Powerful and sleek in its rosette-spotted coat, the jaguar trips a motion sensor as it slinks across Guyana’s grasslands, its image captured in time by a camera affixed to a tree. A network of cameras, installed by the New York-based conservation group Panthera, reveals a healthy population of the jaguar, Latin America’s largest land predator, as it roams the country’s Rupununi savanna.
But there are no guarantees. Large-scale rice and soy producers are weighing plans to establish plantations in the Rupununi, a sparsely populated region of ranches and indigenous communities stretching 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 sq miles) across the southwestern part of the country. To the east, in the dense rainforests that cover nearly 75% of Guyana, multinational timber and mining interests are expanding their operations and pressing for new concessions. While such development might promise greater near-term prosperity to Guyana, experts say it also will likely shrink the jaguar’s habitat and threaten the animal locally.
Small wonder, then, that Panthera celebrated when it signed an agreement in late January with the Guyanese government to establish the nation’s first jaguar-protection program involving not only joint research projects but also rapid-response teams to prevent conflict between jaguars and rural inhabitants. The agreement makes Guyana one of six countries in Latin America—the others being Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Colombia—that have signed on to help Panthera establish a so-called jaguar corridor. The corridor consists of a network of safe passageways for the jaguar extending from northern Argentina to Mexico. The idea, says Panthera, is to involve Guyana in conservation programs before the habitat for the jaguar disappears.
Such efforts to raise consciousness and establish regional networks of protected habitat are seen in conservation circles as crucial to wildlife protection in a time of climate change and runaway development. Experts say the success of these initiatives will depend in no small part on the participation of groups which, like Panthera, possess scientific expertise and an ability to work across national borders with a wide range of stakeholders. That’s a role Panthera has been eager to play.
“We’re going to see a significant change in the landscape of Guyana over the next 20 years, and we want to create partnerships with the government as well as with mining, timber and other interests to be able to influence development,” says Howard Quigley, executive director of Panthera’s jaguar program. “We want to be doing that now, from the ground floor, rather than in an emergency mode.”
From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, jaguars were hunted relentlessly throughout the Americas to supply the fashion industry with fur. A 1973 ban on trade in jaguar pelts under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) brought that carnage to an end. Killing jaguars is now prohibited throughout the Americas. But much of the jaguar’s habitat has been gobbled up as a result of human-driven land-use changes such as the clearing of forest to make way for crops and development projects. Meanwhile, conflicts between ranchers, settlers and other rural inhabitants continue to take a toll on the animal. It is listed as near-threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is extinct in both El Salvador and Uruguay. According to some estimates, fewer than 50,000 jaguars remain in the Americas.
The corridor of which Guyana now forms a part aims to keep the jaguar population healthy by establishing a network of forested reserves as well as buffer zones around farms, palm plantations, mines and other development projects. That, say scientists at Panthera, will allow the jaguar to move between areas, breed and maintain genetic diversity, hopefully improving its chances to survive into perpetuity as a species. It will also help maintain the health of ecosystems in which jaguars play a critical role as apex predators culling the populations of such prey as caimans, deer and peccaries.
“We saw what happened with tigers, which went from around 100,000 individuals to about 4,000 or 5,000 in the last 80 years,” Quigley says. “We don’t want that to happen with the jaguar. If we do things right over the next five or 10 years, we can not only maintain the jaguar population, which is an indication of the health of ecosystems, but also maintain connectivity and set the standards for conservation of the species.”
In September 2011, a team of Panthera scientists headed to the Pantanal, the hugely biodiverse area of seasonally flooded wetlands, forests and grasslands stretching across 75,000 square miles (195,000 sq kms), mostly in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul but also extending into Mato Grosso state as well as portions of Bolivia and Paraguay. With abundant prey, jaguars in the Pantanal live in relatively dense populations and are the largest of their species, weighing up to 150 kilos (330 pounds). But they also are threatened by immense expanses of ranch land, which reduce their habitat and draw them into lethal exchanges with ranch hands. By tracking jaguars and noting where they travel and breed, Panthera has been trying to address the problem. They have been advising ranchers on how to preserve critical landscapes and avoid confrontations with the animal.
Luke Hunter, a wildcat scientist and Panthera’s president, recalls getting a radio signal at 2 a.m. after five days on a high ridge monitoring transmitters fastened to jaguar traps. The jaguar caught in the snare in the humid wetland night was gorgeous, he says—a three-year-old female in prime mating condition with an immaculate, glowing russet coat. With the cat under sedation, a veterinarian clipped a device to its tongue that measures heart rate, oxygen intake and blood pressure. A rubber collar was fastened around its neck, fitted with a satellite transmitter that would send three GPS locations daily. Then the vet drew blood, which back in the laboratory would provide DNA, information on genetic characteristics and breeding patterns, as well as evidence of disease. When the cat awoke the team left, monitoring its movements through GPS signals relayed by satellite to their office in New York.
