28 Feb 2018 Story Environmental rights and governance

Saving the jaguar, Latin America’s iconic – and endangered – species

In Latin America, more land is covered by protected areas than in any other region of the world. That success, however, has not been enough to secure the future of the jaguar, the largest feline in the Americas.

In the past, healthy populations of jaguars were found from southwestern United States to Argentina. Currently, there are merely 64,000 Panthera onca specimens left in the wild, and almost 90 per cent are confined to Amazonia, especially in Brazil.  

Today’s jaguars occupy half the animal’s historic range. Territory fragmentation has made these felines increasingly vulnerable as they are unable to hunt and mate in smaller areas. In just over two decades, jaguar populations have decreased by up to 25 per cent.

Urban and agricultural expansion is to blame, but organized crime has also taken its toll on the species. Revered by ancient pre-Hispanic cultures as an icon of power associated with the gods, the jaguar faces now the greed of traffickers who sell their body parts to Asian markets hungry for their alleged medicinal value.

The lost connection between the Americas

Only 20 years ago, subpopulations of the species were interconnected. A key place for maintaining the genetic flow among jaguars was Panama, a nation filled with tropical forests that intertwines the North and South parts of the continent. 

But Panama’s rapid urban and industrial development concentrated in the margins of the interoceanic canal (which crosses the country from coast to coast), has created an unbreakable obstacle for mating and interaction among jaguar populations.

It’s been 10 years since the last jaguar was seen in natural parks adjacent to the Panama Canal. The species has been forced to find refuge in the southern extremes of the country, as well as in some isolated areas, explains Ricardo Moreno, research associate of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and founder of the Yaguará Foundation, an organization dedicated to the monitoring and protection of wild cats.

Jaguar fangs
The sale of jaguar fangs is growing on the black market. (Source: Pixabay)

This problem spreads throughout the entire region and has resulted in another major threat: the conflict between jaguars and livestock. Due to their loss of territory and natural prey, jaguars are forced to feed on domestic animals and immediately become victims of human retaliation. Since 1989, 360 jaguars have died at the hands of anguished farmers in Panama.

The Yaguará Foundation and the Panamanian Ministry of the Environment have been working together since last year to monitor feline populations and educate farmers about the importance of the species. Together with other local organizations they have placed 500 "trap camera" stations in the jungles and have created new communication channels for farmers to request official assistance before opting for the rifle.

Growing threats

While governments, scientists and conservationists advance in the preservation of the jaguar and its habitat throughout Latin America, another danger looms over the feline: the increase in poaching for illegal trafficking.

Jaguar trade is prohibited worldwide, as the species has the highest level of international protection. However, the sale of medicinal products made from its body and the export to Asia of body parts like fangs and genitals is growing on the black market. Moreno, from the Smithsonian, describes this new threat as "the silent death of the jaguar".

Products derived from feline parts, such as fat, are offered in almost all small markets run by Chinese citizens in the Panamanian communities of the Darién rainforest, which also covers part of Colombia, Moreno says.

In the next few years, poaching could become the jaguar’s number one threat, warns another biologist, Enzo Aliaga-Rossel, associate researcher of the Institute of Ecology of the Higher University of San Andrés, in Bolivia.

Currently there are between 2,000 and 3,000 registered jaguars in this Andean country. But based on the number of confiscated fangs, it is possible that poaching has wiped out more than 200 of these jaguars in recent years, calculates Aliaga-Rossel.

“The trafficking of jaguar fangs may be related to the recent arrival of Chinese companies involved in major development projects. Large number of Chinese workers can translate into large numbers of wildlife product customers, and potential traders,” he says.

Poachers have greatly benefited from the poverty of Bolivian peasants. The traffickers offer large sums of money in exchange for jaguar corpses, and they do so in public spaces and using community radio stations.

"Tiger populations were dramatically reduced due to traffic; we fear that jaguars face the same fate if preventive actions are not taken immediately," warns Aliaga-Rossel.

Fighting for the jaguar

Major efforts are already being made to protect the species. Thanks to these initiatives, in Mexico, for example, the jaguar population has doubled since 2002, reaching up to 4,000 individuals.

“Mexico has heavily invested in the jaguar’s preservation, as this is such an emblematic species,” explains Antonio de la Torre, from the Ecology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

This institute leads one of the most successful projects to protect the cat, in the Calakmul biosphere reserve, on the Yucatan peninsula. Six hundred jaguars live in this green paradise, where conservation efforts started 20 years ago.

“Successful projects combine scientific research, environmental management measures and public policies, with a long-term vision; but above all, they require participation of local communities,” adds De la Torre.

Apart from the efforts of the countries in the Amazon basin, which is the largest jaguar stronghold in the world, several initiatives are helping once-dwindling jaguar populations to thrive again. That is the case in Iguaçu National Park in Brazil and Gran Chaco in Paraguay.

Protecting big cats is the call of this year’s World Wildlife Day on 3 March. The campaign aims to galvanize support to the many global and national actions that are underway to save these iconic species.

UN Environment’s Wild for Life campaign is also fighting to protect the world’s big cats, with a global call to stop illegal trafficking.