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Monitoring Jaguars and Other Charismatic Species in Bolivia’s Alto Madidi

By Rob Wallace

[Note: this is the fourth in a series of reports from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) on the Identidad Madidi expedition currently taking place in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park]

Alto Madidi, on the upper Madidi River where the Andean foothills flatten out onto to the Amazonian floodplain, is a magical place and the sixth site on our two-year altitudinal transect in Madidi National Park. Extraordinary biological diversity, remote wilderness, and abundant wildlife – much of which seems almost naïve to the presence of people – are an intoxicating combination for the team Identidad Madidi.

Alto Madidi – where the Andes meets the Amazon in Bolivia´s stunning Madidi National Park. Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS
Alto Madidi – where the Andes meets the Amazon in Bolivia´s stunning Madidi National Park. Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS

The Madidi protected area takes its name from this river, though the river itself is named after the Tacana indigenous word for an ant species found on its sandy beaches.

For most of the team our visit to Alto Madidi is a first. Not so for Bolivian wildlife biologists Guido Ayala and Maria Viscarra, two of my colleagues from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Guido and Maria have spent the last 15 years generating knowledge about, and then monitoring populations of, charismatic wildlife species in the jungles of Madidi and beyond.

Their endeavor and commitment has resulted in an almost unique long-term dataset at several sites, including Alto Madidi, on species such as black spider monkeys (Ateles chamek), lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), collared and white-lipped peccaries (Pecari tajacu and Tayassu pecari), giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis), and ocelots (Leopardus pardalis). But for Guido and Maria it’s all about the jaguars (Panthera onca).

Guido Ayala and Maria Viscarra set camera traps to monitor jaguar populations on the beaches of the Madidi River. Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS.
Guido Ayala and Maria Viscarra set camera traps to monitor jaguar populations on the beaches of the Madidi River. Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS.

“Jaguars need huge areas to thrive, both individually and – especially – from a population viewpoint,” Guido explains. “Our camera trapping data backs this up, with animals patrolling more than 20 km along rivers. They frequently cross the boundaries of national parks, thus demonstrating the need for a landscape conservation approach that looks to protect forest within and immediately adjacent to Madidi.”

Maria Viscarra continues, “By individually identifying jaguars through their unique rosette patterns we can estimate population density and number at a given study site. Over time, we monitor those populations to answer fundamental questions like how long animals survive in the wild, when they reproduce, and how they track prey populations. Monitoring data also allows us to assess whether park management is effective at protecting wildlife or not.”

In late September 2015 Madidi celebrated its 20th anniversary. Our long-term camera trap monitoring data on wildlife shows that the creation and subsequent management of the park from 1998 onwards has indeed been an effective conservation measure for some of the most threatened wildlife of the Amazon.

Jaguar caught by camera trap. Photo ©WCS Latin America & Caribbean Program.
Jaguar caught by camera trap. Photo ©WCS Latin America & Caribbean Program.

This recovery inspires hope in both the conservation community and society as a whole. Thanks to support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Liz Claibourne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, jaguar camera-trapping is once again underway at Alto Madidi, enabling us to continue this important long-term monitoring effort.

While jaguar and wildlife populations at the remote Alto Madidi have remained stable, wildlife in the Tuichi and Hondo valleys, within the park but closer to the Amazonian towns of San Buenaventura and Rurrenabaque, has actually increased with the active management of the park.

Today, these more accessible valleys represent the core for ecotourism in Madidi, but prior to the creation of the park, hunting associated with illegal logging for mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) had seriously diminished wildlife. Now wildlife is rebounding, thanks to investments in conservation from the Bolivian government and international partners.

Another new vertebrate record for Madidi, Freibergs´ dwarf frog (Engystomops freibergi). Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS.
Another new vertebrate record for Madidi: Freiberg’s dwarf frog (Engystomops freibergi). Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS.

For example, in 2001 camera trap studies in the Tuichi and Hondo valleys revealed jaguar population densities of around 1 animal per 100 square kilometers. By 2014 jaguar density had expanded tenfold. In the same vein, camera trap results suggest that lowland tapir populations increased threefold between 2001 and 2014.

Because protected areas and indigenous territories make up more than 50 percent of the Amazon basin, their future is the most important factor for the future of the largest tropical forest in the world. Thus there is a growing need to share effective management models at the landscape scale across the region.

In doing so, we demonstrate that protecting forests and working with local people can also secure ecological functionality in the Amazon. One successful example of such indigenous territorial management, that of the Tacana people, was recently recognized with an Equator Prize from UNESCO at the UNFCCC COP in Paris this past December.

WCS has supported the territorial vision of the Tacana for 16 years, one that has led to significantly reduced deforestation as well as the aforementioned wildlife recovery in neighboring Madidi National Park.

The blushing phantom (Cithaerias pireta tambopata), one of 113 new butterfly species for Bolivia at Alto Madidi. Photo ©Fernando Guerra/IE-CBF.
The blushing phantom (Cithaerias pireta tambopata), one of 113 new butterfly species for Bolivia at Alto Madidi. Photo ©Fernando Guerra/IE-CBF.

In the first six months of Identidad Madidi, after six of our anticipated 15 survey sites, we have registered a total of 930 vertebrates in the park, of which at least 149 are new records – expanding the official list from 1,521 to 1,670 species. We expect more than 2,100 vertebrates to be eventually registered in the park.

Similarly, we have registered 627 butterflies. Of those, 424 are new records for Madidi, including 115 new records for Bolivia, increasing the official park list from 355 to 779 butterflies. We expect at least 1,500 butterfly species to be eventually registered in Madidi.

Fieldwork will pause briefly now for the wet season, but we will be back in 2016 to survey another six sites in this wonderful wilderness. In the meantime we will continue to upload images and amazing facts about Madidi on our webpage and most frequently on Facebook.

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Dr. Rob Wallace is a Bolivia-based conservationist in the Latin America and Caribbean Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).