The global wild cat conservation organization Panthera was founded by entrepreneur and conservationist Dr Thomas Kaplan. James Parry looks at its latest efforts to ensure the survival of the jaguar, the top predator in the Americas
Powerful and thickset, the male jaguar moves silently through the tract of remnant forest, his rosette-marked coat the perfect camouflage in the dappled shade of the understorey. He heads for the river, but suddenly finds his path blocked by a high fence; another potential route passes close to a group of buildings where the sound of human voices and dogs barking signals danger; elsewhere, the forest is bisected by a road along which vehicles are travelling at high speed. There’s no safe way through – and therefore no alternative but to turn back.
A fictional scenario, of course, but each of the elements described in it are very real current threats to jaguars and underline the problem faced by big cats in the wild: how to live in a world increasingly defined by the impact of human activity. At one time, a jaguar could have walked unimpeded from the top end of the species’ distribution in present-day California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico to the most southerly extent, almost at the tip of South America in Argentina. There was abundant habitat and it was well connected, a millennia-old ecological highway along which jaguars moved in search of prey, potential mates and secure places to rear their young.
Today, jaguars occupy only 40 per cent of their historic range, their numbers severely reduced by many decades of persecution and other pressures. Some populations have become fragmented and corralled into ever-dwindling pockets of suitable habitat, to the extent that Panthera is now engaged in an ambitious project designed to help reconnect what it calls the Jaguar Corridor through the Americas. Undertaken by Panthera chief scientist Dr Alan Rabinowitz and Jaguar Program executive director Dr Howard Quigley, Journey of the Jaguar is a four-year series of expeditions across 10 of the 18 nations that currently have jaguar populations. The objective is to encourage governments, businesses and local people to take action to ensure the future of an animal known across much of its range simply as el tigre.
“Without exception, the people we’ve run into want to talk about jaguars, and most of it is positive,” reports Dr Quigley. “From the ranchers in Sonora, Mexico, to Mayan farmers in the Yucatan and the Colombian towns on the border with Panama, people are interested in jaguars, and some of them still see them as an essential part of their surroundings.” Dialogue is taking place on many levels, designed to help connect existing protected areas with privately owned land known to support jaguars, and thereby re-establish sectors of the traditional corridor.
While some threats to jaguars have receded – back in the 1960s and 1970s, up to 18,000 were being slaughtered every year to supply the now-illegal fur trade – they are still at risk from habitat loss, lack of wild prey and from being killed by livestock owners desperate to protect their herds. But thanks to the work of Panthera and other organizations, the mood music is decidedly upbeat. “In the Pantanal [a wildlife-rich area spanning parts of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay], where cattle ranching has been king for decades, ranchers are learning that there are ways to prevent jaguars from killing cattle,” explains Dr Quigley. Successful measures range from the installation of electric fencing to introducing stronger breeds of cows that are better able to fend off jaguars.
The ultimate key to success, however, is likely to be an economic one, with jaguar tourism. Wildlife tourists and photographers from all over the world are eager to catch a glimpse of these elusive animals, and are providing welcome injections of cash into the local economy. “People are now earning money from jaguar viewing on many ranches,” continues Dr Quigley. “These are the things that make us feel we can turn the tide for the jaguar.” Ensuring that el tigre is worth more to local people alive than dead will hopefully mean that the biggest cat in the New World will still be stalking these forests in another 200 years.
This story appears in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of Baku magazine.
Main image courtesy of Getty Images. Images courtesy of Panthera
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