Hunting jaguar here is all about keeping your head low while running through the jungle. Better that way to duck the spiky vines and saw-toothed palm fronds that abound in this remote area of Mexico’s Quintana Roo state.
This several-million-acre patchwork of rainforest lies sandwiched between two biosphere reserves and is rapidly being cut down by immigrant farmers, ranchers and small-scale loggers. As the forest dwindles, so does habitat for this region’s most charismatic animal: Panthera onca, known locally as “el tigre.”
Jaguars are nocturnal. To catch one, you must enter the jungle in the pre-dawn hours before sun and heat evaporate the scent trail. After alternatively running and stumbling for two hours, the hunting party stops and listens for the barking of the dogs. “They’ve treed him,” says Tony Rivera, the 50-year-old former jaguar poacher-turned-guide. “That’s it!”
Somewhere ahead, Rivera’s five hunting dogs have chased the jaguar up a tree. Two trackers with machetes chase the dogs. And we chase the men. Let a gap open up and you get left behind. Joe Bojalad, a big game hunter from Pittsburgh, and Cuauhtemoc Chávez, a graduate student from Mexico City, hustle ahead along with Marcela Araiza, a wildlife veterinarian lugging a heavy backpack and doctor’s kit.
As the dogs’ barking gets louder, we look up and see a 70-pound female nestled 30 feet above the forest floor. She gazes impassively at us with her brown-yellow eyes. The jaguar’s beautiful golden, black-spotted fur keeps her well hidden in the forest canopy. Mayan kings wore jaguar skins as battle tunics, while modern-day poachers prize them as proof of vanquishing this jungle’s most powerful predator.
But hitting the target is not always so easy. Bojalad rests a minute and squints through the riflescope. He steadies the rifle, pulls the trigger and pfffftt—the shot misses. “It didn’t go in?”
Twice again, Bojalad fires, but no luck. The gun is passed to one of the other men, a tracker named Valentín Díaz. Díaz shimmies up a nearby tree to get a better angle, takes aim and nails the cat with the air-powered rifle. Disoriented with ketamine tranquilizer, the jaguar scrambles down the tree and stumbles through the jungle with three dogs at his heels. A fight ensues, but the trackers pull off the dogs and lasso the jaguar. The animal plops over exhausted and, ultimately, unconscious.
For the next 45 minutes, Araiza and Chavez take skin, muscle and blood samples from the young female jaguar. They remove more than 30 botfly larvae that have burrowed into the animal’s hide, then attach a GPS radio-collar.
Over the next year and a half, the collar will record the animal’s movements and the information will be downloaded by a computer flown periodically over the area in a plane. The study is part of a unique program sponsored by a Mexican conservation group, a university and a U.S.-based hunting organization that recruits American big-game hunters to fund jaguar conservation and research.
Hunters like Bojalad pay up to $5,000 to dart jaguars, the largest cat in the Western hemisphere. A Mexican cement company and cell phone firm donated additional funds to the project, which has been run by the Mexico City-based group United for Conservation (Unidos Para la Conservación) since 1997.
The initiative is not without its critics. Some experts argue the project has collected little evidence about jaguars and let good science take a back seat to the thrill of the hunt.
Alan Rabinowitz, head of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society’s jaguar conservation project and founder of a jaguar reserve in nearby Belize in the early 1980s, visited the Mexican project and was not impressed. He argues that enough jaguars have been caught and tagged, and that the project should make greater use of non-invasive techniques such as motion-activated still cameras set along jungle paths. He also claims the monitoring program has lacked follow-through.
Says Rabinowitz: “The project is being driven from a hunting perspective. Don’t tell me it’s a scientific project.”
Meanwhile, Marcelo Aranda, a biologist with Mexico’s National Ecology Institute in Veracruz, says the project’s use of live bait (goats are tied up at night to entice the predator a la “Jurassic Park”) encourages those same jaguars to attack local livestock.
In fact, one jaguar collared and released by the team in April was caught by Rivera and his team at a nearby farm in late May after it had eaten four sheep, a cow and a young calf—the first time something of this sort had happened with a collared animal. The 150-pound male was relocated to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve about 100 miles (160 kms) away.
But project researchers assert their success in collaring jaguars has yielded useful information. So far, they have fitted five cats with monitors. In the next year, they plan to fit monitors on 8 to 10 jaguars inside the nearby Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and another 10 in the mixed forest and farming country around it, says the project’s main investigator, wildlife biologist Gerardo Ceballos of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City (Unam).
Ceballos says that after the collaring program, he plans to set up a network of motion-detecting cameras along trails. The cameras will record both predator and prey, and help give an index of jaguar population—now estimated at 400 to 500 within the reserve. Outside South America’s Pantanal region, this may be the world’s largest jaguar population.
“We’re reaching the point where we have tons of data,” Ceballos said. “The hope is that we can have a sustainable population of jaguars not only inside, but outside the reserve.”
Rabinowitz and others worry about the presence of Rivera, a jaguar guide who helped to kill more than 100 jaguars before and after Mexico closed legal hunting in 1987. In the late 1980s, Rivera ran afoul of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for transporting jaguar skins into the United States, a violation of the 1974 Endangered Species Act. Though he says he no longer kills the cats, he believes the jaguar population is large enough in this part of Mexico to sustain limited hunting. “Jaguars need to be managed, just like other kinds of wildlife,” he said one night at the camp.
Despite the criticism, there’s no arguing Rivera’s ability to catch one of the most elusive animals. While other jaguar projects in Mexico and Costa Rica have had trouble capturing and tagging enough animals to form a baseline of research data, the affable former poacher has caught and collared more than 20 here in the past four years.
