Jaguar near Encontro das Águas State Park, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.
It is a quiet night on ranchland bordering southern Brazil’s Iguaçú National Park. The cattle ranch owner rushes out of his house, alarmed by a sudden commotion in his herd. The beam of his flashlight reveals the reason: fresh jaguar tracks gleam in the mud near a water trough. He phones incident-response personnel trained by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the international conservation group. “If the first or second call isn’t answered, we know ranchers will just shoot to kill,” explains Felipe Feliciani, a biologist who heads the conservation program for WWF’s Brazilian unit.
Such episodes are not uncommon near the park, which along with adjacent woodlands in Argentina and Paraguay encompass a region of subtropical rainforest that is home to an estimated 120 to 130 jaguars. On the edges of this woodland, a remnant of the once enormous Atlantic Forest, humans have increasingly come into contact with the jaguar (Panthera onca) as development has encroached on the cat’s natural habitat. In response, conservationists are going to extraordinary lengths to enable humans and jaguars to coexist. Feliciani sends two WWF wildlife-education staffers from ranch to ranch to teach landowners how best to live with jaguars in the region. In addition, the group’s wildlife personnel are available to respond to landowners’ requests for help when jaguars come near.
The personal touch, labor intensive as it is, has proven highly effective. Landowners say they feel protected knowing that the WWF personnel are on call 24/7, and they report that jaguar attacks are virtually nonexistent.
The effort forms part of a broader WWF strategy to develop location-specific solutions to minimize conflict between jaguar and human populations as the risks of such clashes increase due to habitat loss and climate change. On Nov. 29, 2021, the organization announced a Latin American strategy in conjunction with its global “Living with Big Cats” initiative, which has worked to protect snow leopards in Asia and lions in Africa. The Latin American strategy focuses on the jaguar, the biggest feline in the Americas, drawing on lessons from other continents. Launched on International Jaguar Day, it targets local communities in 14 Latin American countries for jaguar habitat-conservation and coexistence strategies. Among the goals are reduction and mitigation of human-jaguar conflict; jaguar population monitoring to inform conservation planning; and promotion of sustainable production practices to create biological corridors linking jaguar habitats from Mexico to Argentina.
The jaguar’s current range extends from northern Mexico to northern Argentina, across 18 countries. According to WWF, the animal’s habitat covers about 8.6% of the world’s surface while supporting nearly 28% of the planet’s biodiversity and providing 17% of its carbon capture and storage. The cat’s habitat varies widely, encompassing moist tropical forest, savannas, gallery forests, foothills, wetlands, dry deciduous forests, mangroves, deserts and semi-desert areas. The jaguar is listed as near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and its numbers continue to decline, scientists say. A WWF report entitled Jaguar Strategy 2020-2030 says the species will likely be reclassified as vulnerable due to land-use change and other threats, which would put the cat one step closer to endangered status.
“With development promoted by humans rapidly changing ecosystems, competition for resources between people and big cats like the jaguar increases,” Kate Vannelli, leader of the Living With Big Cats initiatives, said last year. “This competition provokes inevitable conflict, which reduces people’s tolerance of the presence of big cats and which can lead to reprisals, which contribute to an already long list of threats faced by these species.”
María José Villanueva, director of conservation for WWF in Mexico, says resolving this conflict will involve grappling with human nature. “The more land humans appropriate, the greater the conflict,” Villanueva says. “Humans always want to modify, transform or dominate natural spaces. We have to have a deep understanding of this in order for coexistence to be successful in conservation strategy.”
Wildlife experts note that while jaguars fear humans and prefer to stay in their natural habitat, they most often enter into conflict with humans over livestock, a problem exacerbated by the clearing of forest for ranching. Livestock grazing near jaguar habitat can attract the cats, particularly aged or injured jaguars that are unable to hunt as effectively in the wild.
