By Rob Wallace
This month organizations working on jaguar conservation in the Amazon basin published a roadmap for future collaboration. The Jaguar Conservation Planning in the Amazon meeting in Ecuador provided a unique opportunity for jaguar experts from the Guianas, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to summarize regional conservation efforts and outline priorities to maintain jaguars in the Amazon in perpetuity.
Integrated landscape conservation is especially urgent at a time when an old threat to jaguar conservation across its range has re-emerged.
Between the 1950’s and 1980’s, jaguar populations plummeted due to hunting for their attractive skins. International trade initiatives like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) criminalized the trade in spotted cat skins. With the international market eliminated, demand dropped, and hunting levels fell. As a result, jaguar populations bounced back over the past 30 years.
Recently, however, jaguars have become threatened by trade in their teeth – presumably for the production of jewelry and for use in traditional Asian medicinal and other practices. This was a topic tailor made for discussion at the Ecuador meeting.
Participating institutions included: Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Instituto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá, Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt, Fundación Omacha, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Ministerio del Ambiente de Ecuador, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, E.tech, TRAFFIC, WWF, Panthera, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, or WCS (the organization I work for).
As an icebreaker, organizers asked participants to summarize their feelings and perception of this magnificent cat in one word. The answers underlined the status of the jaguar as the very symbol of the Amazon: Spiritual, Commitment, Hope, Magical, Power, Strength, Culture, Respect, Fascination, Perfection, Inspiration.
Jaguars last hit the news just before the Olympic Games when an incident during a pre-games torch-bearing ceremony in the Amazonian city of Manaus resulted in a jaguar being euthanized. The plight of individual animals is important and always affecting. However, for those of us who have dedicated our lives to conserving threatened species, we are often left wondering how the plight of an individual animal can get more attention than that of an entire species.
Our jaguar meeting underscored the importance of working at large landscape scales to conserve viable self-sustaining populations of jaguars over the long term. Individual jaguars require between 50 to 300 square kilometers of tropical humid forest to find enough food. Successful conservation requires an integrated threats-based approach involving long-term partnerships between protected areas, indigenous territories, municipal governments, and others.
But the problem has become much larger. Expanding infrastructure and agricultural industries in Latin America have led to a growing fragmentation of the core of the jaguar’s range — the once endless Amazonian forest.
As development in the Amazon intensifies, we must proactively protect predator and prey species, the habitat that connects them, and the ecosystem services that support life in the Amazon and beyond. Securing conservation stronghold populations for jaguars and the fantastic Amazonian biodiversity in that context will require pragmatic collaborations between many actors – especially if we are to confront the burgeoning trade in jaguar parts.
To date it is unclear exactly what is driving this trade – largely to markets in Asia. But we know that tigers have been eradicated from more than 90 percent of their pre-20th century range, with the global population estimated at fewer than 4,000 animals. The concern exists that other big felids such as jaguars might now be targeted by poachers as an alternative to tiger parts to cover the demand.
In 2014 in Bolivia, a WCS team found itself deep in the forests of Madidi monitoring jaguars with camera traps (cameras equipped with infrared triggers that capture images, providing critical data about wildlife and their habitats) and footprint-based surveys. With their citizen’s band radio, they picked up an evening advertisement offering money for jaguar teeth. When they shared this information with our office via satellite phone, we were able to alert Bolivian authorities to the problem, leading eventually to some notable seizures and arrests.
Longer term monitoring data will be crucial to evaluate how the new hunting threat is impacting jaguar populations. But even as conservation organizations in the Amazon work together to secure Latin America’s big cats and their habitat, the illegal international trade in jaguar teeth highlights the need to learn from colleagues in Asia with experience in reducing public demand for wildlife parts and – just as important — in prosecuting criminal traffickers.
The jaguar occupies a special place in the history, culture, and traditions of Latin America. Revered for centuries by indigenous peoples for its strength and agility, the jaguar may well depend for its continued existence upon the care and cooperation of those who continue to live with this extraordinary animal. In that respect, our planning meeting reminded us yet again that where nature is concerned the needs of all species remain interdependent as ever.
Dr. Rob Wallace is a Bolivia-based conservationist with the Latin America & Caribbean Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and leader of the ongoing Identidad Madidi expedition exploring the extraordinary biodiversity of Bolivia’s Madidi National Park.