The most pressing problem is not illegal hunting, or the possibility of its return, but rather the loss of jungle habitat by deforestation, according to Carlos Manterola, director of United for Conservation.
Manterola recently began working with the owners of local community landholdings, known as ejidos, to start a mahogany furniture workshop to boost the value of the region’s timber and perhaps slow its cutting. He also pays local farmers whose livestock have been eaten by jaguars, an insurance policy designed to cut poaching.
“It has grown past a scientific endeavor for jaguars to managing the jungles of Yucatán for conservation,” says Bill Wall, coordinator at the Washington-based Safari Club International, which supports Manterola and Rivera’s work and links them with U.S. hunters. “Some people don’t like using hunters to capture jaguars. But we’re over the criticism.”
Sidebar: ...and one very elusive animal
Claiming the once-endangered jaguar has staged a comeback and now threatens their herds, cattle ranchers in Brazil’s Pantanal are calling on the government to consider lifting a ban on hunting of the cat.
The Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater floodplain, extends from western Brazil into eastern Paraguay and long has been the jaguar’s stronghold here. Though its soggy grasslands are inhospitable to most human activity aside from cattle ranching, jaguar prey such as deer, peccary and capybara abound. Ibama, Brazil’s environmental-enforcement agency, estimates 60% of the country’s jaguars now prowl the Pantanal, with most of the rest occupying the Amazon.
Hunting of the spotted and smoky-black varieties of jaguar (Panthera onca) once was so widespread that by the 1960s the cat was in danger of extinction. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an affiliate of the Bronx Zoo, some 30,000 jaguar skins a year were coming out of Brazil in the 60s.
But in 1967, Brazil banned jaguar hunting. Then, in 1974, a massive flood inundated vast portions of the Pantanal and its pasturelands, killing large numbers of cattle. With the drastic change in water levels, many ranchers simply left.
In the absence of men and dogs, and with the hunting ban in effect, jaguar populations grew, according to Peter Crawshaw, director of Ibama’s natural-predator conservation center. Since jaguars are excellent swimmers, Crawshaw says, they survived amid flood conditions by moving from island to island and feeding on prey hemmed in by the high waters.
Yet Crawshaw acknowledges that the government has no firm statistics on how much the Pantanal’s jaguar population has grown since the 1960s and 70s, or even whether that population is at a healthy level.
“But based on the number of weekly jaguar sightings I made in the Pantanal in the late 1970s and the increased number of sightings being made now, I’m guesstimating that the jaguar population in the Pantanal may have gone up by 50% in the last 10 to 15 years,” he says. “The ban on jaguar hunting in 1967 and the Pantanal’s flooding in 1974 apparently allowed the cat to breed more freely there. And as endangered populations don’t greatly increase overnight, it appears to have taken a few decades for the jaguar to do so.”
Pantanal ranchers insist jaguars are killing more of their cattle. João Dittmar, who owns a small herd in the southern Pantanal, claims that in one three-month period—March 1998 to May 1999—jaguars took 152 of his 700 cattle. Last year, he says, such kills fell to 50 because he posted more field hands and guard dogs in his pastures.
“The government needs to revoke the ban on jaguar killing in the Pantanal,” says Dittmar. “Or if we could open our cattle ranch to jaguar trophy hunters, the price we charge them for hunting the jaguar could help offset the financial loss that the cat is costing us.”
Armando Klabin, a Pantanal rancher whose herd numbers 7,000, claims jaguar kill 120 of his cattle a year. He says that if the government doesn’t want to lift the ban on hunting jaguars, “it needs to begin paying us for the cattle that jaguars are killing.”
Environmentalists argue it is premature to conclude that the Pantanal’s jaguar population is on the rise and that the cats are killing more cattle.
“While there are areas in the Pantanal where the jaguar population seems to be growing, based on recent radio tracking of the cat there by Brazilian scientists, there is no firm data to back this up,” says Alan Rabinowitz, who heads the jaguar conservation program for the WCS. “Furthermore, the increased numbers of cattle that Pantanal ranchers say are being killed by jaguars may be the result of disease, parasites, attacks by pumas [a smaller, mountain-lion-sized cat], or their getting mired in mud. Often, a Pantanal rancher or a field hand comes across a cattle skeleton or a carcass picked apart by vultures and simply assumes that a jaguar was responsible.”
Adalberto Eberhard, president of Ecotropic Foundation, an environmental NGO in the Pantanal, agrees with Rabinowitz. He argues that if the best data on jaguar populations is anecdotes from ranchers, then there’s no telling what the real situation is.
“It’s irresponsible and totally arbitrary to, without sound scientific data, say that the jaguar population in the Pantanal is rising,” Eberhard says. “It may simply be that, because the periphery of the Pantanal is increasingly being deforested and taken over by soybean and cotton plantations, the cat is migrating from the Pantanal’s perimeter to other, more central Pantanal areas where it is being spotted more frequently.”
Rabinowitz of the WCS, which received $1 million from Jaguar Cars of North America to protect the cat, says there are pockets in other parts of Latin America where jaguar numbers appear to be increasing. He points to a stretch of contiguous forest in southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize, as well as the Llanos, a central Venezuelan floodplain that offers jaguars the same ideal breeding conditions that the Pantanal does.
But he cautions that too little is known about the true size and health of jaguar populations, which—despite reports of growth—still are believed to be far below their levels at the beginning of the 20th century.
“Until we get a data-based understanding of the true population size of the jaguar in the Pantanal and other areas of Latin America and of the problems created by their proximity to people and cattle, we shouldn’t even begin considering solutions like hunting,” Rabinowitz says. “I would support the killing of individual jaguars only in areas where they have already repeatedly killed cattle and where there is no other alternative solution, like capturing and relocating them or giving them to zoos.”