Jaguars in Sonora, Mexico: a call to action – Rodrigo Medellin
From the Mayas to the Incas to the Guarani Indians of the Gran Chaco, jaguars are perhaps the most powerful cultural icon for wildlife and wildlands in Latin America. Today, across broader human society, they are also an emblematic representation of power, elegance and strength attached as logos and symbols to cars and sport teams. Beyond their cultural importance, jaguars as top predators play critical roles in maintaining ecological systems. They are also umbrella species in that the maintenance of jaguar populations requires the conservation of large areas of habitat, which protect an immense diversity of other species. The future of wild jaguar populations, like that of much of biodiversity, stands today at a crossroads. Will this powerful carnivore survive through the coming centuries as a functioning part of the breadth of ecosystems it inhabits today? Or is its future to be relegated to zoos, captive breeding facilities and a few token protected areas. Jaguars are extremely adaptable and can live in many different habitats, including thick tropical rain forests, tropical dry forests, montane forests, scrublands and semidesertic areas; their range extends through Mexico from the United States borderlands south to the Selva Maya on the Guatemalan border, down through Central America and as far south as Argentina. Mexico still contains several viable jaguar populations, including the largest jaguar populations in the northern part of the range, but there are many urgent actions that must be conducted to prevent this species’ decline in-country and secure the possibility that jaguars can move across their range into neighboring countries.
This proposal pursues the objective to ensure the future of what is likely to be the largest of the northern jaguar populations, and certainly one of the most crucial populations to maintain the connectivity between central and western Mexico and further north into the United States.
Jaguars face severe problems, primarily related to direct illegal killing throughout its range and habitat loss and fragmentation. This proposal addresses both threats, identified in the primary literature as the most serious factors determining the decline of the species across its range. We adopt a multidimensional approach to tackle these threats. The core study area is a 50,000 ha (500 sq km) tract of the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental in central eastern Sonora, Mexico. The entire area is private land in the hands of Mexican ranchers deeply committed to conservation (see below), and is also part of what the Mexican federal government through its CONABIO (National Commission for the Use and Study of Biodiversity) has defined as Terrestrial Priority Regions for Conservation, within region 44: Bavispe-El Tigre. Additionally, in 2002 this area was identified by the international group of jaguar experts as Jaguar Conservation Unit #100 (JCU100), with a medium probability of long-term survival of the species that will increase to high if conservation actions are implemented. The entire JCU100 has a surface area of 10,470 km². Our study area is embedded in the core of this Unit and without it this JCU would be divided in two.
The Research Program.
Very little is known about jaguars compared to other large cats such as lions, tigers, and leopards. Additionally, even less is known about jaguars in semiarid regions, especially in the edges of the species’ range. Preliminary pilot data indicate that jaguar density in this area is comparable to or greater than those reported from other areas further south in Mexico in core jaguar areas such as the Mayan rainforest. A number of research lines integrate a comprehensive jaguar research program geared towards conservation. We will carefully measure jaguar spatial ecology, density and estimate population size in the area. To properly measure these parameters, we will capture jaguars and attach satellite radiocollars to follow their long-term movements in detail and understand their spatial ecology and interactions. Much has been said about radiocollaring large cats in different ecosystems in the world. The clear, loud emerging message from all this published information is that radiocollaring is probably the most powerful, helpful, informative tool to gather detailed information on foraging and spatial ecology to design and implement robust, well-informed conservation and recovery programs. It is also evident that only well-trained, capable, experienced, proven experts in safely trapping, handling, chemically containing, and releasing the animals should be in charge of these operations. Our team includes one of the best and highly skilled, recognized group of experts in North America in this field. This ensures the safety of jaguars and all other animals handled to fulfill the objectives of the present program. Documenting jaguar movements in detail will be essential to understand the role played by this population in the context of the broader jaguar range in northwestern Mexico and southwestern U.S. It will also help us determine the extent and characteristics of the conservation program to ensure the future of a viable population and its connectivity to neighboring populations. We will also use camera traps to document every last jaguar moving in the area and verifying their movements by comparing these data to those obtained by telemetry. Moreover, we will assess their diet and killing habits, including detailed studies on feeding ecology and hunting behavior, prey selection, predator-prey interactions, interactions with other predators, especially puma which seems to be much more abundant than jaguars in the area. Furthermore, the research program will include studies on diseases and will monitor the health of jaguars, their prey, competitors, and other sympatric wildlife. Wildlife health is an essential part of the proposal, given the recent findings about disease transmission between domestic, feral, and wild biodiversity. Thus, we will document levels and incidence of infection of particular pathogens, notably distemper, rabies, and with the aid of molecular genetic tools of the highest quality and most detailed nature, we will be able to assess the degree of genetic diversity within this population and in relation to other neighboring populations and in other areas. Genetic studies will also be essential to document gene flow to the south and north of this population and this will be an additional element to link this population with the rest of the jaguar range.
