Researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) report that the number of jaguar killings by humans is on the rise, and warn that the situation will continue to worsen unless steps are taken soon. They presented their findings at the 20th Congress of the Mesoamerican Society for Biology Conservation in Belize.
The jaguar (Panthera onca) can fend for itself in just about every situation out there. They’re comfortable hunting in the trees, on the forest floor, and in the water. Unlike other cats, which kill with a bite to the throat, the jaguar uses its powerful jaws and strong canine teeth to crush its prey’s skull, puncturing the brain or spinal cord. It’s an incredibly effective strategy—but only against unarmed prey. Powerful jaws are not much help when your attacker can shoot from 30 feet away.
Jaguars and humans have never been friendly, but it was once possible for the two species to coexist with relatively little bloodshed. The jaguar’s expansive range included parts of both North and South America. There was room for everyone. Then, in 1914, everything changed, says STRI’s Ricardo Moreno. “The connection was broken 100 years ago by the building of the Panama Canal,” he said in a statement. “Continued development and deforestation of Central Panama is disrupting the flow of animals and their genes, so that now the jaguar is considered an endangered species.”
And what was once a boundless jungle is rapidly changing. Cattle and sheep ranchers are setting up shop in jaguar territory, which puts everyone in a pretty dangerous position. More than half of the forest in the Isthmus of Panama is already gone. The cats are running out of safe spaces to go. And on top of that, humans have moved in on their wild food supply. It’s no wonder they’ve begun preying on people’s cows, sheep, and dogs.
Moreno and his colleagues went out into local communities, asking for information about jaguar killings. They heard from ranchers and tour guides that most of the 26 killings so far this year were acts of retaliation.
In the years between 1989 and 2014, people killed at least 230 jaguars in Panama. “We have reason to think that the actual number may be two or three times higher,” Moreno said. In 2015, 23 jaguars were killed, and we’re up to 26 so far this year.
But it may be possible to reverse the trend. STRI’s Agua Salud Project, which explores the flow and effects of fresh water through the region, has determined that it may be possible to rehabilitate at least part of the jaguars’ range.
Moreno and his colleague Ninon Meyer have also outlined four strategies to help slow, if not mitigate, the damage. Writing in the International Union for Conservation’s “Cat News” newsletter, they called for four interventions on the human side:
- Education, especially in areas where the number of jaguar killings is high.
- Extension programs for cattle owners who have experienced jaguar predations.
- Economic incentives for rural communities near jaguar habitat. In one community, residents overcame losses due to predation by selling plaster casts of jaguar tracks.
- The creation of multi-institutional alliances to unite governmental and non-governmental institutions to intervene in key areas.
“Education is key because we all deserve to understand what is happening on our planet and in our countries,” Moreno said. “But education takes years and jaguars … don’t have years.”
He entreated policymakers and citizens to support the cause: “Jaguar conservation will take dedication on the part of governments, NGOs and passionate individuals united to conserve our natural heritage, which has no borders.”
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