’s for nature that I’m going.”

Jaguar protection done by Oncafari in Pantanal in Brazil