Such scenarios play out in the vast Selva Maya woodland, which straddles Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and is home to the second largest population of jaguars outside the Amazon. Lizardo Cruz Romo, who leads WWF’s jaguar conservation efforts in the Selva Maya, says climate change has spurred human-jaguar conflict as extreme weather conditions have forced the cats to leave their habitat in search of water and food.
“While annual rainfall in the Selva Maya has remained the same in the last 10 years, the rain falls more heavily in a concentrated period, causing destruction,” says Cruz. “It also means the jungle’s natural water holes dry up long before the end of a drought. Last year we found 13 dehydrated tapirs, which are a jaguar staple. When the jaguar’s habitat dries up, cattle watering troughs become an appealing option, as do perhaps the cattle themselves.”
Cruz points out that wildfires, another consequence of drier woodlands, also displace jaguars and their prey, increasing the likelihood that they will roam through areas cleared for farming or ranching.
Technology has helped wildlife experts develop new ways for humans and jaguars to coexist. Feliciani has found lights to be an effective and practical solution. Solar-powered lights are positioned in spots where jaguars are known to exit their natural habitat toward human settlements or agricultural lands. The lights flash in a variety of colors and in an irregular rhythm, scaring the jaguars without harming them and discouraging them from venturing further. Other Christmas-tree-style lights can be strung around cattle pens to ward off jaguars, which typically hunt at night.
In some instances, electric fences can prove useful. And experts say hidden, motion-sensitive cameras are essential to understand and map jaguar movements so conservation strategies can be more effectively designed and targeted. (See "Camera traps boost wildlife conservation" —EcoAméricas, February 2022.)
WWF’s trinational Selva Maya program works with local communities to turn cattle ranchers into allies in the protection of felines. Cruz encourages ranchers to use electric fences to shield their cattle, rather than allowing the animals to roam freely. WWF does not typically fund fencing, but in certain cases it contributes other equipment, including solar lights and hidden cameras. It also offers consultation and support in cases of predation, and farmers can request compensation for lost livestock from Mexico’s National Confederation of Livestock Organizations.
“Most of the livestock [bordering the Selva Maya] are on subsistence ranches, so the loss of one cow has a significant impact,” explains WWF Selva Maya’s Cruz. “The large ranches are owned by corporations that show no interest in conservation. The compensation method is not the solution to the conflict issue, but it has helped to reduce anger, increase ranchers’ awareness and make them feel protected. These measures have to be accompanied by conservation strategies because if the jaguar’s natural prey is not available, they are naturally forced to look for alternative food sources.”
Villanueva explains that a crucial strategy is to create biological corridors. But as industrial farming and urban development have expanded, he notes, jaguars have found their habitat and natural food sources broken up into islands, a process that has disconnected them from other jaguar populations. Diminished and isolated populations, in turn, have resulted in a loss of genetic variation. Cruz agrees that the greatest risk for jaguar habitat in the Selva Maya is land-use change and the urban sprawl brought by new development.
“Development should go hand in hand with connectivity for species, rather than creating impassable barriers,” Cruz says. He cites the widening of a highway that bisects Calakmul, a rainforest-shrouded archeological site in Mexico’s Campeche state. “It is difficult to speak of sustainable development when, in a single year, three or four jaguars are being run over on the Calakmul highway,” says Cruz, one of the WWF biologists working on a biological corridor to reconnect jaguar populations in the region.
More immediate steps are needed as well, says Sebastián Di Martino, a biologist and director of conservation at the Rewilding Argentina Foundation, an organization dedicated to wildlife restoration on Argentine conservation lands.
“We cannot wait for the biological corridors to be created as this can be a long drawn-out process that depends on investment and bureaucracy,” Di Martino says. “In Northern Argentina we are transporting animals from one isolated community of jaguars to another to simulate the natural movement of the population and to avoid genetic erosion, problems associated with inbreeding and the loss of viability of the existing population.”
