Life Science

Preserving a safe passage for jaguars

Human tolerance may be the key to keeping the jaguar population whole and healthy

February 16, 2015
Jaguars blend into the forest, waiting to pounce their prey. [Image credit: Flickr user Charlie Marshall]

Jaguars share a rich history with humans. With their sleek, spotted coats and golden eyes, they guarded the ancient Olmec temples in Mexico. The Aztecs worshiped them as demi-gods. In Mayan mythology, the sun itself was a jaguar, prowling the sky by day and slinking through the underworld at night, only to rise again.

Jaguars once roamed from northern Mexico to Argentina. But since the early 20th Century, farms and settlements have pushed into their former territories and cut their range into isolated chunks. Now, they are extinct in El Salvador and Uruguay, and have lost 40 percent of their original habitat, according to Panthera, a conservation group dedicated to protecting big cats like jaguars and lions.

A healthy jaguar population needs both protected areas of natural habitat and something conservation biologists call connectivity, or the ability to move and interbreed with animals in different areas. New research in Nicaragua from Panthera shows that humans threaten both factors. Other species, like the cougar in the western United States, have rebounded after being driven nearly extinct, and conservationists are hoping to replicate the same success for the jaguar. But preserving jaguar habitat is only a start. To save dwindling jaguar populations, local communities will have to change their attitudes and find new ways to co-exist with the big cats.

To get an accurate picture of how many jaguars used different types of habitat, Panthera’s field biologists enlisted the aid of local hunters and farmers. Dense rainforests are the preferred haunt of jaguars, making typical counting methods with cameras and tracking impossible. In addition to natural rainforest, the researchers looked at plains, agricultural fields, and settlements. The study, published in the Journal for Nature Conservation, found that neither jaguars nor their prey were using areas with a human fingerprint, such as pastures and fields. What’s more, human developments such as farms, roads and pastures were also encroaching into protected areas and nature reserves.

“This is a no-man’s land of lawlessness and resource exploitation,” said Lisanne Petracca, a geospatial analyst at Panthera and the study’s lead author. “We thought we could rely on the protected areas being safe, but not even those are truly protected.” Huge Nicaraguan nature reserves, including Wawashang, were supposed to be untouched, but local farmers have decimated the forest to make room for their crops.

The destruction could get even worse. So far, places of pristine jaguar habitat are often “so hard to get to that they haven’t been plundered,” said John Polisar, coordinator of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s jaguar program. “The challenge is to ensure adequate institutions and interest in jaguar conservation to make sure these places are secure.” Now as humans push into and around protected areas, jaguars are simultaneously losing both habitat and connectivity.

If jaguars are trapped in the same space, they will eventually interbreed with cousins and siblings, causing birth defects and health problems, according to Roberto Salom, coordinator of Panthera’s jaguar program. “There has to be a genetic exchange to keep the population healthy,” he said.

Corridors — strips of land that act like jaguar highways — allow the big cats to travel between habitats to mate and follow their prey. As long as they can use a corridor, jaguars would be able to travel between protected areas. This Nicaraguan study showed that when the forested corridors are cleared for human activities, jaguars stop using the corridor and become isolated.

Petracca and Polisar both pointed to jaguar biology to explain why they might not use developed areas. Jaguars stalk through dense forests to hunt, ambushing pig-like creatures called peccaries, huge rodents called pacas and small deer. They pack up to 200 pounds onto a powerful frame, and all that muscle requires a lot of fuel to keep it going. Much of their prey requires natural habitat, so as the forest dwindles, so do their food options. Additionally, jaguars are habitat specialists. They are good at living in one type of environment, but lack the skills to adapt to new situations, according to Petracca. Developed areas simply aren’t suited to the jaguar lifestyle.

Not all big cats are so human-averse, though. Cougars, also known as pumas or mountain lions, have been making a comeback in North America. A new study from the University of Alberta in Canada tracked cougars over several years, and found they just lay low during the day and pass through settlements and farm areas at night. Their connectivity isn’t as threatened by development as jaguars’ is.

The cougar’s smaller size and historical ability to live in areas as diverse as forested foothills and rugged mountains may have given them an edge in adapting to human influence, Polisar said. The critical difference, however, might be human attitudes. Aliah Knopff, lead author on the cougar study, said people in Canada would rather see cougars in parks and wilderness areas. She said this is a huge change from the early 20th Century when they were “hunted as vermin” and nearly driven extinct.

Jaguars’ human neighbors are not so tolerant. “People’s perceptions are overwhelmingly negative,” said Petracca.“They kill jaguars for real or imagined threats to livestock.” Jaguars might not use human-developed areas because they are slaughtered if they try. The paper noted that if the local people want the cats gone, it doesn’t matter how well-connected the habitats are. The jaguars will be exterminated.

“The challenge is to find tools that allow humans and jaguars to better live together,” said Polisar. Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society both work in Central and South America to help the locals coexist with jaguars by finding ways to protect their livestock. They build corrals to keep the cattle closer and solar powered floodlights to scare off jaguars. They import water buffalos to guard the herds since water buffalos do not flee jaguars like cattle, but stand ground and fight them off, according to Salom. “Agriculture doesn’t have to be a complete barrier, but it has to be done well,” he said.

Combined with ensuring the protected areas like Wawashang actually are protected, these strategies might preserve this cat. With tolerance and effort from humans, perhaps there will always be jaguars to carry the sun beneath the earth and give us a sunrise.

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