By John Polisar
As a college student, my summer wages were earned clearing trails in the premier wilderness areas of the American Mountain West. From the mountaintops, I could look across 360-degree vistas and not see a hint of a road. The areas with grizzlies felt different than those without.
In his short stories, Thinking Like a Mountain and Escudilla, Aldo Leopold notes the same; without wolves and grizzly bears, the king carnivores of the North, something is missing. Intact ecosystems always contain their top carnivores. It’s good when humans sense a power that is greater than their own. In tropical America, that force is the jaguar.
Following college, I became a wildlife biologist. My dissertation was done on a productive cattle ranch on the plains of Venezuela. With 10,000 head of cattle distributed across almost 200,000 acres and a tourism business, Hato Piñero was a working model of integrated development and conservation. Twenty years later, it still has jaguars, peccaries, caimans—a feat accomplished by retaining as much forest as pasture, controlling hunting, and practicing tolerance for the big cat, using tools for coexistence.
Caught on a camera trap, a jaguar in Paraguay’s largest national park, the 7000km ² Defensores del Chaco. Photo credit: WCS Laura Villalba/Maria del Carmen Fleytas, WCS Paraguay.
There is space for us and the jaguar. We need large wild areas to keep the planet alive, and our spirit as well. We also need to manage productive landscapes with an understanding that we humans are not the only inhabitants that rely on them. We must thrive, but we also need to keep a place for the plants and animals of the natural world. From them, we draw planetary and spiritual sustenance.
We can see such an approach at the ongoing 2018 Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity. There, all the jaguar range countries have united to execute a 2030 Jaguar Conservation Roadmap with the expressed goal of ensuring the viability of core population strongholds and corridors between them, nationally and range-wide.
The Roadmap integrally links United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (sustainably managed forests, halted land degradation and biodiversity loss, and responsible production) with jaguar conservation. It also emphasizes the importance of incorporating jaguar conservation in development plans for energy, agriculture, and transportation expansion with the goal of no net losses for jaguars and no net losses for biodiversity.
This feat will not be easy, but it’s possible. As coordinator for the Jaguar Program for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), I work with a team that is responsible for supporting about 385,000 square miles for jaguars. All are threatened. Deforestation alone eats up to two percent a year. That’s 22 percent in ten years. Thirty-three percent in 20. We live to slow that down, and to increase jaguar populations.
The number one threat to biological diversity in much of jaguar range is uncontrolled expansion of cattle operations into biodiversity rich protected areas. Photo credit: ©David Medina.
Protected areas are critical, safe, conflict-free homes for America’s largest cat. However, research we have done in productive, selectively logged forests—on well-managed ranches and in well-defended indigenous territories—has demonstrated that humans and jaguars can coexist.
Among the areas we help protect, thousands of square miles in Guatemala are well-managed, certified sustainably harvested forest lands. One thousand square miles are productive ranches with forests in Paraguay. Hundreds of thousands of square miles in countries like Peru, Bolivia, and Honduras are indigenous territories, areas whose inhabitants value the services their forest homes provide and seek to preserve traditional lifestyles within intact landscapes.
Where forest products are extracted, or livestock maintained, a careful approach can help humans avoid conflict with carnivores. Thousands of square miles where we work is uninhabited wilderness, including national parks, where humans are only brief visitors and where—for now—nature reigns.
Almost every significant jaguar stronghold from Mexico through Argentina is transboundary. Transboundary conservation can be accomplished when each country’s protected and managed areas are working well and effectively united with their neighbors’ reserves.
A jaguar cooling down in a pool deep in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo credit: Rony Garcia/WCS Guatemala.
Global conservation institutions have helped ignite this week’s new initiative—Panthera, WCS, the World Wildlife Fund, and the United Nations Development Programme. This unprecedented commitment by range countries to ensure that jaguar populations are stable or increasing will be celebrated on the world’s first International Jaguar Day on November 29.
Right now, the momentum behind the 2030 Jaguar Conservation Roadmap is growing across the jaguar’s range. It’s gathering strength through unified national commitments and transboundary visions to accomplish successful coexistence of humans with the power of the wild world—the jaguar. Both will benefit.
Dr. John Polisar is the coordinator for the Jaguar Conservation Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).
Photo (top): Mileniusz Spanowicz/WCS