Guacurarí, a wild jaguar whose killing by hunters in a protected area in 2012 spurred jaguar conservation efforts in Argentina’s Misiones Province.
When biologist Mario Di Bitetti began his research in the northeast Argentine province of Misiones three decades ago, he focused on the mono caí (Sapajus nigritus), a monkey that is common in the region. But on his tramps through the Misiones portion of the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest, a biodiverse ecoregion of South America’s once-massive, now highly fragmented Atlantic Forest, he couldn’t help noticing the tracks of a far larger animal—the jaguar (Panthera onca).
Initially, the large cat’s tracks appeared quite common, indicating a healthy population, but over the years they became increasingly rare—and little research was being done to pinpoint the causes.
“Although there is not much information, it is evident that different factors contributed to a decline in the [jaguar] population starting in the late 1990s,” says Di Bitteti, who switched his research focus to jaguar conservation in 2001. “One was the rapid disappearance, perhaps due to disease, of the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), the jaguar’s principal prey.” At the same time, Di Bitetti notes, much of the animal’s habitat in those years was razed to make way for commercial eucalyptus and pine plantations, and also for cattle ranches—where jaguars increasingly would hunt for food, prompting ranchers to kill them.
In 2002, with support from Vida Silvestre Foundation, the Argentine affiliate of the international conservation nonprofit WWF, Di Bitetti helped establish a jaguar research and conservation program called Proyecto Yaguareté, or the Jaguar Project. The initiative has focused its work on the green corridor, a contiguous, 10,000-square-kilometer (3,900-square-mile) fragment of the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest (UPAF) that is located mostly in Misiones but extends across the border into Brazil. Experts say the green corridor is suitable for jaguars because it is the best-conserved portion of the UPAF, which includes land in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay but today retains only an estimated 7% of its original native forest cover. The green corridor spans several protected areas and private reserves in Misiones and two adjacent protected areas in Brazil—Iguaçu National Park, in the state of Paraná, and Do Turvo State Park, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
“The jaguar is what’s known as an umbrella species,” says Agustín Paviolo, a biologist with the Yaguareté Project team. “If we manage to preserve [its habitat], we will in the process save animals with less territorial requirements. In addition, showing the hurdles facing the jaguar helps society see the problems facing ecosystems generally. So we’re not working to save the jaguar just because it’s beautiful.”
Three years after it was launched, Proyecto Yaguareté conducted a population survey of green-corridor jaguars and concluded the population comprised just 35 to 50 animals. Though such a survey had never been conducted throughout the region before, an extrapolation of counts done during 1991-95 by Brazilian biologist Peter Crawshaw at the northern end of the corridor suggested that green-corridor jaguars in the earlier period numbered around 400. This means that from 1995 to 2005, their population saw at least an eight-fold decline. “Even though we had quite a bit of jungle, the jaguar had suffered a [population] collapse in Misiones and the adjacent areas of Brazil and was coming dangerously close to extinction,” Paviolo says.
Alarmed by the data, a multi-stakeholder network that included representatives of Proyecto Yaguareté, Argentine and Brazilian civil society groups, the Misiones provincial government and the Argentine National Parks Administration was formed to draft a conservation plan. The blueprint, released in 2011, set a goal of boosting the population of green-corridor jaguars to 250 in order to ensure the animal’s “conservation for future generations.” It called for ongoing population research on jaguars and their prey; habitat conservation through better enforcement of the corridor’s protected areas; development of environmental education programs to highlight the jaguar’s ecological value; and cooperation with ranchers to help them avoid jaguar attacks on their cattle.
The project appears to be paying off. Last November, organizers announced that after deploying 200 camera traps on both sides of the Argentine-Brazilian border and using mathematical modeling, they estimated the jaguar population throughout the green corridor at 84 to 125 individuals as of June 2019. They were pleased with the results, given the many pressures on jaguar habitat in the region. Says Paviolo: “It’s a great achievement, one that is owed to the work of many institutions.”
The evidence of progress in Misiones comes as the importance of such efforts have gained recognition worldwide. In February, jaguars were earmarked for protection under the UN Convention on Migratory Species, a move that explicitly mentioned the Misiones cats among 26 jaguar populations in the Americas that straddle international borders.
The jaguars in Misiones and two other areas of northern Argentina have for decades marked the southernmost range of the large cats in the Americas. Some 100 jaguars inhabit the mountainous Yungas region of Jujuy Province, and a tenuous population of fewer than 20 are believed to live in Argentina’s portion of the Dry Chaco, a semi-arid lowland that spans parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil and, in Argentina, the provinces of Chaco, Santiago del Estero, Formosa and Salta. The animals were once found as far south as the Argentine Pampas and Patagonia, but the open landscapes facilitated their hunting—and extinction—in those regions over 100 years ago.
“The principal cause of jaguar population declines in the green corridor also was hunting, according to a study that we did [in 2006] with scientists from Brazil and the United States with the economic support of the Lincoln Park Zoo of Chicago,” says Paviolo. “That’s why it has been so important to open dialogue in recent years with ranchers in order to give them tools to care for their cattle while improving coexistence, such as electric fencing or the installation of lights to scare away predators. Environmental education also has been key. Misiones residents have taken an interest in jaguars. Today, if a jaguar is hunted or run over on the road, the news goes out on social and conventional media, something that didn’t happen 15 years ago.”
