The ‘Path of the Jaguar’ Aims to Secure this Big Cat’s Enormous Range

Jaguars are increasingly isolated due to habitat fragmentation. Environmentalists, scientists, and locals are working to secure their free passage across over a dozen countries.

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Apr 3 2018, 3:00pm

Image: Charles J Sharp

Jaguars and humans have coexisted in the Americas for thousands of years. Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations recognized the value of this “indomitable beast,” as big cat expert Alan Rabinowitz calls the jaguar, and many cultures still celebrate the elusive predator.

But while it is the largest cat in the Americas, and the third-largest in the world after lions and tigers, the jaguar’s size and charisma have not insulated it from the impacts of human encroachment along its range, which stretches from the American Southwest across central America and into Argentina.

Thousands of wild jaguars occupy this expansive territory, but that population is in decline in many key regions, mainly due to highway construction, agricultural development, and other anthropogenic pressures that have fragmented the jaguar’s habitat. Amazingly, despite these obstacles, jaguars have maintained genetic connectivity throughout their range. The cat is still considered one species, Panthera onca, whether it is found in Arizona or Brazil.

As these cats become increasingly boxed into isolated patches of territory, and cut off from neighboring populations, this ability to breed freely will be lost. That’s the impetus behind an ambitious project called the Jaguar Corridor Initiative, launched by the global wild cat conservation organization Panthera. (Rabinowitz is Panthera’s co-founder and Chief Science Officer.)

The proposed transnational network of links between jaguar territories runs through protected park habitats, as well as ranches, plantations, and other privately owned landscapes. The aim is to keep the channels of gene flow open so that the unified species does not break into inbred subspecies, which could lead to endangerment or local extinction.

Image: Panthera

“The jaguar itself established the jaguar corridor,” Howard Quigley, Jaguar Program Executive Director for Panthera, told me over the phone, emphasizing that “our inability to tell genetically the difference [between jaguars] in northern Mexico or Arizona, and Argentina” distinguishes this cat from other predators—wolves, bears, mountain lions—that have branched off into distinct subspecies.

It’s not as if individual jaguars are trekking from Argentina to Arizona, but between neighboring jaguar territories, there are a “million movements a day,” Quigley said, describing how mature male jaguars tend to strike out to establish their own breeding territory anywhere from 15 to 80 miles from their birthplace, to avoid mating with relatives.

“The mandate we have right now is kind of twofold,” Quigley said of his work at Panthera. “One is secure those core populations, and two is to find a way to get jaguars through those human-dominated populations.”

It’s this second element that distinguishes Panthera’s project from many other wildlife corridors aimed at connecting disparate territories. While much of the pathway will extend through protected parkland, Panthera is working with local communities to secure routes in unprotected private areas, including links that bisect or adjoin farms, communities, plantations, and ranches.

Camera trap image of a jaguar. Image: Panthera

In many other places in the world, the agriculture industry can be vocally resistant to introducing predators that might threaten their livestock—take the entrenched controversy over the reintroduction of wolves to the Rocky Mountains, for instance. But according to Esteban Payán, who is Panthera’s Northern South America Jaguar Program Regional Director, the landholders he consults are often open to coexistence with jaguars, and many have become avid cooperators on the corridor project.

“There’s a whole range of opinions about it, from sworn enemy of jaguars to jaguar lovers,” Payán told me over Skype. “In that range, you get people that don’t know that they’re going to love jaguars. Many times, it’s just talking to them.”

“Actually,” he added, “ranchers are for us, I would say, one of our major allies.”

Quigley has had similar experiences on the ground. “What’s encouraging about it is that very rarely do we get somebody who says: ‘I don’t want jaguars, I don’t care if you have a solution, I’m not working with you,’” he told me.

Payán and the Panthera ground team support efforts to provide electric fences and other protective infrastructure to ranchers, and have even bred special lines of Criollo cattle, called San Martineros, which are descended from Spanish fighting bulls. True to their heritage, these cattle stand up for themselves against jaguars, instead of scattering at their approach.

“Our Criollo cattle that defend themselves are the closest thing to a magic button that says: ‘guys, you don’t have to work anymore than you already do,” Payán told me, adding that these breeds hold a key place in Latin American culture, which make them especially desirable to ranchers. “It’s not imported technology,” he said. “It’s local stuff. It’s been in folklore forever.”

Read More: Watch Our 360/VR Documentary 'Living With Jaguars' on Saving the Wild Cats of Brazil

In addition to working with local communities to secure key portions of the Jaguar Corridor, the Panthera team is advocating for their continued survival on the international level. On March 1, the United Nations convened the Jaguar 2030 Forum in New York, in which delegates from several jaguar-range countries committed to protecting the cat’s populations within their borders. The forum was co-hosted by the Mexican and Colombian governments, and was collaboratively organized by the United Nations Development Programme and nonprofits including Panthera, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Fund.

“The most gratifying thing, for a long time in my professional career, was to sit there at the UN with representatives from 14 different countries saying, ‘yeah, this sounds good. We want to do this,’” Quigley said. “We can’t do it alone.”

To that point, Panthera is focusing its attention on the most vulnerable links in the proposed corridor. “For this conservation battle, we’re working on the areas where in five or ten years, there will be no corridor left,” Payán said. “We’re facing multinational clearings of forests for rice and soy and other monocultures so that’s really where we have to focus, because there’s no time.”

Those paving this expansive corridor hope it will not only reverse the decline of the jaguar, but also create a model of predator conservation that can be repeated for other threatened species worldwide.

“I think the breadth that our jaguar program takes on is unprecedented,” Quigley told me. “There’s a lot of people who are wrestling with this around the world, whether you’re dealing with wolves in the northern Rockies or lions in the Serengeti. How do you live with large carnivores? We’re not very good at it. But the great thing about it is that we’re finding solutions.”

“People have given attention to elephants and tigers and even snow leopards now on an international scale,” he said. “But this is the first time that jaguars have really gotten that kind of international attention, to hopefully really turn around the decline of the jaguar.”

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