Jaguars in Flames

By Joe Figel / April 22, 2021

Since 2000, Colombia’s extensive forest loss was among the highest in South America, which itself experienced the most deforestation worldwide over the past two decades. Fragmented habitats increase access for poachers whose pursuit of jaguars throughout the continent surged exponentially over the past decade. The number of poached jaguars seized by authorities increased an alarming 200-fold from 2012-2018 (Figure 1). Onslaught on the species continues unabated as mounting evidence reveals ominous connections between the trafficking of jaguar products–especially canines–and Chinese demand.

In Colombia’s middle Magdalena River valley–one of the most degraded regions of the country–we recently published results from a 4-year study evaluating impacts of human disturbances on jaguars. Our study area was fragmented by oil palm plantations and cattle pastures to the extent that only 10% of the natural habitat remains (Figure 2). Using camera traps, we documented concrete evidence of widespread hunting and found jaguars to exhibit high sensitivity to human activity. Motorized disturbances–such as vehicles, motorcycles, and tractors operated by plantation workers–had particularly negative impacts on the big cats.  By altering jaguar movements, human disturbances are likely to negatively influence the species’ foraging behavior and lower their reproductive rates due to the extra energy expended to avoid potentially lethal encounters with people.  

Conversely, habitat generalists–wild boar, for example–can experience irruptions in plantation landscapes due to their high tolerance of habitat disturbances. Rodents, which are associated with more than 80 zoonotic diseases, also reach abnormally high densities in oil palm plantations where they are a major pest of the crop. Projected to expand in priority areas within 11 jaguar-range countries, these extensive monocultures will present formidable obstacles for jaguars.

But hope is not lost. Facing their own unique set of threats, jaguars in Belize, Mexico, and Peru have exhibited remarkable persistence. And, against all odds, jaguar populations have appeared to rebound among high human population densities in several South American protected areas such as Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park. Unfortunately, inadequate funding has been a major impediment to replicating successful jaguar conservation elsewhere.

Global funding for biodiversity conservation amounts to about $22 billion per year, a pitiful 0.02 percent of the global economy. Of that conservation funding pie, only a fraction of a tiny sliver is designated for jaguar conservation. Embedded in the world’s largest and most intact rainforests, jaguar habitats provide essential services such as clean air and water, soil stabilization, flood control, and carbon sequestration (Figure 3). Notably, tropical forests also provide a valuable buffer against emerging zoonotic diseases, which are largely driven by land-use change and ecological degradation. As one recent example, habitat loss and forest fragmentation in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest (where jaguars are on the verge of extirpation) was linked with the reemergence of Chagas disease, caused by a parasitic protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi. This parasite was more prevalent in forest fragments than in contiguous forests and its presence was associated with high densities of reservoir species, which are generally tolerant of degraded areas and, in some instances, even prefer fragmented habitats.

Preventing further jaguar declines will require exceptional levels of cooperation among diverse organizations and governments, sustained outreach in forest edge-villages, and, perhaps most urgently, concerted efforts to reduce habitat loss and address human-jaguar conflict (Figures 4, 5). Given the intensity of pressures, which are international in scale, it is unreasonable to expect Latin American organizations to take on jaguar conservation alone. And it is unrealistic to expect resource-strapped conservationists to compete with the monetary benefits offered by quick-profit extractive industries and the omnipresent criminal trader and middleman connected to illicit wildlife markets. But we can tilt the odds in the jaguar’s favor by making a stand and recognizing that our prevailing economic indicators–which regularly neglect environmental externalities (e.g. Brazil’s raging wildfires)–are no longer an acceptable metric of progress. Jaguars, one of our continent’s most magnificent species, deserve a better fate than being burned alive, innocent victims of human greed and imprudence (Figure 6).  

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