A milestone in that regard came when the first jaguar monitored in connection with the project, an animal the project staff named Guacurarí, was caught, outfitted with a GPS collar and freed in 2009. Guacurarí provided valuable information, traveling up to 25 kilometers (15 miles) a day and helping scientists gauge the amount of land area required for a jaguar. But in 2012, Guacurarí—still wearing a GPS collar—was shot by hunters in a Misiones protected area, even though jaguar hunting has been illegal throughout the province since 1988 and nationwide since 2001.
The killing prompted environmental advocacy organizations to launch a campaign under the slogan “the jungle is in mourning.” Thousands of visitors to Argentina’s Iguazú National Park—the site of spectacular waterfalls that make the park one of Argentina’s most heavily visited natural areas—wore black ribbons and signed a petition calling for increased government spending on protected areas.
In Misiones, 18% of the provincial territory is earmarked for some form of protection, whether national, provincial, municipal or private. The Misiones provincial Ecology Ministry reports that it now has 140 guards in its provincial parks compared to 60 two decades ago. In 2014, Misiones took the controversial step of providing firearms to park guards in their efforts to crack down on illegal hunting.
“When we began Project Yaguareté, the initial idea was to introduce individuals from other populations into Misiones,” says Manuel Jaramillo, director of Vida Silvestre Foundation. “But once we knew that the chief threat was hunting, we discarded it. It would have been like adding water to a bucket full of holes. The objective we set was to stop the hunting of jaguars. That meant it had to stop being seen as a dangerous animal by cattle ranchers, and by the rural population in general, and we are achieving this.”
Jaramillo says one of the most successful initiatives has been an educational effort organized by the Yaguareté Project, Misiones Province and the National Parks Administration for children in the rural region. “In 2007, we organized a competition in which we called for artistic works concerning the jaguar,” he says. “The result surpassed our expectations. We received more than 5,000 stories, poems and songs.”
Andrés Bosso, until recently the northeast regional director of the Argentine National Parks Administration, cites steps aimed at avoiding vehicle collisions with jaguars, such as the construction of wildlife-crossing overpasses and underpasses. The overpasses, one of which is complete and two of which are under construction, and the underpasses, 15 of which are in use, are all located on roadways in the green corridor.
These projects have been spurred in part by the deaths of six jaguars since 2009 due to vehicle collisions, the latest instance of which involved the April 2018 death of a pregnant jaguar on a road bordering Urugua-í, a provincial park in Misiones. (The province’s ecology minister at the time, Juan Manuel Díaz, said the “reckless” driver had been speeding. For their part, conservationists note that while the speed limit on roads next to protected areas is 60 kilometers per hour, or 37 miles per hour, enforcement is lax so drivers typically ignore the restriction.)
“The terms ‘fauna crossing’ and ‘ecoduct’ began to be incorporated widely in the conservation and transportation vocabulary in Misiones,” Bosso says. Offering additional evidence of changing attitudes toward jaguars, he adds: “Today, hunting or running over a jaguar immediately triggers the opening of a court investigation monitored by the relevant authorities.”
Coordination with cattle ranchers
Experts point to other evidence of investment in jaguar conservation. They cite the Cuña Pirú Valley, an area of the green corridor in central Misiones, where cattle ranches surround 12,000-hectare Salto Encantado Provincial Park. There, in a project financed by the Global Environment Fund (GEF), the nonprofit conservation group Red Yaguareté, or Jaguar Network, has been installing electric fencing around corrals since 2013 to keep the big cats away from cattle.
“There are small ranchers in the area that have 200 to 300 head of cattle and big ones that have up to 2,000,” says Nicolás Lodeiro Ocampo, director of Red Yaguareté, which helped produce the jaguar recovery plan. “We’ve already installed some 20 kilometers of electric fencing powered by solar panels on four properties, and the results are good. We can say that the coexistence of ranchers and jaguars in the area is a fact.”
Among the ranchers to participate are Nicolás Weidmann and his brother Tomás, who operate a 900-hectare (2,000-acre) cattle ranch that borders Salto Encantado Park. Over a period of 25 years, Nicolás says, some 70 of his family’s calves were killed by jaguars.
“My father tried many times to get the Misiones province government to do something to protect the cattle or address the damage caused by the jaguars, but he never was able to,” he says. But he adds there have been no jaguar attacks in the past four years: “The jaguar is a beautiful animal, and I believe that today all of us ranchers know that we have to protect it.”
In the Cuña Pirú Valley as a whole, ranchers reported 21 jaguar attacks on cattle from 2014 to 2017, but no complaints of attacks have been lodged since. In 10 of the attacks during 2014-17, ranchers got the provincial government to pay them the value of the lost livestock as required under a local jaguar conservation law enacted in 2004.
“I don’t like to talk about conflict between jaguars and people, but instead about coexistence of jaguars and people,” says Red Yaguareté’s Lodeiro Ocampo: “We work in an area where jaguars historically were killed, where today younger generations [of ranchers] have a different outlook. They know the jaguar and cattle can coexist.”
But in order for the strategy to succeed at scale, he adds, government authorities will need to devote the time and resources needed to ensure electric fencing is available to ranchers throughout the green corridor.
Says Lodeiro Ocampo: “A non-governmental group can’t do all that. If the government is absent, the ranchers’ response to attacks on cattle will be to hunt jaguars, even though that is illegal. But when ranchers are supported and given the tools to coexist [with jaguars], they are willing to take care of the jaguar.”
- Daniel Gutman
In the index: Conservationists say a new generation of ranchers in Misiones Province has been open to using electric fencing, lighting and other means to ensure jaguars and their herds can coexist. (Photo by Pollo Rodríguez/Red Yaguareté)