Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Cat in a Hot Spot: With New Sightings and Research, Ecotourism and Ranching Programs Are Offering Innovative Solutions to Recover and Protect the Threatened Jaguar

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Cat in a Hot Spot: With New Sightings and Research, Ecotourism and Ranching Programs Are Offering Innovative Solutions to Recover and Protect the Threatened Jaguar

Article excerpt

Daniel Scognamillo hid behind some bushes in the llanos region of northwestern Venezuela late one afternoon and just stared. The objects of Scognamillo's attention were two animals sleeping along the edge of a small pond about, a hundred feet away. From that distance, at first he thought they might be caimans, crocodile-like animals native to Central and South America. Then, suddenly, first one and then the other moved, raising its massive head and yawning to reveal a set of large, sharp canine teeth. The head, teeth, and tawny yellow coats and dark rings or rosettes clearly marked their true identities--an adult female jaguar and her eight-month-old cub.

For nearly forty-five minutes Scognamillo remained transfixed as the mother and her cub played. Acting as if they had not a worry in the world, the two jaguars stretched, rolled over, licked themselves, and sharpened their claws. Finally, with the sun beginning to set and time for getting back to civilization before nightfall running short, Scognamillo rose to leave. Startled by the sound of rustling bushes, the jaguars looked in his direction, spotted the intruder, and quickly bounded away, disappearing into the thick forest nearby.

"Jaguars are such beautiful animals," says Scognamillo, a graduate student in wildlife ecology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. A native of Argentina, Scognamillo is studying jaguar-livestock relations at the Hato Pinero ranch in Venezuela. "To be able to watch two jaguars acting naturally in the wild was my moment of triumph. They showed me something of the wild animals they really are. I hope to use my studies to repay that moment."

That tranquil moment aside, jaguars have cause to worry. Despite widespread admiration for their strength and beauty, jaguars range over less than half the territory they occupied a century ago, says Alan Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York. Illegal shooting, habitat loss, and a decline of their natural prey have eliminated jaguars from more than one-third of theft former range in South America and about two-thirds in Mexico. Despite a few recent sightings in southern Arizona, they no longer live in the United States nor in the southernmost part of their range in Argentina.

Fortunately, jaguars still do well in some areas, such as the Amazon Basin and Pantanal in Brazil, the Venezuelan llanos, and the Maya Forest in Central America. A number of parks and preserves throughout these areas and elsewhere in Latin America protect jaguars and other wildlife. These include Belize's 100,000-acre Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the only preserve created to protect jaguars.

Although no one knows their precise numbers, jaguars are listed as endangered or threatened in almost every country where they are or were found. They are also legally protected from hunting. Trade in jaguar skins, once a major threat, has been banned since 1972 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed jaguars as an endangered species in the United States in 1997 after two were photographed in Arizona the previous year.

While important, laws and preserves alone cannot protect jaguars, let alone promote their recovery. "The present laws are difficult to enforce and successfully adjudicate," states Carlos Lopez Gonzalez, a wildlife biologist and research professor at the University of Queretaro in Mexico. "Shooting is the biggest cause of death for jaguars. Experience has shown that administration and maintenance of reserves leaves much to be desired."

With that in mind, the WCS and other environmental groups have launched separate campaigns to draw attention to the jaguar's plight and encourage their recovery. The WCS program, funded by Jaguar North America, the ear company, focuses on scientific studies designed to learn more about the large cats and their relationship with livestock (see Americas, September-October, 1999). …

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