Di Martino argues such strategies require a broader understanding of conservation in Latin America. “We cannot just protect what’s left,” he says. “We also must recuperate what has been lost. Latin America is way behind the rest of the world in this aspect of conservation. There are policies to restore forests, but very few to restore wildlife populations. We need to generate and strengthen policies that break out of the traditional model and create a culture of restoration in the region’s conservation policy.”
Villanueva agrees, citing long-term community commitment—and the multi-disciplinary work needed to achieve it—as particularly important in broadening the scope of conservation efforts. “We need to create agents of change and break with the paradigm that conservation cannot provide a living,” he says. “That is our Achilles heel. We are working with economists and entrepreneurs to design mechanisms that work for the environment. We are creating synergies in other fields. As biologists, we have to look beyond biology for solutions.”
Di Martino points out that while Rewilding Argentina’s jaguar-reintroduction efforts require significant technical savvy, it is the social, human-facing aspects of the projects that do most to determine long-term success. (See "Can conservation spur Chaco livelihoods?" —EcoAméricas, December 2021.)
“We have to turn fauna into an economic engine,” he says. “Communities that were previously very poor with few opportunities beyond menial jobs and a high rate of out-migration can now become ecotourism entrepreneurs. Instead of an extractive economy, we need to create a new service economy around the flora and fauna. That way the more flora and fauna there are, the better for all sides. In this model, the jaguar is no longer an axis of conflict, but an opportunity for development.”
Adds Di Martino: “There needs to be a territory-specific economic recipe based on communities’ needs and the local habitat. This is how to ensure long-term sustainability and success of the model, so the impact is guaranteed when outside support is reduced or withdrawn.”
Efforts in that direction have shown promise. Former dairy farmer Marcos Antônio Alves, who leases land at the edge of Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park, is a case in point. Alves says that in 2020, after jaguars killed four of his 30 dairy cows, park rangers put him in touch with staff from WWF and a local conservation group called Onças do Iguaçu (Jaguars of Iguazu).
The groups spoke with him about the rationale and means for coexisting with jaguars. On their advice, he got out of the dairy business, reducing the amount of land he leased, building an addition onto his house, and using the addition to open a small rural inn and tour service for park visitors. He downsized his herd to cover his family’s direct needs, selling all but two of his dairy cows and buying seven beef cattle. And WWF and Onças do Iguaçu installed electric fencing and security lighting to keep jaguars away from the livestock that remained.
“With a bit of infrastructure and environmental education, this team showed us that we and the jaguars could live in harmony as neighbors,” Alves says. “We have not had any of our nine cows attacked by jaguars, which have never attacked us, either.”
Changing viewpoints, outcomes
Feliciani says the conflict between local communities and jaguars is without doubt the greatest threat to jaguars in the Atlantic Forest and Pantanal regions of Brazil. His conservation work involves a diagnosis of existing and potential conflict as well as the planning and implementation of coexistence strategies.
He recalls an angry local cheese producer in the Atlantic Forest who called the WWF staff four years ago to demand compensation for three cows that he claimed had been killed by a jaguar. He told them he would shoot the jaguar if they would not help.
“Today the same farmer is an example of conservation success,” Feliciani says. “He learned the jaguar could be a friend and that a living jaguar was more beneficial than a dead one. Now his business has found success selling jaguar-friendly cheese. Tourists enjoy the restaurant, bike tours and other sustainable products such as honey from the forest.”
Such changes in attitude and practices require time and effort, however, since communities must receive training in how to coexist with jaguars as the cats come into increasing contact with them. “A nonprofit will never be capable of investing the amount of money it would take to change structures,” says Villanueva. “We are like start-ups for ideas and solutions that then must become public policy, or for mainstream production models that can be replicated. Governments come and go, but we must find successful policies that will live on through changing administrations and generations.”
- Lara Rodríguez
In the index: Among the strategies being used to keep jaguars away from livestock is the installation of lights powered by solar panels. (Photo by WWF)