For Jaguars, We Aren’t Bound to Repeat Past Mistakes

Photo credit: ©Leonide Principe

By John Polisar | December 6, 2019

Stretching across nine countries, the Amazon/Guiana Shield forested jaguar stronghold covers more than two million square kilometers. Here you will find the world’s largest jaguar population — more than 80 percent of all the jaguars on the planet. But that population is shrinking. Between 2009 and 2018, these nine Amazon countries lost 244,000 square kilometers of forest. That’s one-tenth of the Amazon’s total forest gone in one decade.

If we assume a very conservative estimate of there being 1.5 jaguars per 100 square kilometers, we can say 4,026 jaguars were lost due to deforestation and fires in the last 11 years. That means a reduction in the global population of the species by more than 6 percent.

Photo credit: ©Anelise Montanarin

Development in the Amazon may be a given, but we can learn from past mistakes. In 1805, when Lewis and Clark crossed the vast interior of what became the United States, its plains and mountains harbored 30 million bison and many native cultures. By the late 1800s, just over 500 bison remained. Indigenous Peoples had lost most of their traditional land and were on reservations.

The response to repair that history has come in waves. Alarm at losses led to the birth of national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. The organization I work for helped spark bison recovery. It has taken 120 years, but amidst a thriving economy, we also protect wildlife. Today Tribes, First Nations, conservationists, ranchers, and government are all working to rewild North America with bison. Today, the fauna of the Rocky Mountains is on its way to being complete again.

Development is inevitable, but balance is best placed on the front end. The Amazon’s extant indigenous territories, sustainable development reserves, and national parks should be respected, and expanded by forested corridors connecting them.

Forest loss is only one of the pressures on jaguars. Illegal trade has surged in neighboring countries; estimates of jaguars killed for commerce in Suriname range as high as 80 a year; intercepted jaguar parts in Bolivia in the last five years represent over 200 dead jaguars. Expanding human populations sometimes overhunt jaguar prey. Livestock operations penetrating big cat habitat can lead to jaguar attacks, provoking lethal responses. Sometimes all these forces act in a deadly synergy.

Solutions are challenging but they exist. A sound future for jaguars can be a healthy one for humans. Here is why.

The persistence of jaguars highlights the importance of intact ecological units. In 2018 countries joined to develop a 2030 Jaguar Conservation Road Map to unify jaguar range countries in a plan that blends economic growth with nature conservation. Even on a national level, climate stability, watershed protection, renewable natural resources, and jaguar conservation go hand in hand. Range wide conservation take place country by country.

Photo credit: ©Carlos Durigan/WCS

Brazil’s largest biome is the Amazon. Recognizing the important links between jaguars, conservation, and development, 12 institutions have formed the Brazilian Amazon Jaguar Alliance, which seeks to promote the balance needed to finesse development within the context of linked indigenous territories, sustainable development reserves, and protected areas, and sound agricultural practices.

Mineral extraction, hydro-electric energy projects and transportation infrastructure can be guided for successful conservation outcomes. This is 2019, not 1819. The methods to achieve balance have been developed and are continually being refined. The goal of the Jaguar Alliance is the stability and perpetuation of the largest Jaguar Conservation Unit in the world, focusing on its core, the Brazilian Amazon.

Photo credit: ©Carlos Durigan/WCS

The nature that supports us deserves our accommodation of it in return. My organization will focus on the immense, and still largely intact, states of Amazonas and Roraima.

Our vision and recommendation presumes inevitable development, hand in hand with the effective implementation of existing protected areas, respect of indigenous territories, and the establishment and defense of forest corridors. This vision does require public investment that can generate employment opportunities. Personnel will be needed to ensure the above goals are met, and to implement Brazil’s Forest Code during the expansion of crop agriculture and cattle ranching.

Development of the Brazilian Amazon will be best when linked with territorial zoning of land uses. Options remain. Optimally, the private sector, governmental agencies, universities, and civil society listen to one another and unite, or at least agree, to apply pragmatic practices that prevent fires, regulate deforestation, and reduce the impact of both on wildlife, carbon reserves, and climate.

Brazil is, in several ways, the center of the world. It certainly is at the center of the jaguar’s world. For the country’s long term ecological and financial health as well as that of the planet, balance is the best goal. In much of the Brazilian Amazon that can still be achieved on the front end.

John Polisar is Jaguar Program Coordinator at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

Age of Awareness

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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