The Social Program.
From the initial stages of this jaguar conservation agenda, all our actions are firmly embedded in the social network of eastern Sonora, Mexico. Furthermore, any of the actions conducted up to now were prompted by the land owners themselves after they expressed their concern for conservation of the jaguar and their interest to implement and participate in such a program, even at the comparatively high costs of losing a few cattle every year to depredation by large cats. This resolute attitude clearly illustrates the commitment for conservation that land owners in the area have and guarantees the success of the project in the context of the social framework in the region. It is high time that biodiversity conservation not only involves land owners and local inhabitants in a major, decision making role, but also from the very beginning, empowering them for what are their direct proper and legal rights: access to the resources contained in their land. This is the premise upon which the present project is built: every step of the way, from the very beginning, is discussed, planned, drafted, and implemented in close and equal communication and collaboration with the local land owners. To that end, we have established an alliance in the form of a non-profit organization that involves all relevant actors in the process of pursuing land owner-driven jaguar conservation. This program involves social scientists who will ensure that all social actors in the project are clearly involved and their rights and opinions respected and represented in the process. The local land owners take pride in the concept that the beef they produce is jaguar-friendly. The entire team will be involved in evaluating and analyzing whether the assertion is true, and if so we will seek outside certification for this product accordingly. Our program will construct a conceptual economic model that will describe the economic aspects of jaguar conservation in this part of Mexico, from the costs to protect the species to the benefits provided by the species’ conservation, eco-tourist activities, research programs, cattle ranching, and other sustainable, eco-friendly economic practices. Another component of the social program is to establish and maintain good relations with all neighbors surrounding the area. Some neighboring land owners already are convinced of the urgency, need, and benefits provided by conservation and by securing the future of jaguars in the region, and we will make every effort to link to other ongoing and newly established jaguar conservation projects. These neighbors will be approached and incorporated into the whole region-wide jaguar conservation program. Those neighbors who are still not convinced of these benefits, will be invited to workshops, exhibits, and other activities and constant communication will be established to work towards convincing them of the need to protect jaguars and the rest of biodiversity. All this will be carried out with the appropriate involvement of social scientists.
The Conservation Program.
We will implement a number of actions to secure the jaguar population and its associated biodiversity. To this effect, we will use several approaches, visualizing the jaguar as an umbrella, keystone, and flagship species. As an umbrella species, protecting the jaguar so as to ensure that a minimum viable population exists in the area implies that a vast tract of habitat will be benefited by this conservation action. Briefly, estimating that a jaguar population of 200 animals is the minimum to make sure that the population is viable, and with a very rough, preliminary estimate of jaguar density in the area of about 26 km² per individual jaguar (obtained from dividing the 500 km² of the core study area by the 19 individual jaguars so far identified with the ongoing camera trap survey), which is similar to jaguar densities reported from other areas, even in tropical rainforest areas in southern Mexico, then we would need some 5,200 km² protected to maintain this minimum viable population. Given that the JCU100 in which the study area is embedded has a surface area of 10,470 km² , then we have good probabilities that expanding our program across the entire JCU area will contain much more than a minimum viable population that will ensure the long term survival of the species and genetic interchange with other populations to the south and north through corridor identification and protection.