“We are trying to understand how jaguars use the landscape so we can advise on how to manage the region’s development,” says Hunter. “We want to provide science-based recommendations that will preserve jaguar corridors and ensure that development is done in a jaguar-friendly way.”
In some cases, that strategy is as simple as setting aside habitat. In 2008, for example, Panthera purchased two huge tracts of Pantanal ranchland adjoining isolated wildlife preserves. As a result, 3,900 square kilometers (1,500 sq miles) of protected habitat and jaguar corridor were established. The creation in 2010 of the officially recognized 2,800-hectare (7,000-acre) Labouring Creek Jaguar Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary in central Belize plays a similar role. And in Colombia, where populations of Central and South American jaguars meet and breed, the organization is hoping to create yet another protected area. The reserve would be located in a mountain range that provides a corridor to the Darien Gap, the wild area of wetland and forest that extends from Panama into Colombia, effectively connecting the two subcontinents.
More often than not, however, Panthera takes a different approach. It finds ways for jaguars to coexist with human agriculture, industry and commerce. One way to do that, the organization says, is to teach techniques of animal husbandry that will reduce the possibility of jaguars attacking livestock and being shot in return. For example, by vaccinating cattle herds to avoid the existence of sick and weak stragglers or mixing them with fiercely territorial buffalos, cattle ranchers have been able to avoid costly interactions with the jaguar, the organization says. Even placing a light bulb in a corral can help keep jaguars away.
But significant modifications in infrastructure must often be made to ensure that jaguars are free to roam the river systems, grasslands and forests through which they naturally migrate. In Colombia, for example, Grupo Manuelita, one of the country›s biggest sugar and oil palm producers, is working to preserve jaguar-rich riparian forests around one of its large plantations. In Honduras, where Central America’s longest and most threatened jaguar corridors exist, authorities have been studying how to protect jaguar habitat as they seek to expand a major highway down the Atlantic Coast. And in Costa Rica the nation’s electrical utility, ICE, is considering buying forest adjacent to its 350-megawatt hydropower plant on the Reventazón River to create conserved pathways around the dam.
In all those areas, Panthera’s studies and recommendations have been essential, says Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, a former environment minister of Costa Rica. Panthera not only has helped companies and governments plan infrastructure. It has helped change attitudes. That became evident, he says, when Costa Rica last December became the first nation in Latin America to ban hunting as a sport after the shooting of a jaguar. Momentum for the move began developing when hunters posted photos on their Facebook pages of a black jaguar they had killed. Outraged citizens then backed a popular initiative with 180,000 signatures to bring an amendment to the Legislative Assembly of the 1992 Wildlife Conservation Law. The amendment banning the hunting or trapping of wild animals anywhere in the country passed unanimously. “That kind of passion against hunting was unimaginable ten years ago,” Rodríguez says.
Part of the explanation lies in the growing awareness of the importance of nature conservation in Costa Rica. Another element, however, is the appeal of jaguars in drawing visitors to eco-lodges as part of Costa Rica’s US$2 billion a year tourism industry. “People always thought that jaguars needed dense, large, unspoiled tropical forests,” says Rodríguez. “But Panthera’s studies were extremely important in revealing that jaguars can move through corridors from their core populations in the forests through the entire landscape. That made tourism operators especially interested in protecting those corridors so they could have jaguars in their reserves.”
Panthera already is collaborating with a large ranch in Guyana on jaguar research. They are working with two large mining companies to set aside buffer zones and helping to train indigenous groups in wildlife management.
Despite such signs of progress, it is by no means clear whether the new agreement with Guyana will result in long-term, successful conservation plans for the threatened feline. Guyana’s government has received millions of dollars from Norway and international attention for its public commitment to protect the bulk of its woodlands through its Low Carbon Development Strategy. But it also has been widely criticized for failing to reign in unsustainable logging practices by Chinese and Malaysian timber companies and permitting an environmentally destructive gold-mining industry to thrive.
“This agreement could result in better management in the nation’s five protected areas and on private lands, where the government can use education and appeals to landowners for cooperation,” says Curtis Bernard, technical manager for Conservation International in Guyana. “In Guyana, we have had important learning experiences, including the preservation of jaguar habitat amidst low-impact logging.”
The rest will depend on how conservation attitudes in general spread through the country. As far as the jaguar is concerned, Panthera, at least, is optimistic.
- Steven Ambrus