In terms of the keystone aspect of the jaguar, maintaining a healthy population of jaguars as a focal apex carnivore will maintain other wildlife populations, notably collared peccary and white-tailed deer, at population levels that will not overgraze or over browse the vegetation, thereby securing healthy ecosystems with a healthy population of herbivores and a full complement of wildlife. Oftentimes when no top predators are present, herbivore populations explode and over utilize the vegetation resources, causing both a change in the vegetation type and an exclusion of other wildlife species. Additionally, when top predators are absent, frequently the populations of opportunistic mesopredators such as coyotes and foxes experience a significant growth, again affecting the structure of the original community and lowering the value of the ecosystem services provided by the full, natural complement of species.
Regarding the flagship value of jaguars, this species is a source of considerable national pride across Mexico and other countries. They are variously regarded as powerful, graceful, beautiful, magnificent, impressive, mesmerizing, and even as deities, as they were regarded by pre-Columbian Mexicans. Unfortunately, they sometimes are labeled a nuisance, a threat, a competitor with humans for food, and therefore an undesirable species. Our team has a long history of working with local people to convince them of the benefits and the needs to keep biodiversity around us, and also as a source of pride for the local community to maintain and maximize their area’s biodiversity component. In this case we already have a leg up, given that the local land owners of the core study area are already fully convinced and proud that their ranches harbor an important population of jaguars. We will expand the application of the flagship into environmental education activities in the schools in the region, with activities in the schoolyard, the classroom, field visits to learn about the project, camera trap practices, and other initiatives. In addition, we will create a traveling exhibit on jaguars, their ecology, conservation needs and benefits provided with attractive displays, hands-on materials, toys, and workshops with the communities. Jaguar pride will be promoted and enhanced in very diverse ways. We anticipate opening drawing contests among children in the region with the theme of jaguars, establishing societies and clubs for the protection of jaguars, lectures by scientists and technicians, etc. All these activities are geared towards promoting links of the local people to jaguars and involve them in its conservation. Always keeping in mind the flagship species concept, its benefits, and broad application.
Additional conservation actions under this program will include capacity building to local youth from the Universidad de la Sierra or other neighboring universities, teaching conservation courses to the same institutions, and generally promoting the good image of jaguars among the local population. We will also design and implement a study to monitor jaguar prey in the context of the cat’s diet. If our studies and the preliminary information we have indicate that jaguar prey is below normal, as we suspect is the case with the collared peccary, we will carry out a prey population supplementation to offset the predation pressure on cattle that is likely to happen if prey populations are below normal levels. We will also work with journalists and other communicators to provide additional coverage to the jaguar image at the local, state, national, and international levels. Other conservation elements will include working with DGVS, PROFEPA, CONANP, and other relevant agencies to ensure the application and upholding of the competent laws in the context of biodiversity conservation and protection of endangered species. We are already in talks with the CONAFOR office in charge of the cattle insurance against large cat predation, and we are also conducting additional economically productive activities such as promoting ecotourism of different kinds, such as visiting one of the very few jaguar conservation operations in Mexico open to tourist, horseback riding in remote, relatively pristine, spectacular areas with no other mode of transportation, hiking, rappelling, fishing, and others.
This proposal is unique in many ways. The integration of the team in charge is a success in itself as it involves some of the most highly recognized academic institutions and civil society on both sides of the border. The project also has the full support and endorsement of the Mexican federal government, by various agencies related to biodiversity management and conservation, such as Direccion General de Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Department), Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP, in charge of national parks and other protected areas), PROFEPA (law enforcement agency), CONAFOR (including the office of cattle insurance against predators). It is also solidly embedded in the social network of the region, given that the project is the result of a direct invitation of the land owners themselves. With these sectors of society and the team in charge, success is practically unavoidable.
The conjunction of social, educational, and scientific programs give our project even more potential. Saving the jaguar requires the sum of a large number of forces, institutions, and nationalities. In this case we integrate all these factors. The project itself will be assessed every year to adapt and modify practices to improve the results. We will also compile a large body of external advisors who will be consulted for all major decisions. These advisors will also incorporate top scientists and personalities involved in these issues.